Muhammad Ali versus Mike Tyson: What’s your pop culture battle?

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Barely making my weekly post here, because I’ve been editing. Editing day work (which my budget says is clearly not enough!). Editing Martius Catalyst stuff. Editing SECOND THOUGHT. It’s been an editing kind of week.

While I’ve been editing, I keep running across pop-culture references, which has me questioning the wisdom of including such things in your stories.

References in question just from this week:

“…so I don’t feel like I went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.”

“…he felt as if he’d been transported into an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf.”

“…this wasn’t the Brady Bunch.”

This is where my mind started to take note…

“…it was if he was taking aging lessons from Sting.”

“…No one ever talks about what happens before the kool-aid is even offered to drink.”

“…Because, as we all know, the Red Sox did win the World Series.”

“…that’s like bouncing a ball at the wall in a deserted hotel.”

The Muhammad Ali reference is mine, the rest from client’s work or two from blog posts I’ve read this week.  The Sting one made me laugh hysterically. Bonus points for you if you get all the references mentioned.

I question how useful it is because so many of the readers may not know what the author is talking about, so that they won’t be able to relate.  However, I know when I first became a voracious reader, things I didn’t know about was one of the things I loved about reading. I was learning while I was being entertained. I was curious; I’d underline words I didn’t know. I would go and look up references for which I wasn’t familiar.

I think I learned first about mythos – both Roman and Greek because of references in the fiction stories I was reading back when I was a pre-teen. They are still used to day by many writers. Hell, I ran across one last night in the current “by the bedside” book I am reading:  FAIR COIN by E.C. Myers (by the way this book is a total mind-fuck of a read, a review will be forthcoming once I’m finished). In the book the characters are talking about a “Charon device.” Myers kindly spent the next paragraph briefly explaining to any readers who might not know who the mythic character Charon is and why a universe-jumping device might be named for him.  However, in the references I list above, no such explanation is proffered and as the editor I’m questioning the validity of the reference. For instance, on the Muhammed Ali one that I used in SECOND THOUGHT, I made a note that perhaps I should reference Mike Tyson instead? Is he a boxing figure that’s more well known? Originally in the rough draft I know I referenced Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns because often times he’s the first boxer I think of – either him or Joe Louis. But my cultural background allows me to clearly identify that reference. Someone who grew up in New Mexico, Paris, or Istanbul may not.

Yet, these references are how we communicate as a storyteller. Why as far back as the beginning of storytelling’s history, cultural references were used to communicate feeling, emotion and intensity. I can imagine some cave man telling a story and using some sort of roving dinosaur bully as his own pop-culture lesson.

The trick is to know which is going to communicate the point to the largest audience.

As far as Ali vs. Tyson, I’m sticking with Ali because a Google search brings up 27,900,000 search results, whereas Tyson only brings up 22,600,000 references. Ali wins this bout. I don’t care what happened on Playstation.

How about you? Do you find that in your writing you use pop-culture references in your metaphors, descriptions, etc.?  If so, how do you determine which to use? As a reader do you like pop-culture references or do they annoy you? Have your say below.

In the mean time, I’ve got more editing to do. So, I’m out of here like an X-Factor contestant that Simon Cowell hates.


Depends on the genre I’m reading. Love them in quirky modern romps or lit with an edge. They have no place in classic styles for me, unless its a classic reference. Definitely works in memoirs or 1st person naratives since it defines that character’s world not the reader’s.
Your point about not crossing communication to other cultures is a good one, however I think its fun to grapple with how authors and bloggers from other places or who have different first languages that I do express themselves. And even when I don’t know for sure I’m getting their exact point, I love where their image and my imagination mix and take me. More context than just a name of fame is important, but the context of the comment and then ‘went 15 rounds’ would probably communicate your point to almost anyone who could read the language well enough to follow the story.

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