There’s something that’s been bugging me about Rick Riordan’s more recent books.
Alright so a recap for those of you at home who don’t know who I’m talking about: Rick Riordan is a novelist/school teacher who, who found out that his son’s were grades were failing and that he absolutely hated reading. He then discovered that said son has ADHD and dyslexia, but could be motivated to read if it involved Greek mythology, and then decided to write his own modern day story about a kid who got wrapped up in classical mythology by virtue of being a contemporary demigod, inspiring his son to keep reading and teachers to choose interesting books for kids to pick up. These books, titled Percy Jackson and the Olympians were immensely popular, and since he’s written several short stories, began two spin-off trilogies (one on Egyptian mythology titled Kane Chronicles and one on Norse mythology titled Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard), and two sequel serieses (Heroes of Olympus and Trials of Apollo).
The basic draw to the series, to me at least, was that it put the Greek gods in modern day; it applied ancient archetypes to the world we live in now, and showed off how they were still relevant or culturally prevalent. So for instance, Ares, the Greek god of war, appeared in modern day as a really badass biker, with an asshole attitude to match.
Zeus, on the other hand, appeared in a pinstriped suit, as if he were the CEO or president of some big company or the head of a prestigious family.
In that vein, a lot of the humor revolves around gods and monsters interacting with modern day things. Dionysus getting frustrated while playing Pac-Man at someone’s birthday party in a bar is still one my favorite scenes in anything ever. Likewise, Circe acting as if her island was a spa/resort was weird, but it made sense because it’s mostly true to the kind of person Circe was in Homer too.
And I’ll admit that at times it would get heavy-handed, like the scene in which a sphinx gives a test about facts (complete with answer sheet) instead of riddles of cleverness was kind of obviously Riordan in Teacher Mode ranting about how he hates the unfairness of measuring kids’ worth by standardized testing.
But I think that lately…Riordan’s been relying way too heavily on pop culture references.
To be clear, this isn’t completely new to his work; the very first book The Lightning Thief had a joke about how the satyr character, Grover, could play the Hilary Duff’s song “So Yesterday” on his pipes, which was a dated gag when I first read the book shortly after it came out. But other than that, for the most part the books stayed away from dating themselves too badly with things that’d be quickly out of fashion. Okay, yes one of the short stories shows that Leo watches Psych, but that was a long-running program so I’d let it slide. Mostly. Kane Chronicles has a Doctor Who reference, but again, that’s a long-running show (much longer than Psych) and is a part of the cultural mindset for the past fifty years. It’ll be around for a lot longer too, so that’s not really an issue.
But then…we get the retelling-of-Greek-mythology books, Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes which go even more out of their way to bring up things like iTunes, and Frozen and the like. And now we’re on the Norse mythology series, there’s bits of randomness like Thor being obsessed with binge-watching TV shows like Game of Thrones and Arrow, and Heimdall being always plugged into his phone taking selfies, and Magnus’s talking sword (just roll with it for a sec) singing specific pop songs by Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez.
These are almost all things that are pretty recent fads that won’t stick much in the popular consciousness. It’s less going with mythological archetypes and applying them and more cheap stock jokes that won’t work in ten years. And it kind of really bothers me. But to get to the point as to why precisely, I’ll need to talk a little bit about a thing called intertextuality.
“Intertextuality” is a big word to basically talk about when texts refer to other texts. And let me be clear as possible with these terms: when I say ‘text’ I don’t necessarily mean books. In this con…text, it can refer to any sort of published material, whether that be prose, poetry, music, film, video game or comic book. And if you haven’t noticed already, just about everyone uses this. Seriously, try to imagine your favorite movies if it didn’t have any references to the Bible, or Shakespeare, just to name the two most popularly referred-to sources in the Anglophone world. It’s pretty dang difficult.
There are two main types of intertextuality: obligatory, in which the knowledge of the outside text is necessary to understand any of the one you’re reading/viewing, and optional in which it isn’t.
[There’s also accidental but that’s not relevant to our talk today so we’ll just stick with the two.]
Parodies and satire are pretty good examples to go off of. Like take, Galaxy Quest or Red Shirts by John Scalzi, for instance, as uses of obligatory intertextuality. Those are stories that have jokes on their own, but for them to make their intended impact you have to have at least a basic familiarity with Star Trek. Without out that key knowledge, the satire falls flat.
For an example of optional intertextuality, take the recent Marvel Netflix series Luke Cage. There are several references right from the first episode to African-American culture, history and authors. None of these are particularly relevant to the Plot of the series; you won’t be able to guess the outcome of the story by having read Invisble Man by Ralph Ellison, but seeing it Luke’s bed while he’s packing up adds to the story by building atmosphere. If you recognize it, you get a bonus; if you don’t, that’s alright, and you may end up having learned something interesting.
Or, you know, popping back to Star Trek again, if you watch Wrath of Khan you probably know that the titular villain is a fan of Moby-Dick as his dying words are quotes from Captain Ahab. This adds a level to the narrative, and you begin to realize that Khan’s pursuit of Kirk is more than just a bad day, it’s obsessive and all-consuming, in the exact same way that Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale is. But if you didn’t notice this allusion, you don’t actually lose anything from the film, as the words still speak for themselves.
Optional intertextuality doesn’t even have to be a part of the writing alone; it can be part of the visuals as well as the writing. If you ever read the Hellboy comics, you might notice that the depictions of Hell and the demons living in it are weird: human bodies with animal heads and the like, along with having a strict aristocracy with ranks like knight, marquis and kings. This isn’t part of Christian theology, but it makes perfect sense as visual and literary references to the Ars Goetia and other works like it.
Heck, it can be even more vague than that. The late Monty Oum’s webseries RWBY has character designs built almost entirely on optional intertextuality. The team of the title has designs based off of fairy tale characters, Ozpin’s cabal is an allusion to the Wizard of Oz, Team JNPR has designs of legendary cross-dressing warriors from around the world. This leads to completely mind-bogglingly deep references, such as Jaune’s sword being named after Julius Caesar’s, or Cardin Winchester being named after the man who oversaw Saint Joan of Arc’s execution, or Neptune Vasilias being based off of Roman mythology), a WWIII mascot), and a Journey to the West character all at the same time.
So what’s the difference between those and pop culture references?
The short and skinny of it is that pop culture references don’t tend to actually add anything, and they certainly didn’t in the examples from Rick Riordan that I listed, and it’s obligatory. The joke isn’t that the reference relates to the text in any way; the joke is that it’s there. And the gag doesn’t work at all unless you know the pop culture. Magnus’s magic sword singing Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” doesn’t actually relate to the plot in any way, and it doesn’t add anything to the sword or Magnus’s characterization. The joke is that he’s singing a song that has nothing to do with anything but that you probably recognize it.
And part of what pains me about this is that it’s so easy to avoid. Part of the story is that Jack/Sumbrandr (Magnus’s magic sword) was buried at the bottom of the river for hundreds of years before the events of the first book. Riordan easily could have written that because the sword’s been out-of-touch for that long, the “pop” songs he sings are songs that were written decades ago, but are new to him. Y’know, sort of like Cap’s “Things I Need to Catch Up On” list from Captain America: The Winter Soldier? This would actually make a joke, develop something interesting about the character, and possibly get readers to learn about something new. Because I’m all about some tangential learning In that sense the joke would still work whether or not you knew the songs.
If you’re going to reference popular culture, it can’t be something that’s an obvious fad either, otherwise you’ll date it immensely. There are ways around dating something like that. An example that’s not strictly intertextuality (but still works I think) is how Thirteen Reasons Why got around exactly how dated tape cassettes are by having the teen characters in-story mention that they’re old. That way young readers won’t feel like they’re missing out on something.
Popular culture references aren’t even necessarily bad. The example from Captain America isn’t bad, though it relies heavily on pop culture, particularly those bits of popular culture that have become huge parts of the popular consciousness.
Likewise, something like Dresden Files is constantly doing quotes, shout-outs and homages to popular fantasy, science-fiction and detective stories, again because these are things that are huge parts of American culture and in some cases give you a bit of handle on what’s going on. Harry doesn’t have to say “Goblins are like ninjas. From Krypton.” But it’s a quick shorthand for saying that they’re hard vicious and hard to kill using a reference that the majority of the author’s audience (people in the English-speaking world who know who Superman is) can understand. It’s in-character, it makes sense, and gets the point across quickly. It can be a bit distracting at times, true, but in most cases Butcher doesn’t rely on it too heavily. He can write characters and jokes that don’t rely on these allusions.
This isn’t even to say that I think Riordan’s bad at optional intertextuality. Sword of Summer actually has a rather clever reference to a Longfellow poem. I think it’s also pretty clear the guy knows his stuff, as he references classic sources in his Greek mythology serieses all the time; he’s mentioned using Theoi a few times, an online encylopedia that cites and sources actual historical literature and books on Greek mythology from ancient Greece and Rome. But it seems as if, in deviating from Greek and Roman mythology, Riordan doesn’t always know what to do depicting mythological elements so he falls back onto pop culture jokes. And I don’t know whether to fully blame the guy or not; he’s doing two full novels a year along with side projects, so I can understand if he’s a bit worn out and not always at the top of his game.
But… c’mon, man, Jack sings “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift in the second chapter of Hammer of Thor. That song had been out over two years before the book was released. The joke was already old. I get that the humor is meant to be derived from the silliness of it, but when your current pop culture reference is to something from two years ago, it sounds lazy more than anything else.
Also I really hate that song, so that certainly didn’t help my reception of the joke.
For intertextuality to work, there has to be something added by the reference being made. When any other song would have fit the joke just as well, there isn’t any justifiable reason for selecting that one. Like, what if instead of the sword, we had Loki singing pop songs, and at one point Magnus overhears him singing to himself “Cool Kids” by Echosmith. Yeah, that’s still a pop culture song, but it’s one about not fitting in, and in many interpretations, it’s heavily implied that Loki’s resentment is built from not fitting in with the Aesir. It’d be a pop song that fits the joke but also makes you wonder if it’s reflective of the character’s mindset.
It’s disappointing to me, because throwing “Shake It Off” at us a joke without any sort of wit or cleverness to it, and it’s obviously beneath Riordan’s skill as a novelist. If it was only that, I’d be more lenient, but his Magnus Chase books are filled with these. Thor keeps mentioning popular TV shows. Heimdall is glued to his smartphone screen. It’s a shortcut, and it only looks like the author is trying to sound cool to a younger audience.
Heck, you don’t even have to have to use pop culture references for this level of shallowness. Apep has mentioned in his own sporks of Mortal Instruments that there are abrupt references to Shakespeare and Virgil that don’t actually relate to the story at all.1 Likewise, I mentioned in my own Angelopolis sporks that it doesn’t make any damn sense for Trussoni to split the book into sections named after the circles of Hell in The Divine Comedy. It’s only there to make the author sound smart and educated.
I recognize that it can be difficult sometimes to decide whether or not placing a reference in your story really adds to the story or just seems superfluous. Sometimes an idea just sounds so good in your head that you feel you have to have it on paper. But a good way of checking is if the story would have any sort of different meaning if the reference was removed.
You remember those Seltzerberg movies, like Scary Movie or Epic Movie where we all started hating them because there weren’t any jokes, just references to recent movies directed at the audience? Yeah, I’m scared that Rick Riordan’s going to become like that. I know that’s still a long way off from where he is now as a writer, but I can’t help but wonder.
When he’s on top of his game, Riordan can be an astounding writer. But when he (or any author) takes lazy shortcuts in something obviously, like intertextuality, it makes you question the writer’s skill. Because you can do so much better than just showing us that you’ve been listening to contemporary pop music or watching popular television shows.
Don’t be lazy. Do better.
1 I don’t blame her for taking a Julius Caesar quote as the title. It’s a damn good title.