How far is too far?

If I am aiming for considerable accessibility, and, in my story, I mention Salvador Dali whose name is tier-2, not on the level of Picasso or Van Gogh, should I expect the majority of readers to become confused and / or irritated (frustrated)?

What about non-name references, like, say, "blue giant" or "brown dwarf", written in the context of a general discussion of space. Would the meanings be inferred, at least to the extent of the former being a big high-fuel star, and the latter being one small and weak?

The sounds and meanings imparted by these references are important and deliver the ideas much better than otherwise, but I worry that even these barely-so obscurities will cause trouble with readers.

  • 4
    Dali is not a "tier-2" artist. You may need to check your own level of understanding references before assuming that of your readership. Apr 8, 2015 at 10:03
  • @LaurenIpsum I didn't mean anything of his significance in art, but that most are only familiar with Picasso, Van Gogh, by what elementary school art classes teach. Similarly, many know of Einstein and Darwin, but are unaware of others like Dirac and Pasteur, however significant their contributions. I appreciate your admiration of Dali, but not so much the hostility in your comment.
    – Mathemert
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:28
  • I wasn't being hostile; I was being factual. Dali is extremely well-known. He pretty much defines surrealism to the point where most people couldn't name a second artist in the style. My point is that you should check with other people to see if what you think is obscure is also obscure to others. Apr 10, 2015 at 22:33
  • @LaurenIpsum I agree to the extent that he is well known to people who've either in/formally studied art or taken an interest in surrealism, but having brought the topic up with several friends, there wasn't more than a vague "sounds familiar". These are people who are leisure readers, and relatively learned.
    – Mathemert
    Apr 10, 2015 at 22:56
  • @Mathemert I don't know where you live, but here in Europe every single poster shop has a selection of posters with paintings by Dali (alongside posters of dolphins and nudes). A recent exhibition of his works in Zurich was one of the most well-visited art exhibitions of the last few decades. I was there, and it was as crouded as New York Central Station during rush hour. Picasso is to art what Shakespeare is for English literature: every child knows him. But everyone who takes even a slight interest in art (beyond anime and manga) will certainly have seen a painting by Dali and know his name.
    – user5645
    Apr 11, 2015 at 8:52

3 Answers 3


If you want to help those among your audience who do not know your references, add "the surrealist painter Salvador Dali" or "blue giant star". Giving not only the name of the object you refer to but adding its category (painter, star) helps readers understand your argument even if they don't know that particular item. How you describe the category ("the early twentieth century Spanish surrealist painter and filmmaker Salvador Dali") will depend on which aspects of the object are important for your argument.

You say that you are "aiming for considerable accessibility".

I'm repeating this over and over again, but you cannot write for everyone. It is a misconception that everyone has read Harry Potter. Harry Potter was not successful because it appealed to everybody, but because it appealed to a specific audience a lot.

Books that target the lowest common denominator are boring and idiotic and no one will want to read them. Write for someone and allow the rest to not be interested. Only then is success possible within that niche.

  • 2
    I would add only that it's a good practice to provide at least minimal context for all your references (as demonstrated in this answer). In today's diverse environment, it's impossible to predict which references will and won't be understood. Also, consider if your book is read by a future generation --we don't know whose reputation will hold up and whose will fade. Apr 8, 2015 at 14:58
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    RE the Harry Potter comment: Yes. A fallacy that I see all the time is the assumption that because I and all my friends think this way or do this thing, that that means that everybody does. Don't assume that everyone in the world knows the lyrics to your favorite pop song, or shares your political beliefs, etc. Than given that, you have to decide how broad or narrow an audience you want to appeal to. And neither a broad nor a narrow audience is necessarily "better", any more than it's meaningful to argue whether a novel is "better" than a poem.
    – Jay
    Apr 8, 2015 at 20:20
  • Thank you for the advice, much appreciated! I understand, but I'm hoping that I'm not catering to too high of a common denominator.
    – Mathemert
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:07

What is the purpose of the reference? If it is essential to the reader's understanding of the story that he understands the reference, than I'd be more likely to add some explanation. If it's just a side comment to add a little flavor to the story, then probably not.

As What says, you can often easily toss in a couple of words that give the reader at least a general idea. "We went to an exhibition of the works of the surrealist Spanish painter, Salvador Dali." Even if the reader has never heard of Dali, he now has at least a general idea of who he is.

Often you can give clues from context that will make a reference at least generally clear. Like, "At the art museum, Sally was impressed by the works of Salvador Dali." From the fact that we say it was at an art museum, the reader would likely guess that Dali is an artist and not an auto mechanic.

A reference can add something for the person who recognizes it while not seriously subtracting for the person who doesn't. "'This conversation is getting totally surreal!', John cried. 'It's like a painting by Salvador Dali!'" Someone familiar with Dali's paintings would likely find one or two of them floating to his mind and helping to set the mood of the scene. Someone not familiar with Dali would get the idea that he's a surrealist painter and move on. The reference didn't help him frame the scene any, but it didn't really hurt, except to the extent that his enjoyment of the story is interrupted as he puzzles over the unfamiliar reference.

At some point I think you have to make reasonable assumptions about the background of your readers. If you make a reference to George Washington in a book intended for an American audience, I think you can safely assume that your readers know who he is. If you mention the man who was the deputy mayor of Hartford Connecticut in 1824, chances are that even readers very knowledgeable about history do not know who he is.

Two other stray thoughts:

One: An explanation can ruin an allusion. I saw a movie once with a scene where a man is angry at his wife because he felt she did not dress up attractively enough for a social event that could advance his career, and he says, "You looked like Quasimodo!" Then a couple of other angry sentences go by and then she says, "Well, you've just compared me to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and ..." So okay, I get it, the writer thought that having the man say his wife looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame would be a good, nasty insult that fit the mood of the scene. But then he was worried that many viewers might not know who Quasimodo was, so he put in the explanation. TO me, it just sounded lame. Obviously the husband knew who he was talking about when he made the reference. Why would his wife have to tell him who he was referring to? It was just so obviously for the benefit of the viewer and not the characters that it was jarring.

Two: An allusion can be an "inside joke" and leave it at that. Like, I once wrote a book in which I made a reference to a variety of religious and philosophical texts, and I wrote "like the Book of Mormon, the Koran, the Communist Manifesto, or the Seldon Plan". The "Seldon Plan" is a book in the science fiction novel "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov. I gave no further explanation. SF fans will get the reference and, presumably, laugh. Those who don't recognize it will likely say to themselves, "whatever, must be some other religious or philosophical book". No one has ever asked me about it, and so I just snicker to myself.

  • It's intended to introduce a passage, where the name is just mentioned, and then his work is later introduced. Thank you for the advice!
    – Mathemert
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:10

If the references are meaningful to you, keep them.

In removing those references in order not to confuse readers, you remove you from the story.

My guess: Removing you from the story will remove the very thing that would have attracted readers. Net result: Fewer readers, rather than more.

Be yourself, right out loud, right there in your stories. The people who show up will be your audience. Anyone who is puzzled by your references would likely never have been your audience anyway. And they certainly would never have been the kind of audience you want.

  • I suppose so, but I feel that I shouldn't so much expect anyone to understand unrelated references, from either art history or astronomy.
    – Mathemert
    Apr 10, 2015 at 21:13

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