‘The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction’ by M. A. Orthofer (Review)

IMG_5469I like to think I’m an adventurous reader, and several people claim to have found my site useful for finding new ideas (particularly in areas such as J-Lit, K-Lit and German literature), but of course I’m not alone in my interests.  With sites like Winstonsdad’s Blog and The Modern Novel around, there are several other places to turn to if you’re looking for inspiration.  However, in our little niche of fiction in translation, one site towers over the rest, pumping out reviews (and literary decrees) relentlessly – perhaps it’s only inevitable that it now also comes in book form🙂

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That site, of course, is The Complete Review, and its founder, M. A. Orthofer, has somehow found the time to use the knowledge gained over decades of reading and reviewing to produce The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press).  The guide is exactly what it says it is – over four-hundred pages introducing the curious reader to the best fiction the planet has to offer.  As Orthofer immediately clarifies, this is a book for readers, one to help anyone interested in dipping their toe into world fiction but with little or no idea as to where to begin.

The guide kicks off with an introduction in which Orthofer sets the scene, lamenting the woeful state of translation into English while also presenting a few of the issues involved.  If you’re familiar with this world, then there’ll be little new here for you; however, for the general reader this may be of interest.  We learn of the so-called ‘three-percent problem’, changes of titles between the American and British versions of books (and vice-versa) and, one of Orthofer’s particular bugbears, the dreaded translations via a third language.  Once that’s all been taken care of, it’s on to the main event…

…and an impressive undertaking it is too.  The Complete Review Guide… is divided geographically into continents, regions and countries, and each part begins with a brief overview before discussing the most important writers, movements and books.  There is a *lot* of detail here, with names of books, writers, translation titles and year of publication, which can be a lot to take in at times.  So much information could make the book fiddly, but that’s certainly not the case here – it’s greatly to Orthofer’s credit that it generally reads smoothly and enjoyably.

A summary of contemporary world literature in around four-hundred pages is a wonderful, and daring, undertaking, but The Complete Review Guide… covers the world with something for everyone.  As well as discussing the usual suspects, there are pages of literature from Estonia, books from Tonga and Samoa, and a glimpse of the delights of African fiction.  Unlike in many works of this kind, the writer is happy to wander away from literary fiction occasionally, with many of the more in-depth sections also looking at other genres, whether it’s Scandi-Noir, Israeli crime fiction or Russian sci-fi.

On his site, Orthofer is often rather direct, and even here, his views are less toned-down than you’d expect from a work of this kind, with a very Germanic approach to criticism.  He’s not afraid to damn with faint praise, such as when Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is described as “…appealingly presented, but the philosophical veneer on display is thin and does not withstand much scrutiny” (pp. 45/6) or when the kindest thing he has to say about Paulo Coelho is that “…some of Coelho’s financial bounty has presumably trickled down to his English translators, led by Margaret Jull Costa, enabling them to turn to other, worthy projects.” (p.386).  That’s fairly kind compared to his observations on a well-known American writer when introducing American genre fiction, though:

Sales and circulation figures suggest that much of it has tremendous appeal and entertainment value.  Much, however, is essentially disposable and has little literary worth, and some, like Dan Brown’s (b.1964) sensationally successful The Da Vinci Code (2003), has none at all. (p.439)

Ouch…  This blunt style may divide readers, but for me it’s certainly a refreshing antidote to some of the more sycophantic views you can find in book reviews.

Undertaking a project like this alone, though, is akin to tilting at windmills, and the guide is far from perfect.  While Orthofer’s subjectivity can be refreshing at times, the careful reader will notice the writer’s preferences reflected in the text, with an inevitable imbalance in the space accorded to certain writers and countries.  Also, anyone with more than a passing knowledge of a particular country’s fiction will inevitably be struck by omissions in that area.  When I enquired about the omission of Natsume Soseki, Orthofer said his work didn’t fall into the era covered (even though Ryunosuke Akutagawa, writing a decade later, features heavily).  Another Japanese writer dismissed slightly summarily is Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, who would certainly have occupied a far more prominent position in my J-Lit pantheon.

However, perhaps a more serious issue with The Complete Review Guide… is in its lack of gender parity.  While it’s true that there is an imbalance in what gets published in English (which, for the most part, is what Orthofer is covering), I’d be very surprised if the percentage of writers mentioned here gets close to the 30-35% mark which is usually quoted.  These are often lists of male writers, with a couple of female authors added where space permits.  In the Korean section, for example, major omissions include stalwarts O Chong-hui and Park Wan-suh, with the big new names in K-Lit in translation, Bae Suah and Han Kang, also conspicuous by their absence.  In the regular statistical updates at The Complete Review and The Literary Saloon, Orthofer frequently admits this lack of representation in his reading, something which appears to be reflected in the book.

However, even if it is flawed (and that’s arguable), The Complete Review Guide… is one of those glorious failures that are well worth the effort.  It may well be a Quixotic undertaking, but by braving the imaginary giants of world literature, Orthofer shows us that there’s nothing to be feared in translation, clearing the way for less intrepid readers to try some of these books for themselves.  The guide is both an indispensable handbook for anyone interested in broadening their literary horizons and a reference book for serious readers wanting to expand on their knowledge – or simply something to dip into when you fancy a vicarious journey to distant shores.  Get your copy, saddle up, and ride off into the literary sunset – I can assure you that you won’t regret it🙂

13 thoughts on “‘The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction’ by M. A. Orthofer (Review)

  1. In the Korean bit definitely missing Park Wan-suh, but also (If I remember correctly) missing Yi Sang and Yi Kwangsu (incredible, considering he wrote the definition of Korean modern fiction). I’ll have to go back and see if I remember correctly.. Bae Suah is an “ehhh” to me and Han Kang is kind of unfair, since she’s just now blown up….

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    1. Charles – I was focusing on the women, so I hadn’t even noticed those two were missing. Major oversights, it’s true, but that just goes to show that you can’t cover everything, no matter how hard you try…

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    1. Stu – No worries🙂 I doubt many people will read it from cover to cover like I did, but it’s definitely a useful reference text to have on your shelves.

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  2. @Tony Glad to see I’m not the only one noticing these points. (And with your review being way more succinct than mine, more people are going to be made aware of them!) It is a very good guide, and it’s unlikely there’ll be anything similar soon, but it’s also not the place to find long lists of women writers.

    @Charles, it includes books published even in early 2016, as well as a few from 2015 that were well-regarded. Han Kang was widely talked about in 2015, due to The Vegetarian being released in the UK in early 2015, so in that context, at least a brief mention on a list would have seemed fitting.

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    1. Antonomasia – Just had another look at your review, and it’s certainly lengthy! I did cover several of the same points, although (not being a genre reader myself) I was a little more generous about Orthofer’s coverage of work outside lit-fic. I suppose that once you make the decision to go it alone, it’s always going to be a very subjective picture of world literature, but on the whole, I’d say he’s definitely done a better job than most would.

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    2. @Antonmasiabooks

      #1 – Your name is too darned long to type!^^

      #2 – I understand your point on Han Kang, who I love and is also an acquaintance, but at the time she was certainly no more important than Kim Young-ha, Yi Munyol, Gong Ji-Young, etc. (Note: Not at the book, so perhaps Gong and Kim were included?). I would certainly include her today, but at the time of writing? I wouldn’t consider it an egregious omission. YMMV.^^

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      1. Charles – I think from a UK perspective she was, and that is a big difference. My gut feeling is that the identity of the new standard bearer for K-Lit differs depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on – Han Kang in the UK and Bae Suah in the US😉

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        1. Tony.. Han did hit first in the UK. I’d also say that she’s had more of an impact in the US than Bae… not many people know her and I don’t find her fiction very universal (also, Han writes nice big thick novels.^^).

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    1. Tony – I’d disagree. The Complete Review is for people who already know what they’re looking for – this also helps those who don’t know where to start🙂

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  3. Sounds like an interesting book to leaf through for ideas for reading but I already get that online. And at this stage the number of unread books I have has already probably exceeded the amount of life left to read them in… However I would be drawn to flicking through this in a bookshop.

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