Allusions to Other Books: How Much Is Too Much?

Can There Be Too Many Allusions in a Book_

Many readers seem excited to find characters who are bookworms or to notice allusions to other texts in the books they read.  I’ve seen people squeal on social media about the fact that a novel mentioned Harry Potter or (much more rarely) another favorite book, as if the allusion alone were a recommendation for the novel.  The author or the character or both like the same book that the reader does, so there’s some sort of connection.  The entire novel is better for it.  Yet I find myself on the other end of the spectrum.  I often don’t like allusions to other books because they feel forced or overwhelming.

A well-placed allusion that adds something to the novel and does not distract from the main story is fine.  However, many allusions seem like throw-away lines that are simply there, and if a book has too many, they overwhelm the main narrative, and I start wondering if the author is making a weird effort to look well-read themselves.  This is particularly true if the “allusion” is mainly a name drop of a litany of titles, rather than a thoughtful working-in of a quote or other more subtle reference.

In other cases, I frequently feel (perhaps unjustly) that the allusion is there to make a quick connection with the reader without any real work on the part of the author.  Shouting “We’re all Harry Potter fans here!” seems like a short-cut to make readers like the book or the character—and that short-cut rests on the fact that Harry Potter is good, regardless of whether the book alluding to it is also good.  This struck me most recently as I was reading Blastaway by Melissa Landers (a book that has other strong qualities, to be fair).  The story is set 500 years in the future in space, but the protagonist frequently waxes poetic about how the twenty-first century on Earth was a golden age of literature, and he mentions Harry Potter throughout the book.  Furthermore, he has a full conversation with another character about Harry Potter, what Houses they’re in, etc.  Far from immersing me in the story or making me identify with the protagonist as a fellow HP fan, I felt ripped out of it.  Was I reading a story set in space or an ode to Harry Potter?  Worse, the novel then dedicated a lengthy paragraph to a discussion of Percy Jackson, as if the author wanted to be sure she hit two of the biggest fandoms in middle grade.

A couple pages of characters in a book geeking out about other books does not contribute much in my opinion, particularly if the point is simply that the characters like the book and, hey!, you the reader probably do, too!  If the books alluded to were relevant to the plot, or if there were some overlap in themes between the two stories that merited being commented upon, I think a lengthy allusion could be valuable. (Although probably rare in contemporary literature. I wouldn’t blink an eye at characters in a classic novel discussing, say, Wordsworth for reasons that became clear over the course of the story.  Such a thing just generally doesn’t happen in books written today.)

I might be overreacting to such allusions.  Likely the authors are genuine fans of the books and simply think that mentioning them is fun, but I find it distracting, and the allusions are poor substitutes for making me like or care about the characters or the story in other ways.

What do you think? Do you like allusions in books?  Are some allusions better done than others?

Briana

Advertisements

42 thoughts on “Allusions to Other Books: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I’ve never really given it much thought, but I think that allusions only make sense if:

    a. the book was connected to the original in some way. E.g. Jane Eyre references in Jane Steele or perhaps a rewrite of the original. Or

    b. it’s a series of standalone books in the same world. E.g. Sarah Dessen’s books – they are full of allusions to other books in the series because they all take place in the same few locations and I always get excited when I recognise a character or place.

    I’d also expect books set in certain times to reference well-known books/people/TV. For example, if we have a modern YA novel with no reference to social media or allusions to modern events, that would be very odd to me (that said, that could also date a book very quickly, especially if they reference memes or phone models).

    Other than that, forcing allusions into books as a stand-in for character traits (i.e. Harry Potter fan) to build empathy between the reader and character feels a bit like a cop-out to me.

    Like

  2. Cameron Graham says:

    Oh! Someone *said* it! I read through a lot of drafts for friends, and so often I end up sending them back pages covered in highlighter and ink with questions scrawled int he margins asking ‘Why are you bringing this book up? Is it illustrating anything? Is it tying into a general theme? What’ Just because you read the book and liked it doesn’t mean that you need to tell everyone who reads *your* book that you’ve read it, it’s so frustrating!

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      And here I’m reading your comment thinking, “Wow, someone agrees with me!” I was worried the reactions to this post would be either “I like all the allusions” or “What is she talking about? Who even cares either way?” :p I find them so forced and annoying in so many cases!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cameron Graham says:

        Hahaha! It’s always nice to know that someone else gets it, no? Like, I’ve seen it done well, I;m not saying it can’t work – I once read a gothic horror type story wherein all the books referenced as being read by certain characters kept leaving clues that things weren’t as they should have been, and it really worked because it was ever so subtle and it wasn’t leant on too heavily so if the reader didn’t know what those books where it didn’t matter too much. But for the most part, if you can get away with just saying ‘Character A was reading’ or ‘Character X pulled the well-aged tome from the shelf’, then for goodness’ sake do that!

        Like

          • Cameron Graham says:

            Exactly! An additional problem with just throwing allusions around without thought or care except to say ‘Look, I read this book!’ is the real potential to age your own book *really* quickly! Like, if all the boosk you’ve refernced came out within the past two years or so, or were really popular at the time of writing, then there’s a very good chance that in another five years no one’s going to get any of the references and that’s never a good look at all. I mean, sure, you *might* be able to hit the nostalgia crowd in another fifteen years, when everyone turns to each other to say ‘Hey do you remember when all those books were on the bestseller charts? Wow that was ages ago now, do you remember what the clothes were like back then too?’ But that’s also relying on your book being exceptionally brilliant to be remembered still by then, and that seems like a bit of a gamble to me?

            Like

            • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

              I was thinking that, as well. Classics are probably fine, and I think most people are expecting Harry Potter to age well, but otherwise it’s a gamble. If you wouldn’t put brand names because it would age your book, I’d be careful with book titles.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Cameron Graham says:

              Right?! And even books you’re *sure* that everyone will still be reading in fifty years’ time strikes me as a gamble too: does anyone remember the Biggles books for kids? I have met exactly one person my age to have read those, but they were absolutely *everywhere* back in the day… Have faith in your own story and make the allusions you need to enhance it, and stop trying to prop it up on stories other people have read, it’s a much stronger foundation!

              Like

            • Cameron Graham says:

              Yep, and yet in between 1893 and 1968 over a hundred of them were published for kids and sold in their thousands all over the British Empire. I mean, I don’t especially recommend them but there was a time when every boy had at least some of them on his bedroom bookshelves and now…? The lasting fame of a book isn’t guaranteed by the numbers it’s sold in. *Ominous thunder clap*

              Like

            • Cameron Graham says:

              Urgh, they’re … They’re very much … of their time? Yeah, that’s how I’ll put it… Like, there’s something to be said for darin’do adventure stories about a young pilot and all, but… yeah they have not aged well!
              I know, but we must all remain aware of our mortality and whatnot! *Evil chuckle*

              Like

  3. Mei-Mei says:

    I was just thinking about allusions this morning, how they can be effective when done well. I love the references to Paradise Lost in the Gemma Doyle trilogy because it really sets the tone and reinforces the themes of the story. Sometimes references can work as character development, too, but I have to agree that referencing HP in a futuristic space story does not seem very purposeful, just fan service.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    For me, it often pulls me out of the story and then I find myself wondering why certain works were referenced over others. For example, ‘Ready Player One’ (which I grant was all about knowledge of the ’80s and the whole narrative was built around pop culture from the ’80s) was a fun book but I’d always start overthinking or judging the references. I’d wonder if/when a certain film or TV show was going to pop up or why a certain one was chosen for that spot. So I’m with you. I think it can be a distraction. I grant, too, it can be well done. But it more often serves to kick in my overthinking mode XD.

    Like

  5. marydrover says:

    This was so interesting, and I agree wholeheartedly! Particularly the bit about classic books–it always just kind of makes sense when classic books do it? I’m currently reading The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and they name-drop titles and authors all the time, but it works so well because the whole book is literally about a book society. Much the same way a lot of classics are, too, but you’re dead-on–allusions in contemporary books kind of feels like a flag of “hey look at me! I’m interesting because I like these books!”

    Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  6. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I generally don’t mind allusions in books as long as they aren’t overdone. A mention here or there, a brief discussion of some immortal work of literature that is relevant to the story, and I won’t mind. It might even add to the dept of the story. But if they’re going to go on an on about something that is otherwise irrelevant, just to try to make me like it because, “Aren’t we all book fans?!” makes me feel like the author is trying to manipulate me.

    Another thing that bugs me is specific to high fantasy, and that’s when an author uses words or names out of real world lore, and isn’t subtle about it or uses it in a weird context. The most recent example I can think of comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, with it’s many and obvious Arthurian calls that, in my opinion, don’t feel like they belong in that world, and later in the series, the obvious inclusions of figures from Judeo-Christian lore. Sure, an author can fall back on real world lore, but if it’s not done well it can be jarring for the reader.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, that’s a good point about fantasy! I often see words/phrases/references to real things and wonder what on earth the author is thinking. I can’t remember the book, but I’m pretty sure one I read flat out said something about Joan of Arc that made no sense to me because the book otherwise did not seem set in our world.

      Like

  7. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    I’ve definitely noticed this before, when a book is a bit too heavy-handed with its allusions, which seem to only be there as a wink-wink to the reader. I don’t mind if there’s a quick reference to something, and I even like it if it helps characterize someone by giving me a sense of what they read/watch/listen to. But when it’s practically shoved in your face, like in the example that you gave, I can’t help but roll my eyes a bit.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Good point about characterization! I think in OCD, the Dude, and Me the protagonist was into nineteenth century literature, which was cool. Or the character could be into mysteries or something. But I am over the HP allusions. Everyone likes Harry Potter. We get it.

      Like

  8. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    I am a sucker for a name drop 😂😂 Tho I see where you are coming from. It can be a cheap trick to try and get more people to like your book.

    Most recently there was a HP name drop in The Disasters. The story is told from the point of view of the jock and he is so utterly lost by the conversation of some of the others as they talk about a book about “griffin doors and wizards” 😂 It was a short and harmless name drop and I enjoyed it immensely (did I mention I’m a sucker for name drops 😉 )

    Like

  9. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    You two always have the best discussion posts that really make me *think* dang it. xD After giving it a bit of thought, I think it really depends on the book! If the book feels *too* referential, where there’s just a lot of name-dropping of books and characters, it gets on my nerves. An example might be The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, where everything that happened to her and every discussion ended up having a name drop or some sort of reference to a book and I’m just like … please make it stop.

    But in other instances, I’m perfectly fine with it. Like The Unlikely Case of Uriah Heep is about reading characters out of books, so there’s a lot of name drops of Victorian works, in particular, and yeah, of course. I was trying to really think, and I’m pretty sure that Gemina had a name drop, too, because I remember Nick saying something about never having read it and there being an explanation that it was an old Terran book? If I remember correctly? But see, it didn’t even stand out enough for me to be sure I remember it, so it didn’t feel like a sticking point or anything. xD

    Like

  10. La La in the Libraryl says:

    I agree! I read a Middle Grade last year where Harry Potter was mentioned a million times, and one of the things the author included was wrong. 😒 You could also tell the author wasn’t a serious fan herself from the way the conversations about the HP books her characters had were written. 😛

    Like

  11. Mina @Stacked says:

    I personally don’t mind allusions, they can be really fun. However, I think it’s important that the allusion makes sense and adds to the story, characters or themes. I haven’t read Blastaway, but it seems to me that the author included Harry Potter and Percey Jackson only to attract their fans, which is a really cheap trick.

    If done well, allusions are awesome, but just inserting them randomly will destroy the book

    Like

  12. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    I think my feelings on this are similar to yours. I prefer allusions to be subtle (no proper nouns please), where readers in the know might think “Hah, I understand that reference and it gives me a bit more insight to the characters/scene” but could otherwise be glazed over. I agree that allusions rarely add anything important to a story. What you describe happening in Blastaway is especially annoying, to me. I think I’ve read a couple other similar stories (set in the future, where the protagonist waxes on about how wonderful certain cultural aspects of current day culture were) and it felt improbable and unnatural to me.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I really want to see a book set in the far future where someone thinks the twenty-seventh century or something was the “Golden Age”of literature. It’s way too obvious when the author picks the twenty-first that they’re only doing it because it’s familiar to readers! (I also think it’s depressing to imply that literature only goes downhill from here, for CENTURIES apparently!)

      Weirdly, I just finished Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer and it ALSO references Harry Potter, though slightly more naturally. And An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night several times, which was fine because the character was reading them and enjoying them, but I think it’s going to not age well. And also I just kept wondering if Kemmerer is good friends with the author and kept throwing her shout outs or something. :p

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Lais @ The Bookish Skies says:

    i really like this discussion, because, to be honest, i’d never been bothered about allusions before, but for some reason, the more i see them in books, the more uncomfortable i get. and it’s not only allusions to other books, but the constant use of pop culture references throughout the story for no reason at all – just to make the reader feel more *connected* to the characters.
    this is actually one of the many reasons why i disliked red, white & royal blue so much. there were so many unnecessary pop culture references, to harry potter, hamilton and star wars. they felt really forced sometimes, especially when the british main character plays/signs songs by two of the most worldwide famous british artists – queen and elton john. it felt like that “eye rolling” moment of: wow, they’re in a karaoke, and the british character, out of everyone else in the room, will be the one singing queen?
    i think it’s just the easy way to make your character sound #relatable. but when you throw something as big as queen or harry potter or star wars, it just seems forced, because you already know these are some of the biggest fandoms out there, so of course many people will relate to it. however, i believe there are smarter and obviously more complicated, but still better ways to make the audience relate to your character that does not involve throwing pop culture references.
    amazing discussion!

    Like

  14. Grab the Lapels says:

    I read the first Harry Potter novel about 14 years ago and remember little other than I felt it was too childish for me. That’s okay! I wasn’t the target audience due to my age. However, the way Harry Potter is ubiquitous in culture has surprised me. Not have read those (what is it, seven?) novels, I feel left out, but not enough to read them. Honestly, I would not be surprised that someone was such an HP fan in the future, but in what way does this enjoyment of books affect a reader’s perception of the character. I think that’s what you’re getting at, too — I’m just thinking it through.

    Personally, I love books that create a fandom based on a made-up novel or series, whether it’s books, a band, or TV show, it’s fun to see the author build a world of fandom around something he/she created.

    Like

  15. kozbisa says:

    You hit upon one of my BIG pet peeves by mentioning the boy wizard. I feel like I cannot go one week, without seeing an HP reference in at least one of the YA books I read. I am over that, but I guess you have a good point, about the authors trying to make that connection. I never thought of it in those terms.

    Like

  16. Veronika @ Wordy and Whimsical says:

    I’m fine with allusions and pop culture references if they are not overdone. In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda Simon loves Harry Potter (I think there are other references there, but I can’t remember) and I felt like his love for it wasn’t overdone. But I’ve read books that were full of pop culture references – movies, shows, books… EVERYTHING – which is one of the most annoying things ever, in my opinion. Also, oh my god, the Harry Potter scene Blastaway sounds ridiculous. Really great post!

    Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.