The Importance of Finding the Metaphor

When Nora and I first started doing consulting work, we decided that her job title should be Director of Dialogue, because she has a magical skill at getting people to talk about themselves and what they believe. And we decided that my job title should be Director of Metaphor, because of my habit of describing one thing in terms of another.

Metaphors are a form of theory: they explain how disparate things fit together. Finding the right metaphor allows you to make sense of things that didn’t make sense, to open things that seemed stuck because we kept working inside the same old stories.

When I first started to write about adjuncts, I knew that the right metaphor wasn’t the great labor struggles of the industrial era, the great battle between two opposed interests. I wrote in my proposal for the book that I was going to avoid “the combat narrative.” But it wasn’t until I had a new metaphor—the ecosystem in collapse—that I understood how to move forward.

I’m understanding that personally as well as professionally. My wife and I are both writers, working outside of easy membership in long-established genres. That makes our lives especially difficult, because readers don’t have an easy way to enter the work, can’t quickly say “Oh, that’s a historical novel” or “that’s a political thriller” and then stand on an established way of reading. Just as was true for my first year of work on The Adjunct Underclass, we know the metaphors and categories that we aren’t, but haven’t yet developed new ones.

When submitting books for an editor’s consideration, one of the key elements of the package are the “comps,” or comparable titles. The stronger and clearer the comps, the easier the sale. “This book is a romantic comedy in the style of Nora Ephron” or “I have a Grisham-like story of political corruption” will get those books considered. But those comps can also be a trap, because the reader now has pre-read the book in some particular way, expecting the conventions of that field and caught by surprise when those conventions aren’t mostly fulfilled. And they can be a trap for the writer as well, trying to fulfill those conventions instead of letting the book and its characters do what they need to do.

I half-jokingly refer to my fiction as “men’s romance,” but it’s only half. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines women’s fiction as stories of a woman’s emotional journey toward a more fulfilled self. And that’s what my work is, stories of men’s emotional journey toward a more fulfilled self. But it’s a category that doesn’t yet exist; there’s no easy set of comps.

Nora’s in the same place, writing “historical fiction” whose characters are introspective more than interpersonal, work that draws on ideas from material culture studies but rests fully on the lives of dense, complex characters. It’s a category that doesn’t yet exist; there’s no easy set of comps.

You can make something new, but it’s not an “innovation” until others take it up. You can go to a new place, but you’re not a “pioneer” until others settle the land you’ve found. The word pioneer comes from an ancient French word pionnier, or foot soldier. We walk on toward a landscape that we hope will be hospitable, with no guarantees that we’ll find water or gold or fertile soil, without the expectation that others will necessarily join us. We do the work because the work asks us to do it. Perhaps others will follow; perhaps not.

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