Why Comparisons are a Good Thing(TM) (8/3/2011)

Various quotes from the internet:

“Your review should … make comparisons to other authors or works that may be better known…” (no, the missing words aren’t ‘not’).

“The danger with mentioning comparisons to other authors is that …  you’ll mention an author that somebody doesn’t like.”

“It is good to make comparisons to other authors, but do so with care…”

“I don’t like to make comparisons to other authors, but…”

And my personal favourite: “Comparisons to other authors, however, are Halloween masks for critical thought.”

I can see why some authors don’t like to be compared to others. None of us are the same. We all think we have are own unique shtick that makes us special and unlike anyone else, and it’s probably true that we do. Being likened to some other, more established author is both being put into a box that we don’t quite fit and a reminder that we are still small-fry, struggling to establish ourselves in the big wide world. I can’t say what it’s like from the other side of the fence, being linked to every other upstart new author, but if I think about it, mostly what I imagine is eye-rolling. Mind you, I reckon if that ever happens to me, I’ll be immensely pleased about it the first few times. Sign of having become a pillar of the genre and all, so maybe not eye-rolling after all. On the whole, though, as a relative newcomer, I’ll take what I can get. I think, so far, my books have drawn comparisons to Joe Abercrombie, Anne McCaffery, Robin Hobb, Paul Kearney, George RR Martin, Naomi Novik, Oscar Wilde, and Christopher Paolini on a meth-fuelled bender. Do any of those bother me? Not at all. Bemuse me? I suspect one or two might simply refer to the fact that I have dragons in my book and little else. But on the whole, I don’t see anything for me, as an author, to object to here.

Reviewers then: That’s easy though – you’re job is to serve readers, so you don’t get an opinion :-p

And as a reader, yes, I’ll take a comparison. I like things that are new and I like things that are familiar, and some days I want one and some days I want the other, and if I’m after something familiar, then why not try an author who’s (allegedly) similar to another that I like? It’s patently obvious that the bulk of what people read is driven by a desire for more-of-what-I-had-before-that-I-liked, and that’s exactly what these comparisons serve.

So I have no problem with comparisons at all, provided they’re done well. The point of a review is largely to tell the audience enough about a book that they’re able to draw a conclusion as to whether they’re likely to enjoy it, and if the review is thoughtful and well-crafted, that conclusion ought, largely, to be correct. Comparing X to Y is a perfectly acceptable shorthand for doing exactly that. Fussing about the rightness or wrongness of doing so strikes me as missing the point: A review with a poor or lazy comparison is a poor or lazy review, and those who are minded to fuss about such things would serve the rest of us better if they fussed about that instead.

None of which is to say that they’re not Halloween masks for crical thought – merely that they don’t have to be, and if you take a mask away from a man who wants to wear one, well then he’ll likely just pick up another one instead.


Leave a Reply