Everything dates (updated)

Quite a few writers of books for teens are deathly afraid of producing works that seem old-fashioned and dated within minutes of publication. To avert this dread fate they aim for timelessness and classicness by avoiding slang and brand names and pop culture references. I have good news and bad news for them.

  • The good news is that there are books with dated slang and brand names what remain in print decades after their first printing.
  • The bad news is that all books become dated.

It’s pretty much impossible to write a book without using the language of your time and place. Lots of phrases and words that don’t seem like they could ever date, do. Take “gay”, for example. It used to mean happy and carefree. Remember Cary Grant dancing around Katherine Hepburn’s family house in 1938’s Bringing up Baby, wearing a frilly nightgown and screaming, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!” He didn’t mean what you think he means. But who cares? The new meaning of “gay” makes it even funnier. (Update: Walter Jon Williams sets me straight—so to speak.)

Every single one of the movies I love so much from the 1930s and 40s are dated. And yet they’re still widely available and consumed and loved and written and talked about.

Same for the books. Dawn Powell, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are all dated. Very. People don’t talk like that now (if they ever did). The world isn’t the same. Those versions of New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles are long gone. But you know what? The best of their books are still fabulously readable despite their weird forms of address (“doll”?) and the strange way the characters dress (hats at all times for everyone; suits and ties always for the men; gloves for women).

So should you pay attention to advice that says at all costs avoid contemporary slang, avoid referring to things by brand name, and avoid pop culture references?

Yeah, you prolly should, at least, most of the time.

Here’s why. The time when datedness is the biggest issue is in the early days of your book’s lifespan. You have to remember that there’s usually (at least) a year’s gap between a book being finished and a book coming out. A lot can happen in a year. Words that are hip and happening now can be torpid and dated then.

If your characters are obsessed with the hit TV show Dale Susskind’s Food Frolics, but before your pub date the show is cancelled because of the financial and sexual scandal that enveloped Susskind, and “Let’s frolic!” the hip catch-phrase that your characters say a lot has become a reference to a sad and incarcerated man. Reviewers are likely to make note of it and mock you more than somewhat. You better pray your book is good enough for it not to matter.

But in twenty, forty, sixty, two hundred years time most people won’t have heard of Dale Sussskind’s Food Frolics. Your book will no longer create cognitive dissonance for your readers.

Think of it as like fish. There’s the fresh, good-to-eat period shortly after being caught, then there’s the hideous rotting stage, but then—glory of glories—there’s the fossilization phase where the stink’s gone forever. And if your fish was lucky enough to be smoked it stays edible and tasty even longer.

Of course, the bad news is that most books go out of print within six months no matter how fresh they were on publication. But then not many fish make it to the fossilization stage either.


  1. Little Willow on #

    You cited one of my favorite films. Have I told you lately that you have great taste? 🙂

    I dislike books that attempt to be super trendy by dropping celebrity names every five seconds and telling readers the brand names of every article of clothing on every character’s body as well as the make, model and colour of their phones.

    The Creek by Jennifer L. Holm is one of my favorite recommendations for teens that takes place during the summer but never states a year – nor does it ever need to – It is amazing.

  2. Robin L on #

    Six MONTHS!!! Wow, I hadn’t heard that. I’d always thought books had at least a year.

  3. Katie on #

    Lots of ways to be dated:
    I still love Jean Webster’s Daddy Longlegs, very dated, in language and many other ways, but still also very fun, even though the movie does have some good stuff going for it, in its own way better too.

    But it was so sad to find the sequel, in Project Gutenberg, full of painful eugenics awfulness. There was some good stuff, but you could see why no one would reprint it now. And properly so.

    But being dated — sometimes that’s actually the most fun element — even sometimes quite recently. Rueful, laughing, sometimes just shows how silly it all is.

  4. Justine on #

    Robin L: Six months was just me being handwaving. I have no idea what the real average is. I imagine it’d be pretty hard to figure that out. There are category romances that are pretty much out of print within a matter of weeks. My impression is that adult novels seem to go out of print much faster than young adult’s and children’s books.

    Katie: Indeed, the datedness becomes part of the pleasure of the text!

  5. Emmaco on #

    Katie: the sequel has been reprinted, I have a copy from the 90s. I agree that it was a shock to find the horrible eugenics stuff in it! But I think it’s still deserving of publication because the inclusion of eugenics in an otherwise nice and innocuous children’s novel is indicative of the wide acceptance of eugenics at the time. It’s like a piece of historical evidence as well as a book. And this is one of the reasons I like datedness in books – they’re glimpses into their time as well as stories!

  6. Robin L on #

    And there I was being all literal. Sorry about that.

  7. Justine on #

    Robib L: Don’t be daft, nothing to apologise for. You called me on being handwaving. I should be called on such things!

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