To Meme Or Not To Meme? by Nansi Kunze
Ah, memes. Those delightful little concepts that spread through a culture like a fashionable form of the plague: lolcats and First World problems, epic fails and Rickrolling. For many people, internet memes and pop culture references are the markers of cool; at the very least, knowing them is a sign of being connected, of being technologically capable. Of being young.
So it’s no surprise that YA authors who write contemporary fiction are expected to know them too. Readers over 30 often ask how we ‘keep up’ with teenagers and their newfangled ways, while younger readers have even been known to criticise the lack of memes in some YA novels. Memes and their slightly duller cousin, branding, are seen as a key element in writing for young adults. Which means that aspiring YA writers need to either be teenagers themselves or able to fake teenagehood so well that no one would know the difference, right?
Uh, no, actually. For one thing, that kind of thinking doesn’t take into account the fact that teenagers aren’t all the same. Shocking as this may sound to some, teenagers aren’t one big homogenous mass of compulsive-texting, iPod-wearing adolescence. Feverishly studying magazines and websites to find out what memes and brands encapsulate the youth of today isn’t going to make your writing speak to a wide range of young adult readers. Assuming that because you’re a teenager your audience will understand all the subcultural references you make isn’t necessarily true either; walk into any classroom and you’ll probably see kids whose interests and experiences differ wildly from your own. Memes can even be regionally distinct – no big problem for a book that’s only going to be read locally, but a potential barrier to overseas publishing opportunities.
What’s even more important to remember, however, is that memes are transient. A handful of them, like lolcats, have already been around for quite some time and don’t look like disappearing in the near future (because, frankly, it’s hard to imagine a world so grim that feline facial expressions and wacky spelling wouldn’t cheer up its inhabitants). On the other hand, the time is not far off when no one will know why you’d own a t-shirt that says ‘Bazinga!’ The world of publishing moves slowly; if you’re lucky, your newly-accepted novel might get published in a year’s time. Not everyone will buy it on its release day, either. Another year or two down the track when a reader picks it up, the choices you’ve made for your characters – what to dress them in, which songs to have them listen to, what movies to make them watch – can make their lives believable and relevant, or jarringly dated. It’s up to you.
So how can you avoid this Trap of Transient Trending, you ask? Well, you’ve got three choices, as I see it. The first option, which I use myself, is to make your own trends. Think up your own brands of clothing, your own movie titles, your own celebrity gossip or your own advertising catchphrases. Not only will they be perfectly tailored to your characters, but, when combined with deliberately vague descriptions of things that are likely to change even more rapidly (such as mobile phones and gaming systems) they can help your writing stay current for much longer. The second option is to pick a year to set your story in, point it out early in the piece and then stick with the memes that belonged to that time, understanding that this will make your writing a kind of historical piece. And the third option? Write fantasy instead. Trust me: if there’s one meme that’s not going out of style, it’s the one about how an orphan apprentice will always have incredible hidden powers and a really huge sword.