The most I've ever laughed at a book is at the weekly Anger Management group sessions attended by the cast of Wuthering Heights, in Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots. And if one of your favourite literary love stories is that of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, then knowing your Donne makes it even better. Only, of course, there'll be readers who don't get the reference, so don't get the joke, and can't be swept away by the love scenes. Equally, you're not going to baffle many readers if you make someone say "Bonjour", but what if they're talking Greek? What if your reader is in a country where French isn't a standard school subject? How does a reference which meant nothing to you make you feel? Did you feel frustrated that a brick in the novel's meaning was missing for you? Did you feel excluded from the club of people who'd understand? Were you annoyed with the author for snobbery or did you feel it was your failure or ignorance? And then this question cropped up on a forum:
I make a reference in my book to a couple who are dating being "as chaste as Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe" because they haven't yet kissed. Is this a common enough reference point that people will get it? The target audience is probably female 25-45.
So I'm the target audience, but although I understood it was about a chaste couple, several of us had no idea who they were. And yet others of similar age, gender and background were absolutely astonished that we hadn't. What did we mean, we'd never read Anne of Green Gables? How could we possibly not have? Whereas if it was Katy Carr, Rose Campbell or Rebecca Rowena Randall, I'd have enjoyed the book even more for its evoking a different bookish joy, and mentally called cousin, as my granny used to say, with the writer and other readers, for the bonding pleasure of sharing an in-joke.
But if the reference is more elliptical or its significance less spelt out, and above all if the reference is meant ironically - if the point is that Anne and Gilbert are in fact not chaste a bit - then I'm really not going to get it. So if you're wondering whether to include a reference that some readers won't get, it's worth thinking about how your reader may take it.
- get it, love it, love the book more for it.
- get the reference and understand the point - how it applies.
- get the reference but don't understand the point - the significance for the story.
- don't get the reference, do understand the point and don't mind.
- don't get the reference, do understand the point, feel excluded from the club of people who get it.
- don't get the reference, don't understand the point, don't mind: it might come clear later and if it doesn't it doesn't matter (the spirit in which I read Woolf).
- don't get the reference, don't understand the point, DO mind: feel not just excluded but also frustrated: here's something, that is perhaps important, that I haven't got.
So one function of your beta-readers is to find out what responses you get to your references, and it's worth asking someone a bit further away, culturally speaking, than your siblings. Obviously whether "don't get, don't understand" annoys the reader or not, will depend on their temperament. But we all have knowledge that seems central to us, and perhaps to most of the people we mix with, which is not in the least standard for others. I often feel I'm missing nuances and even important things, when I'm reading American fiction. And culture includes period as well as background and nationality. Someone didn't know why Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm had such an odd middle name. "Haven't they read any Walter Scott?", my granny also used to say.