Let’s say this right now: nerd culture/pop culture/geek culture leaves me cold. I read a graphic novel once (one of the Jim Butcher ones – so one of my favourite authors) and didn’t like it; I just ended up thinking “This would have been so much better as a real book.” Superheroes? Well, I saw Batman once. I think. Or maybe it was a trailer. There was a lot of dark and rain. I also saw one of the Star Wars films: there was desert. I’ve been forced to play tabletop games, when I couldn’t think of a sufficiently good excuse to avoid it.
I’ve been to sci-fi/fantasy conventions three times. Never again. The last one, the best day of the entire weekend was when I put my foot down and stayed in our room in the second-worst hotel I’ve ever encountered (the worst one was in Paris, on the edge of the red light district).
So, despite being a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy, my geek cred is zero.
I don’t think anybody writes urban fantasy better than Jim Butcher. And, of course, Harry Dresden‘s pop culture credentials are established pretty early on, with Star Wars references and then the weekly gaming sessions with the Alphas. That fits in well with Harry’s character; he isn’t just a vehicle for plot: he’s an actual person, with hobbies and a life outside the hell Butcher puts him through.
Lately, though, the pop culture references have been getting more frequent – a particular example is the Butters short story Day One, which makes a lot less sense if you don’t do roleplaying games. It’s possible to read it and more or less understand what’s going on, but it’s a bit like when I read in French: I can get the gist of the action, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the detail is going over my head, and I may be missing some important stuff.
For me, Day One was the least-good story of Butcher’s that I had read up to that point, and I finished it with a dull sense of disappointment: Was that all? I also felt that a story that could have been pretty amazing – Butters the polka-playing medical examiner becomes a hero in his own right – flopped because poor Butters took a backseat to all the pop culture references in his own story.
And that, I think, is because I’m not in the target audience for it.
Day One was written for people who do like the whole geek culture thing, who enjoy the constant gaming references. It is, essentially, a roman à clef: a book that sort of makes sense if you aren’t in the in-crowd, but in order to appreciate what the author is really doing, you have to be in the know. It’s also obvious that there are jokes and references that you (as a non-member) don’t get, so you know you’re in the out-crowd.
I think, as an author, it’s important to realise what you’re doing. Making fun references is one thing – Easter Eggs (see, I do know some of the terminology) for the in-crowd to find, to give them a little extra. However, the more numerous and plot-central these Easter Eggs are, the more likely they are to push the novel into roman à clef territory, when the novel stops working for people who are not in the in-crowd.
If you want to write a roman à clef, then go ahead. If you want to exclude a large part of your potential audience, that’s up to you – maybe the roman à clef is the book of your heart, and you really don’t care that it will leave the out-crowd bemused (and probably less likely to read any more of your work). After all, you can’t please everyone, and it’s best not to try.
But know that that’s what you’re doing, and do it intentionally. If you’re going to write a roman à clef, then write the best one you possibly can, and be damned to anyone else.
However, if it’s not your intention to exclude people who are outside your circle, then sprinkle your Easter Eggs with a light touch. After all, too much chocolate is bad for you!