The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction: M. A. Orthofer

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction provides an entry point and more general overview of various nations’ literatures, as well as a foundation to help readers navigate what is available on the internet.”

Years ago, I was so busy burning through the ‘canon’ of British and the American literature, I didn’t give a great deal of thought to reading books in translation. Certainly, I read the Greats–the ones most of us come across in university courses, and I can comfortably say that almost everything assigned, I loved. Tolstoy, Madame Bovary, etc. etc. Well, why bore anyone–after all most of us have read those same books… It’s only been the past few years that I really became interested in books in translation, and again, not as a topic, but the awakening probably began through curiosity about crime novels in translation. Of course, there are a handful of publishers who do a marvelous job of bringing books to the shelves that we would not have otherwise–special thanks here must go to the publisher of international crime titles,  Bitter Lemon Press who delighted me, repeatedly, with Claudia Piñeiro.

complete review guide

Thanks to the efforts of some publishers I’ve read some marvelous books in translation, but let’s face it, beyond the Great Novels, it’s almost impossible to ‘break’ into a country’s literature without some sort of help. Someone who can point us in the right direction … And that brings me to The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction from M. A. Orthofera must-have reference volume for any reader seeking to broaden the reading experience. And I’m going to add here that ‘reference’ book sounds a bit ominous, and yet this book is very accessible, very readable, and very well organized. Don’t miss reading a page of this book.

The intro begins very informatively laying out the current publishing situation in America with “only a few hundred” translated books hitting the market very year. Orthofer points out that we “are arguably spoiled for choice,” and that’s a good way of putting it as when I visit a brick and mortar book shop, I see row upon row of new books but very little captures my attention. But things aren’t bleak at all: Orthofer states “an established group of smaller publishers that have found success in focusing largely or exclusively on fiction in translation,” are shaking up our choices, and that we may very well be “entering a golden age of literary dissemination and exposure.” The goal of Orthofer’s book, then is to “lead readers into and through this rapidly expanding world.”

Does this volume accomplish this admirable goal? Yes indeed it does. I can’t remember ever being this excited about a reference book, so that should tell you something. Here’s a quote I loved:

When publishers in the United States do seek out translated works, they often take their cues from elsewhere. Critical acclaim, literary prizes, and best-seller status–preferably in  several different markets, rather than just the original local one–are prerequisites for most foreign fiction to be considered for the American market, especially by large commercial publishers. The herd mentality is widely practiced elsewhere as well, leading to a narrow, homogenous tier of international fiction that is widely available throughout the world and in many languages whereas excellent works from less internationally celebrated authors can struggle to find the recognition and readers they deserve. Even though exceptional works do come into circulation this way, too often it is the second-rate works-the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers that make the cut and disappoint readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).

Sound familiar?

Orthofer goes on to explain that “smaller and more nimble publishers” are bringing a “broader and more innovative range of foreign fiction to American audiences,” but as we all know, these publishers have “fewer resources.”

Another quote I must add, simply because I’d never come to this conclusion, even though I loathe a lot of the mush being published here:

Readers in the United States seem to prefer that in this nation of immigrants and assimilation, their authors become recognizably Americanized beyond writing in English. Nostalgia for the old country is permissible, but America should be the reference point. The durable formula of combining ethnic background and American contexts has proved remarkably successful, and variations on the multigenerational, transnational historic saga are the most popular kind of vaguely foreign fiction-as long as they are strongly tied to present-day America: The Joy Luck Club, to name just one title out of thousands, is indicative of this phenomenon.

Finally I understand The Joy Luck Club’s success. I’ve been baffled about that for years. And that brings up another point–probably a fairly obvious one–that “the success of a movie version can lead to the rebranding of a book” for the American market.

I knew I loved this book when Orthofer mentioned a pet peeve of mine when it comes to foreign crime series:

publishers also continue to present foreign series out of sequence. When new authors are introduced into translation, American and British publishers generally select the particular volume they believe will appeal most to English-speaking readers, and in the case of mystery series, this is rarely the first volume. If more work by the author is deemed worth translating, publication may be haphazard, a major irritant when authors develop their characters across several books.

Rants and excitement aside, I cannot empathize enough what a great resource this book is. Countries and/or regions are separated geographically into chapters. First we get an overview of the books considered classics, then the important writers of the 20th century (with brief descriptions of their work), sections about more modern writers and then there’s a ‘Keep in Mind’ section in some of the chapters. There’s a section called Eastern Europe which goes into some detail regarding how the collapse of Communism impacted the book market. Apparently modern Russian books are a much harder sell than books published in the Soviet era. Some chapters are shorter than others, which is to be expected, and if a reader is knowledge about a specific country’s literature, I’m sure he/she will argue that a name or two has been omitted or disagree with the author’s opinions.

I came away from this guide with a long list of new names, more book titles to read, and a determination to increase support for publishers bringing translated fiction to the marketplace.  I should add, though, that getting this knowledge doesn’t solve all the problems. Just check out the price of Lucky Per, a classic from Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan. The paperback on Amazon is 82.95 (as of 6/25/16) with private sellers running about $20 less. But on a positive note, I found plenty of other contemporary titles, some out of print, very reasonably priced.

Special thanks to Karen from BookerTalk for turning me onto this book in the first place. This book is going on my Best-of-Year list.

Review copy.

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20 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Orthofer M. A.

20 responses to “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction: M. A. Orthofer

  1. That’s why I’m glad I read in French and German too because it’s amazing what’s being translated here.
    This sounds like a great book. I really agree with all the quotes.
    Every year when I organize GLM it makes me sad to see that most of the books I’ve just bought or read are not and will never be available in English.

  2. I love the sound of this. The quote about Americanizing also resounds with me. Here in Aus tales of people from other ethnic backgrounds don’t seem to have such a heavy focus on assimilating to and celebrating the Aus way of life; in fact I think our writers are invigorated by the differences (and we are much more self-critical as a country than the US seems to be), but it’s certainly true that publishers look for a strongly Australian”voice” and there is a strain that I can only describe as “earnest” that tends to do well – books set in the outback, books in the voices of children who grew up in little country towns, books about wartime experiences. I don’t know whether it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but I just can’t get excited about them.
    With some dread about the ever-expanding list of things to read, I’ll be buying this book.

    • When I first started trying to read more Australian fiction, I stumbled across so many of those outback to civilization formats, but then I suppose to us-non-Aussies, it’s so iconic.
      I hope you get a lot out of this book. I have so far, and the list of books I want to read has grown.

  3. BTW it’s a very good overview of Australian Lit:)
    (Yes, I’ve got this book too, but I’ve only sampled it so far, not enough to write a review of it).

  4. It sounds excellent, Guy – the quotes are very insightful. I’ll recommend it to out library network to see if they can get hold of a copy as it’s the sort of reference source I would love to see on the shelves. Good to know that it’s easy to get to grips with and highly readable – that really helps.

  5. I meant to add that the Americanization concept (which resonates with me as well) can manifest itself in other ways too, particularly in the use/choice of certain words on the part of the translator. If the language starts to sound rather Americanized in places, then it can feel as though some of cultural identity/flavour of the original text has been lost in translation.

    • I agree. This book doesn’t go into which translations are best as the author is tackling books that made it to translation at all. Some people don’t seem to mind the Americanisms or ‘updating’ of dialogue but I think it makes a book sound unauthentic.

  6. I tend to really like good reference books about books. They are double edged sword for me as they tend to raise the my already unmanageable number of books that I want to read.

    You raise some really good points about translation and the American reading market. In the end a greater number of translations are a good think. I am glad to hear that there are small publishers out titles that would not otherwise be published.

  7. I’ve dipped in and out of the Complete Review website for years, it’s a fabulous resource which it sounds like has been recreated in a hard copy format here. A curious choice to do that, but a nice acknowledgement all the same.

    Like you say Guy it’s the commitment, genuine interest and variety of Orthofer’s approach that makes it so rich. His reviews can be idiosyncratic but that’s part of the attraction.

  8. i can echo your frustration re the cost of some of the translated works. I found some African authors that I really would like to get to know but baulked at prices of $80 for a second hand copy. If bookshops don’t do much to promote translated works, it gets even worse when you try using the library system

  9. Sounds like a really useful book, and I enjoyed those insights you shared.

    I’m not sure I fully understand the criticism of The Joy Luck Club per se though I understand the overall principle. I don’t see a problem with someone exploring the challenge of second generation people finding their way between two cultures. I do understand though that the famed insularity of Americans might mean that they never extend to read books written by, say, Chinese, as well as by Chinese Americans.

    As for that out-of-sequence business, you can understand why, but it is mighty frustrating.

    • On a personal level, I found the Joy Luck Club formulaic and sappy. And for that reason I never understood its popularity, but then the book guide offered an explanation of the success of this type of genre which made a lot of sense to me.

      And no I don’t see the problem with a reader wanting to read a book about second generation immigrants. I think the author was just explaining that that type of book is a fairly easy sell in terms of potential success over a translated book.

      Films with subtitles (and I’m moving away from the book here) are a notorious hard sell for the American audience. I read a number once somewhere and was shocked, so a book like this, made into a film, would give an audience the flavor of a foreign film without the rigor of subtitles.

      • Oh yes Guy, I understood the author’s general point and I thought it was very well made. I just don’t agree that the other books don’t also have value, which is sort of what I thought you were implying. It is a worry that Americans seem to want what is only comprehensible to them … That’s what made the male character’s job in The accidental tourist so funny, satiric and unforgettable.

        As for subtitled movies. I think you’d find that here too. They tend not to do well. They’re too much hard work for some! That may be a bigger issue than lack of interest in a different culture, here anyhow.

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