Meet Philosoraptor. He’s a Denizen of the Internet, often popping up next to Conspiracy Keanu and The Most Interesting Man In The World. Or, if you run in certain circles (*cough, tech, cough*), he will pop up in almost every formal presentation you watch. Like the listicle, memes can be seen as the Internet at its worst. Formulaic and clichéd, perhaps, but memes are a valuable way to emphasize a point, check if your audience is paying attention, or even establish common ground between presenter and listener. A well-placed meme can say, “Look, buddy, I’m just like you. I also spend too much time on Reddit and think GIF is pronounced ‘jiff.’”
Writers are constantly looking for ways of establishing common ground with their readers. They want their characters to be “just like you” even if they are fantastically beautiful and secretly a vampire. When someone gives a tech presentation, it is safe to assume that their viewers know the Internet. Whether or not they are fans of Philosoraptor, they will at least know who he is. Philosoraptor is a part of the universe in which the talk exists.
In books, however, the universe is not the Internet, but rather Book World. It’s a world where everyone will catch a reference to Catcher in the Rye just as quickly as they will grok a reference to Stranger in a Strange Land. Including an intertextual reference creates common ground between author and reader. It roots the story in reality and makes readers feel temporarily safe, even though they may very soon fly away to Neverland. An intertextual reference can emphasize a point, check if the audience is paying attention, or even establish a connection between character and reader. It’s a way of saying “Hey, buddy, I’m just like you. I also spent my teenage years crushing on Mr. Darcy, and I eagerly await a letter from Hogwarts every September, even though I’m thirty-two.”
Readers will relate to a character who is also a reader. And the first thing they want to know when they meet someone who reads is to find out what they read. Bella Swan reads Pride and Prejudice, Meggie Folchart reads Peter Pan, Matilda reads Great Expectations. This tells readers something powerful about these characters. Just think how different Bella Swan would have been if her favorite book had been Gossip Girl. These characters read the classics. They are smart, sophisticated, and immediately set apart from the other kids in their class, who probably don’t read at all, and if they did, would probably read Gossip Girl.
If you’re anything like me, you’re relating already.
So why does Bella read Pride and Prejudice and not Catcher in the Rye? Why does Matilda read Great Expectations and not War and Peace? Why does Hermione tear her way through every book on magic in the Hogwarts library, but we never see her reading the collective works of Mark Twain?
Every word used in a story creates a ripple. If I whisper something, that feels different than if I mumble it, or if I breathe it. It isn’t just the word that comes through the page, but all the images associated with that word. Whisper makes me think of girls giggling behind their teacher’s back, and mumble makes me think of giving a presentation but having stage fright. Breathe, on the other hand, makes me think of lovers in a bed exchanging pillow talk. The ripples might not be the same for everybody, but the point is that the ripples exist. If this much imagery ripples forth from a single verb, imagine the ripples that emanate from a whole book!
The words Pride and Prejudice, separated entirely from the work by Jane Austen, make me think of stubbornness and exclusion, class structures, rules, and someone with her nose in the air. And when we add to the ripples that emanate from the book’s title to the ripples of the book itself we end up with waves. We think of romance and tension and gossip and Victorian England. We think of long conversations over steaming mugs of tea, and elaborate dresses worn to even more elaborate parties. We think about gardens and grandmothers, or even Jane Austen herself. And just like that, we understand Bella’s headspace, simply because we know what she reads.
When an author includes an intertextual reference to a well-known classic, she is creating common ground. She is putting the character in a position that is relatable, while simultaneously creating imagery and giving her character a back story. But what happens when the author includes a less well-known book in her text? What happens when the book isn’t even explicitly named, but is merely referenced? Maybe the book is an endowed object, like A Wrinkle in Time in When You Reach Me, or maybe it is just a textural element, like the fact that Petey’s favorite book in Bone Gap is Blankets. Or maybe it’s just a throwaway joke, like when Ezra thinks, “As if I were not in danger of losing interest in everything else” in Monstrous Beauty.
Rebecca Stead references A Wrinkle in Time in her book When You Reach Me, but it’s never named directly. We first learn about Miranda’s favorite book on page 8:
I knew the first line of my book without even looking. “It was a dark and stormy night,” I said.
She nodded. “Classic. I like that. What’s the story about?”
I thought for a second. “It’s about a girl named Meg—her dad is missing, and she goes on this trip to another planet to save him.”
Miranda’s favorite book is critical to the story, not only because it plays a role in the plot, but also because Miranda’s life mirrors Meg’s. Both protagonists are young girls with missing fathers, and, of course, both girls are surrounded by a time travel mystery. Miranda even draws a spiritual connection between herself and Meg when she says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.” In many ways, When You Reach Me is a rewriting of A Wrinkle In Time, but When You Reach Me can also exist independently of A Wrinkle in Time. Miranda’s favorite book may as well be a book made up in Rebecca Stead’s head as far as the casual reader is concerned, but a close reader will notice the connection and draw parallels between the two books that enrich both stories.
In Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Petey loves the book Blankets, but, just like Miranda’s favorite book, it isn’t referenced by name. While a cursory knowledge of A Wrinkle in Time is critical to understanding When You Reach Me, one could read the entirety of Bone Gap without even realizing there are references to Blankets at all:
Now Petey got up from her bed and grabbed a book, one of her favorites. It was a graphic novel about two brothers, one who falls madly in love with a girl only to have his heart horribly broken. If novels could be trusted, there was a boy in the world who shared a bed with his brother when he was very small, peed on his brother for fun and torment, fell so madly in love with a girl that he could convince himself that she was crafted by a divine artist, and that she was both perfect and unknowable. Petey was an only child, and boys—kind ones, gentle ones—were a mystery to her. She liked imagining small boys fighting over blankets.
If a reader wanted to, they could read this passage and simply glean that Petey wants a boy to fall madly in love with her. But, a close reader could draw a parallel between the way that Craig sees Raina through his drawings and the way that Finn sees Petey through his face blindness.
In both When You Reach Me and Bone Gap, the intertextual reference exists as a way to deepen the story for close readers. But sometimes, an intertextual reference is simply a way for the author to express her humanity from behind the veil of text. Even though the book exists in its own universe, the author exists in the same universe as the reader. If the author can connect to the reader, not just in the book-world and but the real-world as well, then the reading experience can become far more interactive. In some cases the reference can be a PR tactic, like the fact that George R. R. Martin is naming a future character Dave Goldblatt because someone won that “reward” in an auction. Other times it can be to honor a fan, like when J.K. Rowling named a character Natalie in Goblet of Fire after a young leukemia patient wrote to Rowling to find out how Harry Potter ended before she died. Other times it reads almost like a joke, or a wink at true-blue fans, like when Roald Dahl briefly refers to “vermicious knids,” the evil alien race that resembles a turd from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in James and the Giant Peach.
When I asked Laura Ruby why she referenced Blankets in Bone Gap, she wrote me a very thoughtful response about the parallels between Petey and Raina, and how Blankets helps Petey imagine herself worthy of love. And this is true. The Blankets reference highlights some thematic elements of Bone Gap that I might not have noticed otherwise. But, the very first thing Laura said to me in her response was, “I think Blankets is amazing and I put it in my story because I could. :)”
CEOs of Fortune 500 technology companies use memes in their internationally-broadcasted presentations to say, “Look, buddy, I’m just like you. I put on my shoes one foot at a time and lol at lolcats with the best of them.” But ultimately, they use memes because they think they are funny. They love Philosoraptor and Conspiracy Keanu and The Most Interesting Man In The World just as much as writers love making their character mumble “So it goes” under his breath when his grandma dies, or making him “screw his courage to the sticking place” when he’s nervous.
We write because we love it. We write because it’s how we connect with the world and how we express ourselves. It’s how we tell the people we love that we love them, and the people who hurt us where they can stuff it. And when we make references to our favorite books it’s because we love our favorite books, and we love people who love them too. It’s our way of thanking all the people that we couldn’t fit into our acknowledgments section, and winking at the people who we know will appreciate it.
And that’s all there is; there isn’t any more :).
(Note: I reference a whole bunch of books in my essay, and I included most of them here, but I got bored and stopped because there are like 20 and most of them are mentioned just once by title and never again. Also one of the most important sources for this paper was when Laura Ruby responded to an email I sent her asking why she chose to reference Blankets in her book Bone Gap. I didn’t know how to reference that either, so I’m including this parenthetical)
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Library, 1995. Print.
Dahl, Roald, and Quentin Blake. Matilda. New York, NY: Viking Kestrel, 1988. Print.
Eliot, George, and Gordon Sherman. Haight. Middlemarch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Print.
Fama, Elizabeth. Monstrous Beauty. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Print.
Funke, Cornelia Caroline., and Anthea Bell. Inkheart. Frome, Somerset: Chicken House, 2003. Print.
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: Putnam, 1961. Print.
L'Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962. Print.
"Meme Generator." Meme Generator. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Sept. 2015.
Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Ruby, Laura. Bone Gap. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Salinger, J. D., E. Michael Mitchell, and Lotte Jacobi. The Catcher in the Rye. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Stead, Rebecca, and Kate Gartner. When You Reach Me. NY, NY: Wendy Lamb, 2009. Print.
Thompson, Craig. Blankets: A Graphic Novel. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf, 2003. Print.