One of the first courses I ever took in college was a Comp. Lit. class. I am ashamed to admit I had no idea what a Comp. Lit. class was. I knew going into it that I had to read…a lot. It was not until I was halfway through the semester when I finally understood the purpose of the class. Comparative Literature – comparing various literary works throughout the centuries to each other in order to better understand the influences and relationships they have to one another. By the time I finished the course, I could see what the course was trying to teach me even as I was put off of reading classics for a while.
After six years of blogging, I find myself thinking back to that particular class and marvel at how often I use the skills I did not think I learned while in school. It is second nature to compare one book to another. It helps keep all of the books I read organized in my brain and even gives me a point of reference for later recall. I compare novels while reading, in my reviews, or even describing the story to someone who may or may not be interested in reading it.
While this tendency to compare novels is second nature these days, I cannot help but wonder if it is fair. It is one thing to compare novels written by dead authors to understand the evolution of the novel throughout history. It is another thing to compare current novels, for we are not doing so to understand influences or relationships. We are doing so to set expectations or build publicity. In fact, this is exactly what publishing companies and marketing firms do with novels when they tout something as this year’s Gone Girl or the next The Hunger Games. The danger then lies in the fact that often, these comparisons backfire. After one or two novels which declare themselves to be the next BIG book of the year that turns out to be a dude, readers are less likely to believe that claim. Similarly, such comparisons can lead readers to set the bar so high that no novel could ever reach it. Case in point, you do not see publishers declaring books to be the next Harry Potter series, do you?
This whole topic then gets me wondering what the purpose of a review is. Should we judge books based on similar novels? Should we judge a book individually, on its own merits? When you read a lot, how do you avoid drawing comparisons between them all? How can you avoid comparing Divergent to The Hunger Games? Should you? Do you? Where is our responsibility as reviewers to avoid unfair comparisons that may bias readers before they even open the book?
Has anyone else thought about this? I’m curious what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments!