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Comparable Titles

April 2021

“Brazil’s Virginia Woolf.” “Sebaldian.” An heir to Flaubert, Stendhal, Sterne . . .

Comps—or comparative titles/authors—are ubiquitous in publishing, particularly when it comes to international literature. They are intended as a guide for publishers, readers, booksellers, critics, publicity teams: situating new works and writers in the context of the well-known, it is thought, can help these new works succeed. It is common among all of the aforementioned groups at different points in the publication cycle:  agents might use comps when pitching an international writer to a publisher, critics to help situate a writer in readers’ minds or their own. Another way to think of the practice is as analog (in both senses of the term) to the Netflix algorithm. 

Not infrequently, however, the use of comps comes in for criticism: Why, for example, should a non-Western (or non-American, etc.) writer be compared to a well-regarded counterpart from national or linguistic traditions other than his or her own (or even to another writer within his or her tradition)? Is to do so not to imply a cultural hierarchy? On the other hand, supporters ask whether the ultimate goal of creating a readership for literature in translation doesn’t outweigh these concerns, no matter how valid. Others strike a middle ground: is there not a thoughtful way to draw these comparisons without imperialist overtones?

This month, Words Without Borders brings together four individuals—critic J. R. Ramakrishnan, agent Laurence Laluyaux, writer-translator Saudamini Deo, and editor Juan Milà—to weigh in on the question.