Michael Orthofer on Why Fiction Matters (Ep. 11)
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Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.
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You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Michael Orthofer is a man on a mission. In a recent profile of him, New Yorker magazine wrote, “He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year.”
Of course, these numbers are now badly out of date. Michael’s specialty is fiction, in particular world literature and fiction in translation. So we’re here today to talk about books and fiction with Michael Orthofer. Hello, Michael. Thank you for coming.
MICHAEL ORTHOFER: Hi, Tyler. Thank you for having me.
On why we should read fiction
COWEN: Let me start first with a question that’s a little bit expansive. Now, if we think about fiction, for all the wonderful novels we read, it turns out to be the case the events in those novels didn’t actually happen, right? Even especially vivid works like Lord of the Rings — those are not real events.
If we’re reading for some reason, to learn things or be moved emotionally, why is it that things that didn’t happen have so much power for you or other readers, relative to things that did happen? Why is fiction so special?
ORTHOFER: Well, I think being not tied down to the actual events, allowing the imagination to roam, really, writers are able to do amazing things. And I think that’s what we get out of it.
That nonfiction, the description of what has actually happened — first of all, it’s also very difficult to capture just precisely what has happened. And often fiction allows you to go beyond that, to imagine the reasons behind it, which you might not be able to if you were doing just purely following the facts, so to speak.
COWEN: But say we think of it in marginal terms. You know, I’m an economist, so if I say, “Well, reading Hamlet, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen” — of course that was essential for one’s own education, to speak to other people. The core — I don’t know if you’d quite call them ideas — but inspirations in those works move people’s lives.
But at the margin, given how much you read — and you know, I read a fair amount of fiction, too — how much value is there really for that marginal work of fiction, given the regularity of patterns of stories that we see? What is it you get out of the marginal work of fiction?
ORTHOFER: Well, it varies. I mean, I have to admit that a great deal that I read I don’t get that much out of. And you really — I think one of the reasons I do read as much as I do is because it really takes that whole mass to really find all the different things you’re looking for in it.
But I definitely think it really expands my horizons in a way that other things can’t. Travel, talking to people, meeting people, reading the newspaper, following current events — those things obviously also help you understand the world better, but I think fiction adds a totally different dimension to it. And truly great fiction really can take you much farther than other things can, I think.
COWEN: There’s a book I read a review of — I’m sure you’ve heard of it, maybe read it — Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Very positive reviews, right? It’s 704 pages, and they’re fairly dense pages.
I thought of reading the book, and then I sat down and I said to myself, “With the time it would take me to read this book, I could fly to Jamaica and spend an additional three days.” I’ve only been to Jamaica once. And therefore, it didn’t make sense for me to read the book. How do you feel about that reasoning?
ORTHOFER: Well, I’m full of admiration if you think you could capture — you know, if spending three days in Jamaica would be the equivalent. I don’t think it’s equivalent. I think it really is a separate experience.
I think also many people don’t have the possibility of just traveling, and reading a book is much simpler. The access is always there. So you really can pick whatever strikes your mood, which — you know, if you commit to three days in Jamaica, you’re stuck in Jamaica for three days, and maybe it turns out that isn’t really what you wanted.
But I think the Marlon James adventure, his way of seeing it — one of the things we have to remember, when someone is writing a book, a work of fiction, there’s usually years of work in that. And I think that is reflected in the final product.
The final product might seem like a compact 700-page book — that’s already a very long one — but there is so much that is being worked through in that. And in good fiction, in great fiction, the work itself reflects that.
COWEN: If we take American citizens, who are not necessarily the people who read you, but at the margin, we could give them more nonfiction, we could give them more travel, we could give them more fiction, or we could actually give them more of some really good TV, which of those things are we rooting for them to do more of, at the margin?
ORTHOFER: At the margin, I would think travel. I think really the experience of the foreign place would be the most benefit, because I think most people really don’t get that, don’t have that opportunity. I don’t think they need more TV. I think TV is pretty well covered in this country [laughs]. Everyone gets their fill or the proper — or probably more than the proper — dose.
But I think fiction is up there. I think fiction is an important part of it as well. And it’s such an easy part to get to, as well, so I think people should take advantage of that. In that sense the marginal cost is relatively low, since you can just go to your local library, to the local bookstore, and you have such a wide selection.
COWEN: See, I’m actually inclined to give them the marginal dose of TV.
COWEN: I think people absorb it and process it better. And the fact that they watch a lot of TV means they’re good at it. You’re very good at reading fiction. You absorb it and process it very well. So TV shows really stick with people. If, at the margin, you’re giving people quality TV, it might even be my choice over travel.
A lot of people come away from travel alienated. They don’t always enjoy travel. They may vaguely feel it was good for them. They had to make too many decisions, and they argue with each other.
ORTHOFER: All right. I can see that.
COWEN: The general mix, like what people do versus what they really enjoy, I find interesting. Now, on your — you have a blog which has two parts. One is called Literary Saloon. The other is Complete Review. But I think of them as one integrated entity. You review books on a very regular basis, and most of all you review books which are being translated from other languages into English. Is that a fair way to put it?
ORTHOFER: Yes, foreign fiction dominates. Yes.
On the value of foreign fiction
COWEN: Yes. Why the appeal of foreign-language fiction to you? What catches you there?
ORTHOFER: Well, in part it also came about — I started the site in 1999. It’s been around a long time. And one of the reasons I started it was because I saw how many people were posting book reviews online. And suddenly you had the possibility of getting book reviews not just from your local paper or from the national magazines but from anywhere in the world.
And one of the things that struck me — and this also partly has to do with the timing in American publishing and American book reviewing — is that there was very little coverage of especially translated fiction, which would be much more popular, say, in the 1970s. Suddenly we had reached a real low point, and so I made a conscious effort also to move in that direction.
But aside from that, I also find foreign fiction more interesting in a way. It’s not that I find foreign fiction more interesting than American or British fiction. But just — I think it’s better to read from everywhere, from all over the place, rather than one specific locale.
I also find foreign fiction more interesting in a way. It’s not that I find foreign fiction more interesting than American or British fiction. But just — I think it’s better to read from everywhere, from all over the place, rather than one specific locale.
COWEN: What’s your theory of America? Where have we gone wrong? You say correctly there was more interest in foreign fiction in the 1970s, right? We’ve moved away from that. Why has that happened? What’s the institutional failure behind that? You could say lack of someone like you may be part of it, but you’re here now. It’s still the case.
A novel comes out in American English, and they try to hide the fact that it was translated, quite often. I’m sure you’ve seen this, or maybe not seen it.
ORTHOFER: Right. Well, I think, actually, things have improved a lot in the time I’ve been running the site. I think a major reason was that there was a generational shift from, especially, the publishing world. The publishers would come across from Europe around World War II, who obviously had brought a lot of international fiction, who were aware of what was being written elsewhere in the world — mainly in Europe, unfortunately, so relatively localized as well, but still.
But you also had it with the interest in Japanese fiction, for example. There was that generation, which is also very much due to the sudden interest in Japan from World War II — the people who learned Japanese and then began translating the work. And I think there was a generational shift which played itself out most fully in the 1990s. But yeah, I’m not sure why exactly it went as far down as it did.
The wonderful thing is that translation has really been revived in the past couple of years. I think there really has been a greater interest in — especially, with smaller publishers who are really interested in publishing translations.
COWEN: But it is a kind of paradox of globalization, right? After the ’70s in particular, immigration to the United States goes up quite rapidly. There’s a lot more trade, especially with Asia. Many more Americans get passports. They travel abroad. And yet, at the same time, we’re less interested in some aspects of foreign literature.
Maybe there’s something more general to this. If you think of America as, in some ways, an open country, actually we’re much less willing to watch foreign films than are people from most other countries.
Then you go to Canada, for all of its talk of cultural protectionism — they do a small amount of it — or Paris, arguably they’re, in many ways, more open to foreign cultures than America. What’s the general paradoxical lesson about globalization we can pull out of all of this?
ORTHOFER: It might be a cultural thing that America has, in many ways, always been sort of integrating. It has integrated the immigrants that have come in, and it has valued that they become American, that they adopt American values. And part of that has been leaving behind, to a certain extent, the culture.
I think there’s a great amount of literature of sort of the first-, second-, third-generation Americans and — but it’s almost all in English. And there’s very little of returning to the languages that these immigrants brought with them.
On the other hand, it’s fascinating how many foreign authors live, especially in university settings, in the United States. But they live in these sort of isolated pockets. They’re not part of the broader American literary culture, which I find a bizarre paradox. I don’t quite understand why that happens.
COWEN: Let me tell you an argument about New York City which I occasionally hear. And I know it’s not true about you, but whether you think it’s true at all. And it gets at these paradoxes of globalization. That in some ways New York City, or maybe just Manhattan, is fairly provincial because people think — and they’re led to believe — that the whole world comes here.
In some ways that’s true, both tourism and migration, but you don’t actually get the whole world here at all. You get a highly processed, filtered version of a bit of it from each particular region. Then people here, in a way, become more inward looking. They don’t go as many other places. They feel everything is right here. They get into their routines.
And is it possible that parts of Manhattan are evolving into this highly provincial place because of these cultural paradoxes?
ORTHOFER: I think so, although New York still remains such a dynamic place because you also have great shifts in what populations come here and how that affects the city, I think. And so there is that dynamism, the changing neighborhoods. I still think, in that sense, it is a very vibrant city. And it’s fairly unprovincial for a metropolitan city, compared to even some European — I mean, I’m from Austria, and Vienna is a cosmopolitan city, but in the end of things, it is — .
COWEN: Still Vienna.
ORTHOFER: It is, yeah.
On hacking books
COWEN: My friend Ben Casnocha — he’s always talking to me about this idea of life hacks, like advice where you can live your life or learn things more efficiently. Let’s say I was approaching foreign-language literature in translation as an economist, and the following life hack occurred to me. I’m going to lay it out, and you tell me why it’s wrong.
There’s always more to read, always more wonderful things to read in all of the major languages. But if you can read a language fluently, usually you’ll enjoy the fiction or poetry in that language much more. You’re not going to run out of things to read in the languages you can read in.
Therefore, in translated literature, you should read the very most famous works. If you don’t read Russian, yes, read Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace and a few things, and then stop. And if you read, say, English, Spanish, and French, then just read in those languages. Translated literature — at the margin, put it aside; never look at it again. That’s not what you do, but what’s wrong with that argument?
ORTHOFER: I think you’re really missing so much, because the problem is finding what is of value, what is important. And I mean, we have these established books like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, but Russian literature goes so much deeper, for example, to take just an example of a big language.
It also changes with time so rapidly. I think that in every 10‑year period, you could select a new set of a dozen recent — relatively recent, of the past quarter-century from that culture — works which would give you a completely different view and provide you with a completely different experience.
And the bigger problem I see, of course, is that you’re missing out on so much literature from elsewhere, that there really is — for a lot of cultures and languages, there isn’t that standout that you know. You know, Russia, Tolstoy, got it.
But if you want to read something from the Philippines, you’re unlikely to be able to find that one author. There are so many other languages and cultures. There is so much being written now which it really is worthwhile keeping up with.
COWEN: Would you agree, then, that it’s a good life hack, say, for poetry? If I try to read poetry originally written in Russian — I don’t speak Russian. I understand some of it. I know enough to get that I’m not getting it when I read it in English. It just doesn’t come through, no matter how great the poet, and I don’t enjoy it that much.
So in this case I followed the life hack. I just don’t read poetry in Russian, and I feel that’s efficient. Do you agree with that when it comes to poetry? But I do read poetry in the languages I read well.
ORTHOFER: Poetry is a bit more difficult because, first of all, there seems a lot more with less poetry that stands out. It’s very difficult, often, to recognize the great poetry of the day in the time being, especially with modern poetry. I find it very difficult to get a sense of what I really should be focusing on.
So I mean, I guess it is a useful life hack because, really, there is only so much we can read. I might very well act similarly with poetry, because I don’t spend that much time reading poetry, but with fiction I wouldn’t accept it. No.
COWEN: Here’s another life hack which I totally reject, but it may just be because I’m an addict of sorts. You tell me why, for you, it’s wrong.
A lot of people say to me, “Well, I love fiction, but I’m never going to read new works because I can’t tell what’s really good. I’ll just wait 20 years and then look back on what was truly excellent from 20 years ago and read that 20 years later. In the meantime, now I’ll just read classics or things in other areas which are verified as being truly excellent.” Does that make sense?
ORTHOFER: I worry very much about people who rely on what gets that stamp of approval. Just because it has a cover review in the New York Times Book Review does not mean that that book really is, if we look at it from five or ten years down the road — that that book will still be a significant work. I find so much which is highly praised at any one point long‑term won’t be. Again, however — .
I worry very much about people who rely on what gets that stamp of approval. Just because it has a cover review in the New York Times Book Review does not mean that that book really is, if we look at it from five or ten years down the road — that that book will still be a significant work.
COWEN: Then wait longer. Wait 30 years.
ORTHOFER: Much that we look back on, is — we’ve lost in the margins as well because it’s really hard to keep track of all the great books. We saw at the Strand earlier today Stoner, John Williams. This is a book that disappeared from view for a long time. It was always recognized, sort of. People would say, “This is a great book,” but it had really fallen out of view. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai was just republished.
COWEN: I just ordered it on Amazon. I’m excited to get my copy. I didn’t know about it.
ORTHOFER: This was sort of a — not legendary text, but it had gotten a great deal of attention when it first came out. Then, through an odd series of coincidences, it just sort of fell from view. There are many, many, many more books which are in this gray zone where, if you really dig, if you really look, you can still pluck them out. But because there’s so much new work being published, it’s very difficult for it to rise out of that noise.
COWEN: Say I’m an American, but I’m someone who doesn’t have as much time to read as you do or I do. I’m only going to take away one book tip from this podcast or video. I’m going to walk into a Barnes and Noble or go to Amazon, and I want to buy a new book.
At the margin, what’s the piece of information I should have that will help me make a better decision other than just saying, “Well, go to Literary Saloon and see what I tell you to do.” More generally, I forgot my iPad, I’m in Strand or Barnes and Noble.
ORTHOFER: Well, I think, depending on the bookstore — but it works, probably, even for many of the Barnes and Noble ones — I really think you should have some faith in the staff that they will be able to best guide you. I’m certain at Strand, for example, which — the booksellers there are book lovers — if you give them a bit of information about what would be suitable for you, that they will be able to guide you. I like to think that the Complete Review is meant to guide readers to their books, right?
COWEN: Of course.
ORTHOFER: I think on the more localized level in the bookstore, you hopefully get that as well.
COWEN: I think I’ve bought more than a hundred books because of you, so I thank you for that. Let’s say now I’m someone who more or less reads for a living. Maybe I write books, or I’m a book reviewer, or I’m a certain kind of journalist, or I work in publishing.
You can give me advice at the margin — how to make a better book choice, something to buy and read. For that kind of person, it’s harder to give advice, right?
ORTHOFER: Very much so.
COWEN: What would your advice be?
ORTHOFER: I don’t know that I would — I don’t really have a system for picking books myself. I’m very much — .
COWEN: That can’t be true. You may not have articulated your system. But I saw you in the Strand. You have rules and principles. You turn the corner at a certain time. You know what sections to go to.
ORTHOFER: Right. It’s a very personal selection process, I think. I think it’s whatever information works for you. One source of information, for example, is seeing what imprint has published — a certain publisher. If New Directions or New York Review Books has brought out a volume, you know possibly what kind of book this might be. That helps narrow it down.
Used-book stores — you have to be familiar with the older imprints, for example, which just takes a lot of practice, I guess. That, for example, is one of the sources of information. It’s very difficult, I think, to narrow it down.
I think that’s one of the wonderful things of going in a bookstore and of being willing to take a chance and pick up something that hasn’t been shoved down your throat, hasn’t been recommended in 15 different publications, because the offerings out there are so rich that you can really find many things just at the extremes.
I think that’s one of the wonderful things of going in a bookstore and of being willing to take a chance and pick up something that hasn’t been shoved down your throat, hasn’t been recommended in 15 different publications, because the offerings out there are so rich that you can really find many things just at the extremes.
COWEN: I once did an experiment. I went into a bookstore, and I said, “I’m just going to pick out the book whose cover I like the best and put aside whatever other impressions I might have of that book and really see this through,” just to see how good of a predictor that would be.
I ended up liking the cover of a Kate Christensen novel. I then liked the novel, and I’ve liked some of her subsequent writing. When it comes to covers, covers are there, in a way, to trick us, but there’s also a kind of matching going on.
It signals, maybe, how intellectual the book is or what kind of person should buy or read that book. You see a cover. How do you decipher or decode the information there? If you like the cover, does it sway you?
ORTHOFER: It can sway me, but it rarely does. I’m not a big cover person. I’m really a text person, not an image person. And so I try to see beyond the cover, but the aesthetics obviously do play somewhat of a role. But it’s a very — I think a cover can attract my attention but won’t be decisive. I don’t think anything about a cover could convince me that this is a book I must have. I think I will leaf beyond that, but it can get me to pick up the book.
COWEN: Say a parent comes to you. The parent says, “I have a 12‑year‑old, smart child, shows some interest in now wanting to read,” what advice do you give that parent for hooking the child on reading? Since you yourself — your whole life, you’ve had this extreme, intense love of reading — maybe you were born with it — but how do people get hooked on reading? What do you tell that parent?
ORTHOFER: I think you want to let them loose in a book environment, in the library, in the bookstore. And you want to give them the freedom to explore for themselves, because I think reading is very much a personal thing, especially in childhood and especially when parents are often tempted to — “Well, is this a book that’s good for the kid?”
I think you want to avoid that, because the child has a completely different perspective and really has to want to read the book. I think by letting them make their own choices, their own selections, finding their own way, and not really pressuring them. I don’t think you want to say, “Reading is good for you. You have to read whatever it is.” Just make it easy for them to read whatever they want to read.
COWEN: You know what I did a few times with Yana? I’d put a book on the table. I’d point at it. I’d say, “You’re not ready for this yet.” Then I’d just walk away.
ORTHOFER: [laughs] That’s usually a good trick.
COWEN: That was fairly effective.
ORTHOFER: I can imagine, yeah.
On translations, great books, and the merits of being a completist
COWEN: Are there books which are better translated into languages other than the languages they were written in — novels?
ORTHOFER: I think there are, probably many which are, let’s say, B novels. Pulp novels, for example, can often be, especially stylistically, improved in translation. You often have so‑called literary authors translating crime authors, B-list crime authors, and they do a wonderful job of it.
There are also cases where I don’t think it’s better, but some of the most interesting — the translations that appeal most to me are those of experimental works which basically are not — you can’t translate them literally. The word‑for‑word don’t come close. The translator basically becomes a re-creator of the text and takes a new approach. Some of those are wonderful as well.
COWEN: What’s the best book that you never finished?
ORTHOFER: That I never finished? I don’t know because I really finish almost everything. It takes a lot for me to give up on a book.
COWEN: See, I don’t finish most of my books. Maybe I finish 10 percent — I’m not sure — but a clear minority. Why finish books that are not as good as the next book you could be reading in respective value terms?
ORTHOFER: Right, right. Yeah, but I can’t think of any. There are probably some long books which I haven’t made my way entirely through — let’s say Richardson’s Clarissa, which is a huge book, which I’ve never sat down to read from beginning to end.
Perhaps something like that, but nothing really strikes me, because a good book — I want to finish that book. It would have been a not-very-memorable book in any case. [laughs]
COWEN: Of the so‑called great books, what’s the one that disappointed you most?
ORTHOFER: Of the so‑called great ones? Well, it’s difficult knowing what that canon is.
COWEN: Take like Harold Bloom’s list in the back of his book, the western canon of fiction, something like that, maybe a little broader.
ORTHOFER: Yeah, no, I have difficulty with especially the verse epics. I’ve never finished the Aeneid, for example, or something like that. I have difficulty getting into some of those. I think, of the great authors, the one I have the most difficulty with is probably Dostoevsky. I’ve read most of those. I think The Prince is probably my favorite, or The Idiot, as it’s sometimes translated. I’m not a big fan of Dostoevsky.
COWEN: Tom G wrote this question in to me on Marginal Revolution: “Which are the first three books that come to mind in answer to the question, ‘What books made him feel really good after finishing them?’ Quickest answer desired.”
ORTHOFER: [laughs] Again, this is the kind of question I have great difficulty with, because I don’t know what made me feel happiest. I don’t know that the — immediate satisfaction, I couldn’t even think of one off the top of my head.
COWEN: Now, my theory of you as a reviewer and reader is that you love highly complex books that are long and very puzzling to work out what’s going on.
ORTHOFER: I do enjoy those very much, yes.
COWEN: So I’m going to bring up two or three of those, and you can tell us what’s in them for you or why we should care. Here’s volume one of a Chinese book — used to be known as Dream of the Red Chamber. Now it’s more often called Story of the Stone. Penguin translation. You’re an advocate of this book. It’s very long. This is only one volume.
ORTHOFER: Of five, yes.
COWEN: What’s in here?
ORTHOFER: Basically, it’s a family saga and basically a love story of the main character and the two women, girls when it starts out. It starts out when he was a young boy. It’s basically a novel which has everything. It’s comprehensive. It’s such a sweeping book. It’s really one that you can get lost in over a long period of time. It’s a book that is very easy to return to, because there is so much in it.
COWEN: Even though on the Wikipedia page, 40 main characters are listed, plus minor characters. That’s going to be tough going, right, even with a good translation?
ORTHOFER: It depends. I think it conveniently probably has the list of characters.
COWEN: It does, but even with a cheat sheet, 40 is hard.
ORTHOFER: Right, the main characters. There really are the central characters and the more incidental characters. The story focuses on groups of characters at a time. There are not 40 people onstage all the time, so that makes it somewhat simpler. It is initially, perhaps — if you haven’t read much Chinese fiction, the Chinese names alone can be confusing.
I don’t think — that’s the least of the hurdles to the book, I think. It’s also very accessible. It’s just a compelling story. It really describes these characters and their feelings very well — and a wonderful picture, also, of the China of the times, which is a totally different world.
COWEN: Which is the 18th century, yeah.
An author you’re a big advocate of, Arno Schmidt, right?
COWEN: You’ve written a book on him. It’s the book here. His masterwork is coming out in English, actually, translated for the first time this September. Is that correct?
COWEN: The German title is Zettels Traum. What’s the English title?
ORTHOFER: Bottom’s Dream.
COWEN: Bottom’s Dream. Most people have never heard of Arno Schmidt.
ORTHOFER: Regrettably, no.
COWEN: We have a chance now to read his masterwork. Some of his others are in English already. Tell us why we should care.
ORTHOFER: Well, Bottom’s Dream — I don’t know how many people will actually read that. That is a very complicated piece of work. Arno Schmidt is a fascinating — .
COWEN: You love it, right? You’ve written a book on Schmidt.
ORTHOFER: I do, but again, it’s on Schmidt as a whole, and Schmidt has written in several different categories. He’s also written short novels and stories which are much more accessible.
COWEN: But you giggled when you read Bottom’s Dream, right?
COWEN: You giggled a lot.
ORTHOFER: The English edition, I think, is just under 1,500 pages.
COWEN: A mere pittance compared to Dream of the Red Chamber, right?
ORTHOFER: It’s going to be about this big, and it’s written in three columns per page. There’s the main story. Then you have the commentary and not quite the footnotes but the elaborations on the side.
COWEN: Talk us into the work now.
ORTHOFER: It covers a seven‑day span. Basically it’s a story of translation. Some translators come to an expert on Poe and ask his advice about translating Poe. As the title Bottom’s Dream also suggests, there’s a Shakespearean aspect to it as well.
And I don’t even know if it’s Schmidt’s greatest work. In some ways, because it is beyond anything almost anyone else has ever tried to write, it is an immense accomplishment. It’s not the first Schmidt work you want to read.
COWEN: What’s the first Schmidt work you want to read?
ORTHOFER: If you eventually want to read Bottom’s Dream, then The School for Atheists is the one to read.
COWEN: And that’s in English now?
ORTHOFER: That’s in English now. Interestingly, the person who translated all these books is John E. Woods, who is famous for his translations of Thomas Mann. He did the definitive Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks. He’s almost been translating Arno Schmidt for decades now, and Bottom’s Dream — .
COWEN: Do you like the translations?
ORTHOFER: Yes. And Schmidt, again, is one of these writers who you really — it’s difficult to translate him just literally. In the case of Bottom’s Dream and The School for Atheists, he called them his typoscript books because they were written on larger-than-normal pieces of paper and allowed not just writing line by line, as we’re used to, but playing with the text.
For example, one of his favorite things to do was with words where you can change the beginning of the word. You have both school bus and schoolchild. He would have school as one word and then bus and child on top of each other, so you could add both meanings of the word. He would take this to the nth degree.
Bottom’s Dream and also The School for Atheists allow for incredible literary play. Schmidt is also — I read a fair amount. I read probably more than most people.
COWEN: Probably. [laughs]
ORTHOFER: Arno Schmidt is an order or two above me as a reader. He wrote a lot, but basically he’s one of the great readers of all times. And one of the reasons I also appreciate him so much is because he’s directed me to so much more reading. And there are a couple of authors — .
COWEN: He’s like you?
COWEN: Or you’re like him?
ORTHOFER: On some level, yes.
COWEN: Here’s your book out not too long ago, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. Another author you promote in this book and elsewhere, Luis Goytisolo.
ORTHOFER: Juan Goytisolo. Luis is the brother.
COWEN: But both of them you like, right?
ORTHOFER: Unfortunately, Luis — nothing of his has been translated yet, although his major work, the title of which escapes me — .
ORTHOFER: Antagonía is coming out from Dalkey Archive as well.
COWEN: Oh, I didn’t know this.
ORTHOFER: It’s the same publishers who are publishing Bottom’s Dream.
COWEN: It strikes me as a book you would love.
ORTHOFER: It does, it does, but unfortunately I have not read that yet.
COWEN: The brother, Juan — why is he special?
ORTHOFER: He writes in so many different registers. He’s not satisfied with a simple — even when he’s successful with one way of storytelling, he tries out different things, new things. He tells stories in new ways. Also, he’s been a wonderful chronicler of Spain and especially the Spanish conflict with the Islamic world, which goes back to when part of Spain was Islamic. That’s been a tension that has been in the culture for well over 1,000 years.
He has written several works which I find really superior. He’s one of those authors where you won’t get the same book you got last time. You’ll get something completely different when you pick up the next one.
He’s one of those authors who also manages to do — he’s not going to fail at these attempts. If they are failures, they’re interesting failures. That appeals to me greatly. He’s one of those authors where, if something new of his is coming out, I’m going to make a beeline for it.
On things under- and overrrated
COWEN: There’s a segment of these chats — you may have heard of it — it’s called “overrated or underrated?” I’m going to call out a few names, books, whatever. You’re free to decline if you don’t want to offend anyone or other reasons. We’ll try just a few, and you tell us overrated or underrated, J. K. Rowling?
ORTHOFER: As a writer, I feel perhaps overrated, but as a cultural phenomenon, I think perfectly fine. It’s hard to say underrated, because she is sort of the ne plus ultra of children’s writing.
COWEN: Goethe, overrated or underrated?
ORTHOFER: Especially in English, absolutely underrated. Goethe is a far more significant author than anybody here seems to realize. The TLS just has a review of a new Princeton anthology of the essential Goethe, 1,000 pages.
You can’t stuff him into 1,000 pages because there is so much there and so much variety, too, which is also one of the astonishing things. He is the greatest poet of the times, the greatest dramatist of his times. And he was an astounding novelist as well.
COWEN: And scientist, a good scientist.
ORTHOFER: Yes, and the Conversations with Eckermann and Soret. You have all these different things which are just superior. In English he’s vastly underrated. In Germany I think they get it. They know.
COWEN: Angela Merkel, underrated or overrated?
ORTHOFER: [laughs] I actually have not ever read anything by Angela Merkel.
COWEN: Not as a writer, as a political leader.
ORTHOFER: Again, it probably depends where — I admire her. I think, among the political leaders currently operating in Europe, and especially since we’re speaking shortly after the whole Brexit vote and the turnover that happened in England there, I think she’s probably underrated.
COWEN: Herman Melville?
ORTHOFER: Probably also underrated.
COWEN: We’re agreeing on all these so far, if you’re curious.
ORTHOFER: [laughs] All right. Yeah, I think people also don’t range far enough with Melville. When the argument of the great American novel comes up, I always make a plug for The Confidence-Man, which I think is representative. It says so much about America that I think that would be my choice for the great American novel, and especially from Melville. Yeah, I think he’s also underrated.
I think people also don’t range far enough with Melville. When the argument of the great American novel comes up, I always make a plug for The Confidence-Man, which I think is representative. It says so much about America that I think that would be my choice for the great American novel, and especially from Melville. Yeah, I think he’s also underrated.
COWEN: Thomas Bernhard?
ORTHOFER: He’s very fashionable, but also I don’t think he can be underrated. I’m also completely behind him. I think he was a remarkable author I’ve always enjoyed. Even though there is a droning similarity to much of his bitter ranting, it completely wins me over. I don’t think I’ve been disappointed by any Bernhard.
COWEN: Wittgenstein’s Nephew is my favorite and then The Loser, Der Untergeher. But all of them, I think, are fantastic. For me, very underrated.
Another Austrian, Friedrich A. Hayek, the economist? Again, you’re free to pass.
ORTHOFER: I perhaps don’t like what his arguments are always employed for. I mean, currently he’s, obviously, a very popular economist to rely on. I think it gets dangerous with the interpretation of the philosophy. I’m a bit more leery of too much enthusiasm for him — but again, obviously such a significant figure that it’s very difficult to underrate him, I think.
COWEN: For fiction, what would be the country or region — now, what’s a country, what’s a region is even up for grabs — that is really underappreciated relative to what it has done? If you say, “Oh, classic Russian fiction,” even if people haven’t read it, people know there’s a lot there. You probably wouldn’t pick that. What’s the counterintuitive pick for most underrated region or country for wonderful fiction?
ORTHOFER: Underrated, I would absolutely think the regional language and literature of India. I think surprisingly, even though, perhaps, English is the main literary language of India and a great deal is locally translated, even there much of the vernacular literature still isn’t available in English.
What one can see of it and also in part hear about it — we’re missing an awful lot. There is a literary culture there, especially, for example, in Bengali, but we’ve had that since Tagore. One of the remarkable things is Tagore won his Nobel prize over a hundred years ago, and there are still novels by him which haven’t been translated into English. He is really a very good novelist.
It’s truly worthwhile, and this goes for many regions. The southern region of Kerala where they write in Malayalam — there’s remarkable literary production there, and we just see so little of it. Also, what is available, because a fair amount is — it tends to be underappreciated, especially in America and the United Kingdom. It hasn’t really reached these shores.
COWEN: Would you pick any part of the world as overrated for literature? In a way I know you think it’s all underrated, but in relative terms?
ORTHOFER: I think the American dominance is still too overbearing worldwide.
COWEN: We agree on this, too. I’m happy to hear you say that, but go on.
ORTHOFER: [laughs] I think American literature is too often given a free pass, especially abroad, because we’re so used to it being so dominant. I really think, if any is overrated, it is American fiction.
I think American literature is too often given a free pass, especially abroad, because we’re so used to it being so dominant. I really think, if any is overrated, it is American fiction.
COWEN: Most of it bores me. One of my pieces of advice for people going to a bookstore — I would just say, “Don’t buy an American novel,” all other things equal, because they’re fairly likely to do so. They’re more likely to have heard of it, without any kind of bias necessarily operating. “Refuse to buy American novels for a year,” I think, is a good piece of advice for a lot of people.
ORTHOFER: That is, probably. Yes, that probably is.
COWEN: If you think of all of your beliefs about literature, books, fiction — or you can go more broadly if you’d like — what’s the belief you hold that other smart people you respect would find the most absurd? If someone said, “Oh, I think Robert Heinlein is the greatest author ever to have walked on Earth,” that would be considered absurd.
It’s not my belief, probably not yours. What’s your craziest view relative to the other people you think are smart and respect?
ORTHOFER: In a literary sense?
COWEN: You can go broader if you want. Start with literary.
ORTHOFER: Oh God, I don’t know. My opinions are so firmly held. I believe them to be so obvious.
COWEN: No, you may still think you’re right.
ORTHOFER: Right, but see, I don’t know.
COWEN: But other people don’t agree.
ORTHOFER: I don’t get those disagreements. They don’t dare disagree to my face, apparently. I really don’t know. Nothing comes obviously to mind.
COWEN: And more generally?
ORTHOFER: Also not. More generally, I guess the standout belief is I don’t see myself having the concern for mortality which most other people seem to have. That seems to be a very popular thing in reading, as well, that there’s this obsession with mortality, which I find a bit odd.
COWEN: You think we fear death too much?
ORTHOFER: Yes, and many people seem to really obsess about it in a certain sense. That’s something — I don’t think necessarily my opinion is strange. It’s something so foreign to me. The other thing is, also, I have great difficulty with religion.
The God concept is just — I can’t — I really don’t know how to regard that. It is one I can’t fit into my worldview and any of my actions. Even though I read a great deal which also, again, is based on this, that part of it always remains foreign to me.
COWEN: When it comes to death, would you say death is underrated or life is overrated?
ORTHOFER: You can’t overrate life. It’s all we’ve got. Again, because I don’t believe in the religion aspect of it, too, I don’t believe in the afterlife. I definitely think life is underrated, but death is an inevitability. You take it as it comes because there’s no other way to take it.
You can’t overrate life. It’s all we’ve got. Again, because I don’t believe in the religion aspect of it, too, I don’t believe in the afterlife. I definitely think life is underrated, but death is an inevitability. You take it as it comes because there’s no other way to take it.
On the charm of the Complete Review
COWEN: Let me tell you about one of the things I find most charming about your site and your reviews. There’s this unusual mix between extreme passion for the subject, curiosity, and drive to get the books and track what’s coming out, reading them, and then a lot about how other people are reviewing the books.
If one reads your site, they don’t just get you. You get a whole broad panoply of other reviews. It’s one of the most valuable things. But then, on the other hand, you’re very hard to impress as a reader. You give these short capsules of your reviews. Here are three of your more recent ones.
ORTHOFER: Oh dear. [laughs]
COWEN: I quote: “Passable ultra‑lite fare.” Here’s another one: “Typical Carlotto tale of justice in a flawed world.” So there’s something reductionist. Here’s one — you were very enthusiastic — “Nicely done.”
I know those are shorter capsules for broader, more detailed reviews, but this mix between the blasé and the enthusiasm and how willing you are to just retreat into like, “Eh” — that’s what I find so intriguing about Literary Saloon. Is there anything you would say to that?
ORTHOFER: I hope people use the site in that way. In a way my reviews presuppose familiarity with the site. I assume that people — they look up a couple of reviews, and they get an idea of what this person is doing. The capsule reviews, I think, are a counterbalance to the longer reviews, in which, often, I will be more enthusiastic.
This ultra‑lite novel — I gave it a B. It’s perfectly competently done, but it’s just a vacuous, problematic — there’s so little to it, but it’s still perfectly readable. I hope I explained that fully in the review itself.
COWEN: You did.
ORTHOFER: The original idea behind the site was to be able to link to other reviews. And also I have the review quotes from the major review publications, where there are review quotes available, which I actually did sort of as a countermeasure.
I was so irritated by the blurbs you find on the back of the paperback editions, which are not at all representative of the reviews of the book. I wanted to give the honest blurbs of the reviews. It’s always been important to me that my opinion is my opinion. You really should seek out as many different ones as possible.
To be able to give access to all these different reviews to point readers to — because some readers rely on a certain reviewer — if I can give them the link to that for this book so that they will get an opinion which, perhaps, is more informative to them than mine can be because they don’t see eye to eye with me, I think that’s a very important thing.
Having as many different opinions as possible — to me that always seems beneficial. I realize now we have this issue of whether the wisdom of crowds really is wisdom and whether it doesn’t overcomplicate matters as well. But it’s always been important to me that I have very strongly held opinions, but please also consider the other opinions.
COWEN: Other reviews — and here I mean media, not bloggers — how corrupt are they?
ORTHOFER: Corrupt in what sense?
COWEN: That there’s something in the process which involves favoritism, and maybe there’s an incentive for excess enthusiasm. If your book review section reviews thirteen books and says they’re all mediocre, people won’t buy the books, but more importantly, they’ll stop buying your book review section. Right?
COWEN: Do you think there’s, for instance, an incentive to be too positive or some other skew?
ORTHOFER: I don’t know that it’s as blatant as that. I definitely think editors certainly prefer positive reviews. There are some newspapers which basically won’t print negative reviews. I think that’s always an issue. They can say, “Well, we preselect. That’s the way we do it.”
One of the things I love about how I’m able to review books is that I’ll review almost anything. I will actually review it even if I do not enjoy the book, even if I have immense problems with the book, because I think that’s just — .
COWEN: You don’t put them down like I do. Take New York Times or Amazon; I know there’s both. If you had to choose, which do you trust more?
ORTHOFER: I don’t know if I can — I like Amazon because I can get a lot of information out of Amazon, the way the information is presented and, in part, with the reviews, depending on how widely it’s been reviewed.
Part of the problem with the New York Times, of course, is that they can only review so few books. You have really so little information, or information about so few titles, whereas Amazon, you have at least some information about practically everything. In that sense, Goodreads is perhaps even more useful, especially with the foreign-language books. There will usually at least be people who have already reviewed the foreign-language edition. That’s helpful.
One of the things I find remarkable about my site is I try to link to big media reviews. And an extraordinary number of the books which I cover basically go unreviewed in the major media, often even in Publishers Weekly, which I find kind of shocking. I do review obscure books, but it’s not that obscure.
Basically what they do is when they find reviews in three of the publications they monitor — which are basically all American major publications and a few Internet sites — if they have three reviews for a book, then they’ll put that on Book Marks with the summaries and links to the reviews. So, sort of what I do. I find maybe one out of ten of the books I cover qualify for that. I find that shocking.
On the complete Michael Orthofer
COWEN: We know you can read in a lot of different languages, and we know you read a lot of books. To close, what are three other things about yourself you might want to tell us, not to do with books?
ORTHOFER: I don’t know that anyone would find anything interesting about me. I don’t know what could possibly — .
COWEN: Ice sculpture, perhaps?
ORTHOFER: The ice sculpture.
COWEN: Dare I mention it?
ORTHOFER: You can mention it.
COWEN: You’re a fan of doing ice sculpture.
ORTHOFER: I am. Basically, when there’s a lot of snow out, I won’t just build a snowman, but I will try to sculpt as much as I can out of the snow.
I enjoy doing that because the snow is always different. The conditions are always different. What you can make out of it is different. It’s also completely transitory. It’s gone usually in a short time, sometimes a few weeks or months. It’s the Andy Goldsworthy sculptures in nature taken to the more extreme, because the snow is obviously really very short lasting. It also shape‑shifts as it collapses, as it falls apart.
COWEN: You were born in Graz, Austria, right?
ORTHOFER: I was, yes.
COWEN: You have a background in law. Is that correct?
ORTHOFER: I do. I have a degree in law. I’m a New York State lawyer.
COWEN: You were put off by the academic nature of formal literary study because it involved so little reading of books and too much theory?
ORTHOFER: Very much so, yes. I was disappointed at university. Basically, you could study literature without reading basically, without reading fiction especially, and more importantly without really engaging in fiction, I think. Literature can lend itself to theory. You can build theory around it, but I don’t find that a useful way of dealing with literature.
COWEN: Anyway, thank you very much, Michael. Again, this is Michael’s book, Columbia University Press, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. Michael Orthofer, in my opinion still vastly underrated.
ORTHOFER: [laughs] Thank you so much.