Image by Mike Johnson – TheBusyBrain.com
In my reflections on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I found myself repeatedly comparing it to Anne of Green Gables, primarily due to the marked similarities between the two books. Which made me wonder, when is it actually fair to compare two books? That is, are there instances when doing so is an injustice to one or the other?
I think in the case of these two, it is fair to make a comparison—not merely because of the many similarities in plot, but more importantly, because they are of the same era and addressed to the same audience; they have the same goal. I am not comparing a contemporary thriller to classic epic. The playing field seems level. The question is, does it always have to be as level as it is in this instance? And for that matter, what do I mean when I say “comparison”?
To keep us all on the same terms here (as best as possible), I’m thinking of a really wide definition of “comparison.” I’m not simply referring to “which is better, A or B,” but to the whole range of possible evaluations: Which does C better? How do these different works treat D differently and how the same? Which is more effective? Etc. It seems that it is always possible to take two disparate books and say “X is better than Y” (and the subjective “I like E better than F”) but is it necessarily fair to both books to make such comparisons?
Perhaps comparison is always fair when there is a valid topic as the point of comparison. It may not be fair, say, to compare Dan Brown to William Shakespeare when the topic is “who is the better writer,” (not least because of the weight of acclaim already assigned to Shakespeare), but when the question is which of two similar books told their story better, such as the case of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Anne of Green Gables, it seems valid. In this way I see it not as whether the mere act of comparing is fair or legitimate, but whether the topic is fair. Although the weight of reputation for Shakespeare makes him seem intimidating, I can easily think of several topics which would allow comparison (although involving much work) to his works. For example, for a student of the authorship question, comparing the known works of one of the candidates to the works attributed to Shakespeare, or a comparison of the techniques used in his plays vs. those of a different playwright.
Using Shakespeare as an example is a bit of an extreme, of course. For a less weighty example I could look at Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm vs. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Would it be fair to compare these two books as to which is more relevant to today’s reader? On the one hand, it seems as if the contemporary book would have a natural advantage, therefore making this a slanted question. Chances are the majority of children reading the two would pick Harry Potter over Rebecca. But at the same time, both stories deal with children who occasionally get in to trouble, have their share of adventures (although less “exciting” in Rebecca’s case), and both have at least one adult in their life whom they can never seem to please. So this seems to me less clear-cut.
It does seem to me that comparisons between books or works with completely different objectives are more likely to be unfair. For instance, I can say that I found The Firm more accessible and gripping than Inferno, but I can also say without hesitation that Inferno has more literary merit in its little pinkie than The Firm in its entirety. But they are not trying to be the same book. Dante had political and theological objectives in his epic poem; Grisham was writing to entertain. If perhaps The Firm was in some way inspired by or alluded to Dante, then I could see a comparison, but without this textual relation, it is apples to oranges. In other words, by making a direct comparison between the two works without any plane of similarity between them, I am doing one or both books an injustice by not acknowledging that their ends (and means) are completely different.
Subjectivity is also another matter, and a sticky one at that, because it is so personal. When it comes to comparisons, I think subjective comparison—as in “I like A better than B” or “C is a better book than D”—are only useful in so far as they are supported. For example, I can say “I love Anne of Green Gables more than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” and when I offer no reasons why (either personal, such as “I related to Anne more than Rebecca,” or more objective, such as “Anne is a better book because of x, y, z”) it really doesn’t mean much to you. Sure, if you’ve read and have an opinion of Anne, you may have a beginning of a basis to understand my comparison, but my reasons for liking one may be different than yours should you read both. If I don’t provide my reasons, my comparison becomes ineffectual.
Of course, does any of this discussion really matter? Probably not. If I am reading the latest Brad Meltzer, I’m probably going to be comparing it to his previous book or Dan Brown, not Charles Dickens. Or if I am reading Victor Hugo, I’m more likely to be looking at his contemporaries than Nicholas Sparks. On the other hand, I have seen more than one review that suggests (directly or indirectly) comparisons have been made—and usually the book in question isn’t as well received as the book it is being compared to. Sometimes I have to wonder if the wrong comparison is being made, if it is our natural tendency to hold all books against only those that appeal to our particular tastes without making allowance for differences in nature of the books in question. (Whether or not the reviewed book is actually better or worse than the preferred book is irrelevant to my interests here.)
So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Am I completely of base? Or is this simply an irrelevant question because, really, someone could always be found to argue that a given comparison is valid? I mean, it’s all subjective anyway…