Intertextuality and showing off

I would like to start off this little post by a very simple explanation about the nature of intertextulaity:

The story goes as follows, a young prince is beset by deep melancholy and the overwhelming suspicion that his father, the former king, died of not-so-natural reasons, and that his uncle, the current king, has risen to the throne by means of deception, and murder! The young prince, instead of confronting his uncle, runs off somewhere and hides, only to face his uncle later, possibly after some encouragement from a few friends, pirates, and maybe a ghost.

Now, I am sure this story sounds familiar to a lot of you. You might even be able to attach a name to our poor prince. For some of you, he might be Hamlet, prince of Denmark, for others, he might be Simba of Pride Rock, for some of you, he might even be called Tomjon (AKA King Verence II of Lancre)…

All of you would be right of course, our prince is, at the same time, all of those, and more, characters at the same time. A lot of writers, directors, animator, playwrights, and whatever have taken up this time tested story and made it their own (there are probably more versions of Hamlet out there than I would care to count), but they all rely on one thing to get them started: Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

If you exclude simple enactments of the play by its name, i.e. Hamlet performed as Hamlet, you are still left with hundreds of books, plays and movies making references to that wonderful Shakespearean play. This implied reference is what is known as intertextuality. One story taking about another story in order to make a new point (if you’re really interested in knowing more, there are oodles and oodles of information and articles about this online and in every decent library, but most of all, read Julia Kristeva’s discussion on it if you want to get the basics(.

In our postmodern world, everyone uses intertextuality to some degree. Everyone, even if only to make some homage to whatever writer/story inspired you to write your piece, eeveryone makes some sort of reference to another story, another text. It can sometimes serve as a shortcut to “plant” certain ideas in the reader’s mind, or for quick characterization, or it could serve to make a point (read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, trust me, you won’t regret it), point it, we all do it. But how much is too much?

One major point of criticism of literature is that it could be very elitist. People feel intimidated by constant references to texts they don’t know, and which are considered “the foundation of civilized society”. A book that constantly references the Iliad and the bible might be considered “high literature”, but I’m rather sure I would let it gather dust on the shelf and keep reading Pratchett and Stephen King.

I suppose that as a writer, I want to be taken seriously, so I want to make sure my readers know the that I read the “big, important books”, but how do I stay clear from the point where I just come off as a trying to show off how well read I am?

These are questions many young writers ask themselves, as they want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too (and also a real cake, because… cake!) I would like to illustrate some “best practices” by giving an example of a writer who, I think, found that perfect balance, Terry Pratchett:

  • First and foremost, good writing speaks for itself! You don’t need references to all those pivotal texts of western civilization if you want to be taken seriously, just write a good book! Building an interesting, insightful, and clever narrative by using clear, engaging language is what going to keep people reading your book, not a reference to some Greek poet every three or four pages.
  • Keep references relevant! You’ve read that 600 page novel from the 19th century and want to show off? Well, go tell your friends about it. Don’t bother referencing it if it doesn’t bring anything to your novel/story other than the warm feeling of future scholars knowing you’ve read Dickens. Take the Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music, for example. It makes references to rock bands, musicians, famous concerts, and even the Blues Brothers, but it’s all relevant to the plot and the point Pratchett is making about the nature of music and its industry.
  • Be subtle! Having all of your characters constantly talk about Shakespeare or the bible might be too forceful. Take the novel Wyrd Sisters, it quite obviously makes references to Hamlet (which is central to the plot as the whole book takes on the topic of theater, in its most Elizabethan sense) but there are far more subtle references to at least 30 other plays and poem from the Elizabethan period which are there to find, but only if you know what to look for.
  • Referencing for the sake of referencing is no referencing at all! (Try saying that three times fast!) Very similarly to what I said about relevance, don’t reference another text without a point. It isn’t enough that the second text is relevant for yours (they’re both about war) but it needs to bring something tot he plate, or better yet, you could shed new light on the old text! I suppose you could take ALL of Pratchett’s repertoire as an example, he is a master of taking a topic, referencing some central cultural text on the topic, and putting it on its head. My favorite example here would be the novel Maskerade, which mocks and salutes the book The Phantom of the Opera at the same time. By making Christine Daae an airhead who literally can’t sing, and the ghost a mentally challenged young man, he sheds new light into the understanding of the world of high arts.
  • Moderation is key! Just because you know 30 books about the topic you’re writing on, doesn’t mean you need to mention all of them. pick one or two central texts, preferably ones your comments on them will have some cultural significance, and go with it.
  • Be authentic! Out of all those points I made, a certain level of authenticity emerges. A forceful intertextuality comes off as worse than showing off, it come off as… forced. It becomes insincere, chasing readers away.

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