“Frame of Reference” by John McPhee. The New Yorker, 3/9/2015.
John McPhee, 84, one of my favorite New Yorker authors of nonfiction, is talking about writers using descriptions based on popular contemporary references that may be unknown to a significant portion of the readers:
If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.
McPhee makes the point that when you use a contemporary reference in a description, you are borrowing the vividness of that reference, and that debt needs to be repaid with concrete descriptions. For example, “He looks a bit like Gene Wilder, and has some of the same manic energy.” “Gene Wilder” is the reference that may be unknown to the reader, but “some of the same manic energy,” partially repays the debt. The reader who has never heard of Gene Wilder will still understand an important part of the description.
To emphasize how quickly well-known references fade, McPhee was in a high school senior English class of 19 students and informally asked them to raise their hands if they recognize the names and places he tells them. (This is not about intelligence, but simply what familiar references from our day remain today.)
All 19 hands went up for Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, the city of Denver, and Winston Churchill.
Paul Newman, 17 hands. (Two never heard of him.)
Fort Knox, 15 hands.
Elizabeth Taylor, 11.
Mickey Rooney, 2.
An English bobby, 1.
Jack Dempsey, Jackie Gleason, and Sophia Loren, zero hands. None in the class recognized these names.
RWalck@Verizon.net (zero hands)