I’m not lacking for things to read, but this weekend, my aperture was opened still wider.
Last summer1 Tyler Cowen2 interviewed Michael Orthofer, who is known for his prodigious reading and review of fiction from all over the world. Since I haven’t read much translated fiction, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
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.
Cowen himself reads very widely but is not immune to the feeling that there is too much to read.
COWEN: …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.
Well, that is very compelling, and it mostly convinced me in one fell swoop. Immediately, however, my mind went to how best to select the pearls from this newly expanded pool of great fiction.3 Surely I can just see what’s stood the test of time?4
COWEN: …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–.
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.
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.
There goes that idea.
Reading is how I spend most of my negotiated free time already, and now I find myself looking for more time. Time to start necking down my sleep time.
I’ve become a bit obsessed with Tyler Cowen. I listened to a half dozen or so episodes this weekend alone. His obvious preparation and the way he clearly adjusts the direction of an interview on the fly is amazing. ↩︎
In my review of this interview alone, I added six books to my list. ↩︎
This idea comes generally from Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a book I will talk a lot about here, in the future. ↩︎