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from the April 2021 issue

The Comparison Game

In my early teens, I moved from Paris to Nice, in the south of France. A much smaller town meant a newfound autonomy, and as I grew older, I started gravitating toward the poky secondhand bookshops near the old town. Those shops, now long gone, shaped me as a reader. Alongside the mostly stale set texts of the now rightly defunct French literature schoolbooks (back when the canon was almost exclusively male), I discovered Romain Gary, Colette, and also James Baldwin, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, Dino Buzzati, John Fante, and many others. I hurtled across continents from one exciting discovery to another and never stopped to think about what a privilege it was to have access to so many authors from so many countries. Being consumed by literature meant being consumed by world literature; there was no sense of boundaries or categories. There were just more authors to discover. It was only when I moved to the US for a year, and then to the UK permanently, that I realized how lucky I had been.

I got into agenting through selling translation rights of English-language authors. I soon realized that I had an unfair advantage in terms of the range of publishers I had access to, and started to think of it as a stepping-stone, a way of turning the tables and introducing authors from other countries, presenting authors to publishers who were maybe mostly attracted by the English books and not expecting to discuss a Brazilian or a Mexican author. From the start I felt very strongly that these authors should be presented alongside all the other authors, not set in a separate list of “non-Anglophone authors,” something that was maybe not so common at the time. The authors I represent are for the most part literary novelists who are interested in form as much as content and who have a political sensibility, be it overt or under the surface.

When it comes to agenting non-Anglophone authors, the issue of how they are presented is constantly reassessed. At first, the move toward comparing titles by international authors to familiar Anglophone voices felt like a worthwhile attempt at breaking down more barriers and inviting new readers to venture toward the unknown. After all, comp titles are a conservative tool, however inventive they might be, and if bringing into the picture established Anglophone writers was a way to demystify international fiction and remove the cloak of inaccessibility, that could only be a good thing. It certainly felt like an improvement on the previously widespread tendency to burden translated fiction with anthropological responsibility. When I started representing international authors, there was a sense that a book in translation had to teach us something about the world it came from that was simply inaccessible to English-speaking authors, and token authors were brandished as representatives of their countries: Murakami was Japan, Houellebecq was France, Bolaño was the whole of the Spanish-speaking world. There were of course many publishers passionately building brilliant international lists, but they were a minority, and it was difficult to shake off certain expectations.

Ahead of new releases of her work earlier this year, Tove Ditlevsen, who is going back into print all over the world, was compared to Lucia Berlin and Clarice Lispector. The trope here is clearly rediscovered women. When I told a Danish friend, she was surprised and said that if she had to pick a comparison, she would have said Jean Rhys. Another Danish friend said Carson McCullers. Both asked why there was a need to compare her to English-language authors at all. I had been wondering if Elena Ferrantes My Brilliant Friend had paved the way and led readers to Ditlevsen’s trilogy, certainly to Childhood. Was I thinking this because I was lumping these women in translation together in a way someone in another country would not have done? This game of comparisons, while not always accurate, can open doors and be thought-provoking. It brings movement, and that is always good. I find the tendency to treat all authors from one country in the same way much more problematic. For instance: no, all first novels written by young French women do not make their authors the new Marguerite Duras. This one-size-fits-all comparison is reductive and makes these writers feel that they are interchangeable; the parallel might have been fresh the first time it was used, but it fast becomes deeply irritating.

In recent years, I have come up against the limitations of comp titles in newly frustrating ways. One is how limiting they are for books that break from Anglocentric expectations of what the novel should be. At times they are truly groundbreaking and original, but often they are deemed experimental by the English-speaking world when in fact they speak to a tradition in the part of the world they come from. My own experience of this has been mostly with Latin American writing. Someone who mixes ancient myths, realism, and Lovecraft-like fantasy is not easy to place (see what I did here?). I seek it and I love it and I am sure that it has a lot to do with the fact that my most formative reading experience was probably Julio Cortázars Hopscotch, but it has led me to think about how much more inventive we need to be with comp titles.

Comp titles are an acknowledgment of the fact that if we recognize what we see, we move toward it more readily. However, readers in the English-speaking world are increasingly looking to international fiction as a way to counter the growing isolation among countries, politically and culturally. It is palpable in the UK as Brexit has taken hold. It is crucial that fiction in translation be an integral part of the necessary push toward greater diversity, and there are great publishers and excellent translators working together toward this goal. Now is the time to be bolder in how we introduce these writers, because the hunger is there.

© 2021 by Laurence Laluyaux. All rights reserved.

Read More from Our Opinion Series on Comparable Titles
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