Too Much Pop Culture? A Look at Lise Haines’ Girl in the Arena

Is there such a thing as too much pop culture? Can characters drink too much Coke, play too much Xbox, and eat too many power bars? (*cough* Tom Clancy, *cough*) Or does the instant reader familiarity and cheat relatability make this level detail of worthwhile?

Specificity is one of the (many) keys to strong writing, particularly in young adult literature. Popular YA novels, like the Cecily von Zieglar’s Gossip Girl series, are full of brand name and designer references. When used well, such details can help an author create a realistic setting and play to a reader’s experience, more effectively tapping into teen culture. But what about novels that satirize contemporary culture? Do pop references help or hinder them?

Over the past couple of days, I read Girl in the Arena (Lise Haines). Landing somewhere between realistic contemporary and dystopic fiction, Girl in the Arena takes Fight Club a few steps further, putting gladitorial fights smack bang in the middle of a public arena in downtown Boston (despite Haines’ careful detailing of Boston and Cambridge, the arena itself isn’t well-described, and bears no obvious resemblance to the famed Fenway Park). Gladiator, or Glad culture, is a very prescriptive form of living, complete with bylaws, training schools, even a Gladiatorial Wives College offering degrees in how best to support your gladiator husband.

It’s a quick read, a hodgepodge of pop culture, the sort of Bam! Wow! Bazinga! details more often included in graphic novels than novels. In places, Haines’ writing is so descriptive it’s easy to conjure mental panels, painted in meticulous detail, filled with Times Square billboards, paparazzi flash, and anime eyes. But instead of grounding the reader, as a sprinkling of pop culture specifics might, Haines’ constant bombardment is almost as blinding as the paparazzi flashes she so aptly describes.

In her prologue, a brief explanation of Gladiator culture written by Haines’ main character, Lyn, Haines refers to a “self-help book selling in the millions called The Mystery”. It’s easy to see she’s referring to The Secret, and, given the famed litigiousness of Americans, understandable that she chose not to use the actual book title. But in the same sentence, Haines mentions Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, by name. Later, she refers to eerily familiar caffeinated power bars, and fast food joints (the kind that make you wear a paper hat) in between notes on Glad fashion and magazines that riff on the teen section of newsstands everywhere. At best, it’s a neat piece of social satire. At worst, it’s distracting — pop references are elevated from the background to center stage.

Haines clearly knows her stuff. The story is sprinkled with Roman history, from the three major types of column (Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, all familiar thanks to my year nine history teacher, Ms. Curtis). And while Haines’ moving beyond the obvious parallels between neo-Glad culture and ancient Rome is refreshing, key points of her story are lost as the reader bobs from one snarky reference to the next.

Where references to The Secret may be funny now, they’ll likely be lost on YA readers picking up the book in the next five years. For some books (like Jodi Picoult novels), this isn’t such a big deal — the story is the thing, and any actual pop setting is just window dressing. But for books like Girl in the Arena, the dependence on a kind of YA zeitgeist will make the novel less accessible, rather than more, in much the same way some cultural references in Steinbeck (particularly Cannery Row) or Hemingway are lost on some contemporary readers.

But Girl in the Arena isn’t the first novel to rely so heavily on pop culture. Many dystopias, even 20th century models imagined by H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, draw on pop references, because pop culture references, when done well, give the story a certain sense of Schadenfreude. Sometimes, it’s just a few small things, a mention of iPods (Pam Bachorz’ Candor), reality television (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), and frighteningly consumerist societies (M.T. Anderson’s Feed). These novels, though, are not quite as steeped in pop references as Haines’ work.

Over the past couple of years, graphic novel versions of popular titles have started to hit the shelves (Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is already available; Janet Evanovich’s Trouble Maker is on the way). Hopefully, Haines’ publisher, Bloomsbury USA, will realize that Girl in the Arena is the perfect candidate for a graphic novel adaptation — a format that would keep the snark of the original while bringing the story to the fore.