Here’s something I’ve learned about writing: You’re not supposed to date your books. Meaning when people read them, they’re not supposed to be able to tell what year the books take place. While I get the concept of avoiding dating to infuse a timeless quality into a book (which makes it a potential classic, a book that can be read for years to come while still sounding current), I don’t see the problem with dating. Some of the most cherished teen novels, including bestsellers, are dated and it doesn’t hurt them at all. In fact, dating enhances their stories by establishing an authentic sense of place and time.
Take my all-time favorite young-adult novel, The Outsiders. The greasers/socs conflict and what everyone’s wearing indicate that the book is set in the 1960’s. References to Paul Newman, drive-in movies, and slang like “fuzz” reinforce that sense of set time. Sort of like “crumby” all over the place in Catcher in the Rye. But knowing that The Outsiders is set in the 1960’s and absorbing its historical significance doesn’t detract from the book’s status as a classic. It’s a classic because it’s a freaking brilliant book. So if a book is outstanding and its characters deal with universal issues, then why is dating a bad thing?
I recently read Nick Hornby’s Slam. Excellent book, love Nick Hornby. Slam is dated. The main character tells us that the story happened “before May 21, 2009.” Also, Brokeback Mountain is playing as a new release in movie theaters during the story, indicating that the book is partially set in 2005. The always incredible Laurie Halse Anderson used a lot of slang in Prom. This makes Prom even better because the dialogue feels so real. That’s what kids love to read.
Not like I set out to date any book I write. I’m down with the timeless, warm fuzzy thing. But sometimes it helps the story to connect with a solid time setting. Take Me There is set in New York City and references September 11 as an immensely significant event that the characters experienced a few years before. I felt that was important. Hopefully, the book is still a good read.
And hey, what about quality TV shows? It’s not like any of those pop-culture references in Gilmore Girls or The Office detract from their awesomeness. When the characters refer to current events or use slang, it just makes them more believable as characters. Like they live in the real world with the rest of us. And yes, the world is changing. These things won’t be the same thirty years from now. But I’ll bet the characters on a show or in a book will still feel as real. Real in their time which, because they are classic, we can always relate to.