Fiction Writer Seeks Your Valuable Opinion
Here’s a short snippet from a story I’m working on.
“I have the perfect prescription for hunger.”
“It’s called reservations.”
She grinned, said, “I had reservations, but I came anyway.”
“Hey, I get to be Groucho Marx,” he said. “You don’t look right in a mustache.”
An editor told me to remove this section because Groucho Marx is a dated reference who most readers won’t recognize. The comment made sense to me, so I deleted it. Out of curiosity, I started asking random people about their familiarity with Groucho. In total, I asked 16 people in their 20s and early 30s. Only three had ever heard the name. Only one knew who he was. One person who recognized the name thought he might be a member of the Beatles. I still have the bump on my head from when I fell to the floor.
Fast forward two weeks later, and my wife and I are watching the 2016 sci-fi flick Arrival. (Spoiler alert: You’ll spent 115 minutes to learn that you should live life to its fullest even though you’ll suffer some bruises along the way. Your welcome for giving you a couple hours of your life back.) The movie centers around Amy Adams trying to communicate with two aliens. Amy’s co-star, whose name escapes me, decides to call these two aliens Abbott and Costello.
I won’t debate about who’s funnier. Groucho was a hilarious ad-libbing comedian, while Abbott & Costello had superlative skits. (I did a rendition of “Who’s on First” and won second place, so hey!) Both acts were big in the 40s and 50s. So my question is this, and feel free to weigh in down yonder in the comments.
If you use a dated reference that many people in your audience won’t recognize, what happens? Do members of your audience:
A) Ask someone nearby about the person?
B) Skip it and move on?
C) Look up the name from their favorite source?
In other words, do you lose people for a moment or are they so fascinated that they go to the trouble to find out what you’re talking about? I’m deleting the Groucho Marx reference in my story. I’m curious what you think about the writer’s decision to leave Abbott & Costello in the script for Arrival. Thanks for playing!