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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Of course, these numbers are now badly out of date.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.