What should I ask Michael Orthofer?

by on June 30, 2016 at 12:47 am in Books, Education, Web/Tech | Permalink

Soon I will be recording a podcast-only, no live attendance, no live video Conversations with Tyler with Michael Orthofer.  Michael runs the site Literary Saloon and is perhaps the world’s most productive book reviewer and book review blogger, with a focus on foreign fiction translated into English.  Michael is a deeply devoted infovore, and I expect this to be one of the most interesting conversations in the series.

Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever.  Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course.  The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.”

Here is the New Yorker profile of Orthofer:

“I can’t imagine not doing it,” Orthofer told me. “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.” His goal is to read a book a day, though he confesses that this is “unrealistic.” He works on weekends, too, and has written four novels that are in the drawer. His main interests, according to the site, are inline roller-skating in Central Park and building snow sculptures, some of which are big enough that he carves staircases inside them to get to the top. When he tires of working, he steps out to a library or bookstore, “to see, be around books.” Last year, and this year, he worked through Christmas.

OK, so what should I ask Michael?  Comments are open.

Addendum: Here are previous installments of Conversations with Tyler.

1 Brett Thomas June 30, 2016 at 12:50 am

Without having read the book you recommend – did he include “My Struggle” in “Contemporary Fiction?” If not, why not? If so, why so?

2 Aidan June 30, 2016 at 1:18 am

“In your experience, which authors lose the most and the least in translation?”

“J. K. Rowling, under-rated or over-rated?”

“Umberto Eco, under-rated or over-rated?”

“Angela Merkel, under-rated or over-rated?”

“Goethe, under-rated or over-rated?”

3 Aidan June 30, 2016 at 5:39 am

“If I only read three (generally unknown) books under two hundred pages in length this year, which should they be?”

“In terms of artistic achievement (rather than economic, social or cultural impact) what are the greatest successes of German to English translation?”

4 Maybe it's me but... June 30, 2016 at 1:30 am

I think we should focus more in what unites us instead of what divides us. Sorry, but it’s just how I feel…

5 wwebd June 30, 2016 at 1:41 am

“Finnegans Wake is, after the minimal effort of learning 5 or 6 hundred words in Irish, almost as good as Proust or Austen” :true or false?
How many novels in the world – less than ten , less than a hundred, less than a thousand – need to be read very slowly?
On an airplane flight around the world you can sit next to any (living or dead) novelist you want, who do you choose? Which novelist would you want to knock on your door with a religious tract in hand?

6 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 1:51 am

“His main interests, according to the site, are inline roller-skating in Central Park and building snow sculptures, some of which are big enough that he carves staircases inside them to get to the top.”
I used to think it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_anti-asylum_movement) was another “jabuticaba” (a catchall for things, usually bad, thought to be exclusive to Brazil), but it seems to be an American problem as well (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinstitutionalisation). Seriously, guys, sick people need help.

7 fallibilist June 30, 2016 at 10:05 am

This response is unkind. Try to do better in the future.

8 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 11:35 am

Is there anything kinder than help those a selfish society abandoned? I do not think so.

9 AG June 30, 2016 at 2:05 pm

It appears you are deciding that what isnt’ good for you isn’t good for him. It seems you are holding yourself out as better than the selfish society that doesn’t agree with you that what’s good for you is also good for him. You are not being kind with your statements, you are being condescending. Further, it assumes a lot about the capacity of the person in question to support himself (versus living a life as you would choose for him). If i were to judge you from this one statement, you can’t seem to see beyond your own contempt for alternative lifestyles. Hopefully your other traits outside of forum comments make up for lack of empathy to those that make different choices than your own.

10 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 4:47 pm

“It appears you are deciding that what isnt’ good for you isn’t good for him.”
Evidently someone has to make this decision. Someone did it for Charles Manson and someone else did it for Nathanael Lee. Life is like that. Some people must be protected from themselves, and it is terrible that budget cuts and/or a misguided ideology are preventing people in Brazil, the USA and elsewhere from being helped.
” your other traits outside of forum comments make up for lack of empathy to those that make different choices than your own.”
I have enough empathy to care about other people’s social maladjustment.
“If i were to judge you from this one statement, you can’t seem to see beyond your own contempt for alternative lifestyles.”
I have contempt about for people’s mental conditions, but not for the people themselves, I hope they are helped, it is our duty as a society to see it that they are helped.

11 Pshrnk June 30, 2016 at 11:47 am

Whether he is sick or not he is helping himself. Do not criticize harmless coping mechanisms. Its not like he is a meth-head claiming to self-medicate.

12 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 1:26 pm

The point is, a fellow human is self-destroying and you would rather see him crash and burn for your selfish and base amusement than say anything.

13 sort_of_knowledgable June 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Inline roller skating is a mainstream activity so I assume you are referring to building large snow sculptures as being a sign of illness. Do you consider people who spend days making sculptures out of wood or stone mentally ill? Do you consider children who make snowmen mentally ill? How is his activities more a sign of mental illness than people spending a few recreational days skiing, going to Disneyland, or adding a deck to the house?

14 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Are you talking seriously? Even today, with all the anti-asylum mumbo-jumbo, a grown man making sand castles (we have snow only in very few cities during very short periods) or roller skating around would be commited to some kind of institution or at least be kept under a watchful eye (or, given the systemic shortages of health professionals and hospital beds, get a number in line for eventual treatment). As a country, we are painfully aware of the economic and humanitarian costs of mental illness (we are not alone, Goldwater’s previous breakdowns rumors probably did as much to destroy his presidential dreams as anything else ). The old Emperor himself was somewhat ill in his last days–so was one of his grandsons– , and one Brazilian president was crazy in the early 20 th Century . We learned with our mistakes, it would be almost impossible for a crazy person be elected vice-president (and then become president) as he did nowadays.

15 sort_of_knowledgable June 30, 2016 at 10:19 pm

So you apparently you consider any recreational activity performed by an adult that is also performed by children to be a sign of mental illness or lack of mental development on the adult. This is false. All those people who continued to ride bicycles as adults are not mentally ill.

Inline skating is often a substitute for ice skating which is an adult and Olympic activity. Just because snow and sand is a more accessible material for children to make figures with rather than stone, wood or casting metal doesn’t mean adults are childish and mentally ill for sculpting with these materials.
There are festivals around the world where adults make ice and sand sculptures.


Your rigidity as to what constitutes mentally competent adult behavior is an indication you have less mental development than Mr. Orthofer who is apparently managing his affairs quite well.

16 sort_of_knowledgable June 30, 2016 at 10:20 pm
17 Thiago Ribeiro July 1, 2016 at 5:32 am

A bicycle, like walking, is basically a means to get from point A to point B while exercising. There is a reason when I walk to work I see lots of bicycles, electric bicycles, motorcycles, cars and buses and people walking, but I see no one– except children, and strange children at it–skating around. We had a president who tried to show himself as athletic, brave and intelligent: he went to work carrying big books, he used to run on Sundays in front of TV cameras, he piloted fighter aircraft, he piloted jet ski, he drove race cars, he parachuted once, I think, but he didn’t skate around or made sand castles– because even such a narcissist understands it would be ridiculous and beneath a man’s dignity .

18 anon from cl June 30, 2016 at 11:16 pm

“He works on weekends, too,…Last year, and this year, he worked through Christmas.”
You have to understand where Thiago is coming from. In Brazil those kinds of behaviours are considered a very serious illness…

19 Thiago Ribeiro July 1, 2016 at 5:07 am

Well, most Brazilians tend to rest in the Sunday (or Saturday) and in the Christmas as well as other Church prescribed days, but Brazil is a true democratic, modern, secular, pluralist, diverse society– we have nothing in our history like your persecutions of Mormoms or your version of the numerus clausus against Jews– and I would rather not argue religion.

20 Amanda July 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm

Mate, are you seriously insinuating that building snow sculptures (or inline roller-skating[!]) is indicative of some kind of mental health issue?

21 Giselle June 30, 2016 at 1:52 am

What is the best book that you never finished? The one that you wish you’d never finished?
What is your favorite chapter, ever?

22 Lukas June 30, 2016 at 1:55 am

How can or should we assess the quality of non-fiction writing relative to fiction writing?

Would he agree with the statement that non-fiction writing matters mainly for its impact at the margin on our knowledge (“How much did I learn from this book?”), but the same is not true for fiction?

23 Joe June 30, 2016 at 2:18 am

Will you be asking questions in English, Italian, German or Czech 😉

What a scoop!

Michael is a thoughtful drawcard as he is one of the most prolific reviewers in the world …


24 Joe June 30, 2016 at 2:20 am

How Does He manage to juggle so many languages and books?

25 Peter Akuleyev June 30, 2016 at 2:41 am

Marcel Beyer just won Germany’s Georg-Büchner-Preis. His novel “Flughunde” is often cited as one of the best German novels of the last 30 years. Why has Orthofer never reviewed his work? Just a writer he hasn’t gotten around to or does he not think Beyer worth reading?

26 Thiago Ribeiro June 30, 2016 at 3:33 am

Would you read my manuscript, please?

27 otto June 30, 2016 at 4:38 am

Ask him to get those novels out of the drawer!

28 Doug T June 30, 2016 at 4:54 am

What are the five greatest works of literature in world history?

Why has poetry become an esoteric dead end?

What did movable type do to literature? What will ebooks do to literature?

Over/under rated: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, David Foster Wallace?

Which is the most beautiful language for a novel/short story/epic poem/lyric poem/sonnet/limerick?

29 Anthony June 30, 2016 at 6:48 am

I second asking whether Infinite Jest is overrated or underrated

30 LR June 30, 2016 at 10:16 am

There is no word in the English language to describe how much lower in status that book needs to go…

31 LR June 30, 2016 at 5:33 am

Bow down to greatness. Don’t mention geeky things like chess and mall based ethnic food.

32 Steve June 30, 2016 at 5:51 am

Why focus on fiction?

33 Pearl Y June 30, 2016 at 6:25 am

How often do you read a book twice before you review it? How do second readings change your opinion of books?

34 Dan June 30, 2016 at 9:12 am

What kind of law did he practice? Did he like it?

Why read fiction?

How do you shut out interruptions when reading?

35 Dan June 30, 2016 at 2:34 pm

One more: What does Orthofer think about Tim Parks’s recent article on the alleged trendiness and shallowness of western readers who try to appreciate non-western literature? Here’s the article: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/. Parks has also made similar complaints about Murakami’s western fans.

I really don’t know if Parks is right, but I figure Orthofer would be in an ideal position to give a second opinion.

36 Dan June 30, 2016 at 2:38 pm

And to be clear, here’s the passage from the Parks article I’m thinking of:

Looked at closely, the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom. Studying the thirty-four endorsements again, and the praise after the book won the prize, it occurs to me there is a shared vision of what critics would like a work of “global fiction” to be and that The Vegetarian has managed to present itself as a candidate that can be praised in those terms. Ideologically, it champions the individual (woman) against an oppressive society (about which we know nothing, except that it seems “worse” than our own). Emotionally, it allows us to feel intense sympathy for a helpless victim, which is always encouraging for our self-esteem. Aesthetically, it offers moments of surrealism—typically in the wife’s heated and unhappy imaginings, or the brother-in-law’s fantasies of vegetable couplings—which we can see as excitingly exotic and a guarantee of a lively imagination. In this regard, the slightly disorienting effect of the translation can actually reinforce our belief that we are coming up against something new and different. But above all the writing must be accessible. The foreignness and exoticism must in no way present a barrier to easy reading; “matter-of-fact short sentences,” Deborah Levy said. Some element in the work that allows the word “erotic” to be dropped in can only be positive.

Once it has been decided that the book fits the bill, all evidence of its unevenness and opportunism is set aside and thirty-four authoritative quotations are placed as guardians front and back, defying the reader to disagree. And of course if the novel is the real thing then the translation must also be excellent, instead of just perhaps okay. Curiously, this barrage of praise and prizes begins to feel, for the independent reader, rather like the strait-jacket of conformity that Han Kang’s unhappy heroine is determined to throw off.

37 fallibilist June 30, 2016 at 10:07 am

Will physical books virtually disappear, say 50 years from now, as the convenience of e-readers (or their successors) make the bulkiness of tomes impractical and obsolete?

38 fallibilist June 30, 2016 at 10:09 am

Sorry, I hit submit too soon. I know that physical books are technically already obsolete. I’m just wondering if generations in the near future will drive demand so low that the market for actual physical copies becomes a tiny, nigh-imperceptible niche like homebrewed/distilled alcohol.

39 Anon. June 30, 2016 at 10:56 am

Since he has read so widely, I’d like to know if he has noticed any correlations between socio-economic conditions and the quality of literary output. What environments generate great writers?

40 The Untranslated June 30, 2016 at 11:02 am

Which novels that haven’t been translated into any of the languages Orthofer can read would he like to see in translation most of all?

41 Whitney June 30, 2016 at 12:09 pm

How does he choose what works to review?

Has the market for translated fiction expanded/diminished in the last 20 years and, with that, have the translated works been generally of greater or lesser quality? Why does he think that is?

42 Kathleen McCookde la Peña McCook July 1, 2016 at 10:03 am

You have seemed disregarding of the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Is it because it is an award organized by librarians?

43 Kathleen de la Peña McCook July 1, 2016 at 10:18 am

Librarians world wide nominate for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. Why do you eye roll at this award?

44 John July 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Why does MO dread PDF?

45 Tom G July 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Which are the first 3 books that come to mind in answer to the question: what books made him feel really good after finishing them?
(Quickest answer desired).

What book, famous or not, after finishing it, seemed most disappointing?

What book did he most recently give as a gift? Details? (Why, who, etc.)

46 Larry July 1, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Is the translator ever visible in the work? (Are there any translators whose work you can identify without prior knowledge?)

In English, literary genres are about subject matter, not style. Is that true internationally?

47 Rahul July 2, 2016 at 4:24 am

Does he have any books that are guilty pleasures? Is “guilty pleasure” a meaningful concept for him?

Does he have a Tyrone in him?

48 Amanda July 2, 2016 at 2:31 pm

In your review for Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone, you mentioned that it’s a strong contender for “Book of the Millennium”. Is this based off the English translation?

I discovered your site through your review of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (though you gave it an A-, the review sounded glowing enough to warrant an A, and thus I read the book, enjoyed it immensely, and have since returned to your site on a daily basis). Do you have any plans on reviewing J R?

Finally, not a question but thank you for the recommendation on Pitigrilli’s Cocaine. This hidden gem of a novel is simply one of the most entertaining reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: