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?