Where Robert Harris meets Jeanette Winterson. Or not, as the case may be

I have gone down with an infection and I don't see why I should suffer alone. It isn't anything serious, just one of those acquired sensitivities to one of the many allergens of modern life. I contracted this one in my local bookshop, after browsing through the new titles section and noticing two paperback blurbs. One, for Tim Parks's novel Mimi's Ghost, read "Tarantino meets Peter Mayle" and the other, for Libby Purves's novel Casting Off, read "Joanna Trollope meets Tom Sharpe". Whether it was just the coincidence of the same locution appearing only a few shelves apart, or the transparent coat-trailing of the names selected, I haven't been able to shake this irritating turn of phrase from my mind.

In both these cases the quotations came from critics, not publishers but, inasmuch as the critics liked the books and were presumably recommending them to their readers, the difference is academic. This is criticism as the hard-sell, which can take place at any time from the moment the agent first turns up with a fresh manuscript for an editorial conference. "I think you'll find it marvellous," she says. "It's about a female composer in Nazi Germany whose muse actually turns up in person. They become lovers and transmit German secrets to the Allies, encoding them in an achingly beautiful piano sonata which Hitler orders broadcast as an example of the superiority of Aryan culture. It's sort of Robert Harris meets Jeanette Winterson." And, with any luck, when the book is published an obliging reviewer will scramble for the same cultural grid-reference (though you might have to settle for "John Le Carre meets Iris Murdoch").

Grid reference may be a little too specific, actually. This is not a precise science, more a rough guide to where in the cultural neighbourhood this new arrival is likely to locate itself, just as you might say to someone who asks where you live that it's about halfway between Bromley and Sydenham. As we orienteer through the woodland of modern commercial culture, it's helpful to have some familiar landmarks to navigate by. Some directions are more useful than others, naturally; Joanna Trollope and Tom Sharpe might at least be found in the same county, might conceivably meet at a cocktail party or a British Council tour of Pakistan - so you can vaguely see what the person who wrote the blurb might be getting at - a rather English combination of middle-class angst and sexual comedy (I guess). But in the Parks's example the way points are too widely spaced to be practical - as if you were to say to someone "turn left at Ambleside and stop before you reach Chicago". Here the promise is slightly different, of a simple money-machine alchemy; you can imagine the publisher's rep with his samples case open, trying to conjure the sound of jingling tills in the bookseller's mind. It doesn't matter that the conjunction is completely implausible; it's possible to spend a few idle hours speculating about what such a combination would look like - presumably when you call out a local artisan to wipe brain fragments off the inside of your car he turns up three days late, completely pissed, and then swans off without finishing the quarter-lights. Or you pop out in the evening for a petit rouge and get into a shooting match with the local butcher after he takes offence at your thesis that Hoss from Bonanza was obviously having sex with his horse. Even in the mind of the most fevered salesman, though, this isn't an accurate description of the book in question (a rather good black comedy with an Italian setting). It might even be counter-productive, a phrase that hopes to sell the book as hot-cakes but merely suggests that it is a mixed selection from the past-the-sell-by-date bin.

It doesn't help either that, as well as being a familiar commercial pitch, the locution is also a fairly common piece of comic architecture, in which the possibility of unlikely marriage is exploited for laughs. The writer of "Tarantino meets Peter Mayle" is clearly torn between providing a shorthand for the matter of the book, and tweaking the line into something a bit funnier than "combines witty violence with an accurate representation of provincial life". And "meets" is on hand to solve his problem, just as it is for anyone a bit short of inspiration on the day.

"Meets" is the most fashionable version of this habit of mind, one with a Hollywood briskness about it, but there are other more venerable forms - "a marriage of X and Y", say, or even "a cross between A and B". Clive Anderson offers a good example of the latter in comic mode - and of the fatal temptations of the construction. In the book accompanying his current BBC series he describes Che Guevara as "a cross between Tony Benn and Hugh Grant". This is sublimely off-the-ball, conjuring pictures of a shy, flop-haired Englishman in stained battle-fatigues. He is clutching a mug of tea and staring down from the Corderilla at the enemy forces on the plain below. "Urm, I, um... look... oh fuck, I'm shorry but we can't blow the bridge unless we vote on composite 39 first. Umm... shorry." Presumably, if there's a bit of Tony Benn in Che Guevara then the reverse is true, too, though we will have to find another half: Charles Hawtrey meets Che Guevara? Che Guevara meets Mr Pooter? Enough - I feel a sneeze coming on.

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'