Before I read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor last week, I noticed that four of the eight review quotes on the back cover compared Lindqvist to the great Stephen King. Hmm…how derivative was this Scandinavian guy, anyway?
Actually, the excellent Harbor turned out to be quite original. It was obviously in the horror genre, but with a wintry, in-Sweden twist. Other differences from King, too. It all reminded me of…John Ajvide Lindqvist. With a touch of Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow).
Yet I understand the reviewer shorthand of author comparisons. Some people — for better or for worse — want writers placed in a certain literary style or genre before deciding whether to read them. And many book publishers categorize authors in marketing campaigns.
Of course, comparisons to other authors might be dead-on, or barely an approximation. Also, some writers welcome being put in the company of a famous earlier author or novel, while others may feel such a comparison is a slur on their originality or even a near-plagiarism charge. But, heck, no writer or fictional work is completely unique.
Examples of other authors who’ve been compared to earlier authors? Let me count the names. To remain in the horror category for a minute, H.P. Lovecraft was definitely influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.
In more “general” literature, John Irving has been mentioned in the same sentence as Dickens for sprawling, seriocomic works such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Donna Tartt’s multifaceted The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s sweeping The Luminaries, and Jonathan Franzen’s wide-ranging Freedom have also moved some reviewers to name-check Charles D.
When Isabel Allende came out with The House of the Spirits, many reviewers and readers were reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And the comparison is somewhat apt, though Allende put her own stamp on magic realism and multigenerational storytelling — such as concentrating more on the female characters.
Then of course there’s Cormac McCarthy following in the footsteps of William Faulkner with almost-biblical prose depicting the lives of often flawed, unhappy, eccentric, far-from-affluent people. “Southern Gothic” and all that.
Speaking of the American South, True Grit author Charles Portis’ funnier novels (such as Norwood) are reminiscent of Erskine Caldwell’s comedic classics Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre.
In the “modernist” area, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes some inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
And A.S. Byatt — especially with her intricate masterpiece Possession — has been compared to the incomparable George Eliot.
Of course, finding a resemblance between authors can often be too facile an endeavor — especially when describing female and African-American writers. For instance, Barbara Kingsolver kind of echoes Margaret Atwood in penning fiction that’s feminist and political yet more character-driven than polemical, but their writing styles are really not alike. And the works of African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker have as many — or more — differences than similarities.
Who are some specific authors who can be compared to earlier specific authors?
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I’m almost finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.