Monday, May 31, 2010

On the Comparison Trap

If there is one question I hate, it’s, “To what other books would you compare yours?” “Or what other books is your book like?” Agents and editors often ask writers to describe their novels in terms of other published works. In addition to finding this question difficult to answer, I believe it poses a couple of traps to the writer seeking representation.

First, comparing a well-known work of fiction to your own implies a certain level of hubris that might be thrown back at you. (You , my dear, are no Jane Austin.) But it hardly makes sense to pick something so obscure that the agent or editor is unlikely to have read or even heard about it.

Second, let’s say you can come up with a comparison. Now you have to justify how your story is unique. If it’s sufficiently different, then maybe the comparison doesn’t hold. A query letter is not the right place to offer these kinds of explanations, yet it is the place one has to sell oneself sufficiently to get read.

One way of dodging this bullet is to say, readers who like X will enjoy Y. Here, the comparison is implied rather than outright, but it’s still a comparison with all its attendant perils.

Of course, there is always that trick, popularized in the movie, The Player. My book/screenplay is Gone with the Wind meets Catcher in the Rye. The advantage of the analogy is it takes the focus off the direct comparison by splitting it between two targets. But how will the agent/editor know what aspects are most salient about the analogy? Is it the genre of the books we chose, the point of view, the time period, the overall tone, the plot, the themes, etc.?

Is the story in the above analogy a coming of age tale about a young Confederate soldier, who, feeling that his life is pointless as he watches his old way of life being destroyed, goes AWOL , taking his baby sister with him? Or is it a contemporary novel, set in the South, about a day in the life of a headstrong, but wealthy teenage girl, who leaves home and ends up in the middle of a gang fight? The possibilities are endless.

However, as an exercise, the analogy game is thought provoking. So here’s my attempt.

My novel about a young woman who loses her moral compass in Japan is kind of Memoirs of a Geisha meets Lost in Translation. Both books take place in Japan. With the former it loosely shares the overall plot told as a first person narrative of being about a naïve young woman who must learn for her livelihood the ins and outs of entertaining and pleasing men. However, Memoirs is set in an earlier era, the protagonist is Japanese, and she appears to have little choice about accepting this lifestyle. My novel is more contemporary (set in 1981), the protagonist is American, and she freely makes her choices.

Like my story, Lost in Translation highlights the complexity and challenges of being an American temporarily in Japan. Although my novel has its light moments, its overall tone is more dramatic than satirical or humorous. In addition, the protagonist in Lost in Translation is a middle-aged man; mine is a young woman.

How would an agent interpret my analogy? And what if they make different assumptions than the ones I’ve posed? Will they feel disappointed or worse, misled? Am I in danger of descending into absurdity? Will the agent pass if my analogy seems too far-fetched?

So as I construct the dreaded query letter, might I be better off just bypassing the comparisons and trusting that my story will entice on its own? There’s an original idea!

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