The who’s who guide to world fiction: Review

guide to world fictionWhen I decided a couple of years ago it was time to broaden my reading horizons and seek out more authors outside my usual zone of UK and USA, I didn’t realise how tough it would be to find writers from certain countries. Many blog challenges that seemed promising initially turned out to simply list books set in the country not written by a native. Many websites didn’t distinguish between fiction and non fiction or just gave the author’s name but no indication of their style or genre. If it were not for one website – Complete Review – and a small number of bloggers who are passionate about reading books in translation, I would have struggled.

If only, I mused,  there was a comprehensive reference guide to authors from different parts of the world. My life would be much easier.

A fairy godmother has now granted my wish in the form of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review which operates as an aggregator site for reviews and book news. It pays particular attention to contemporary work in translation and original language from around the world.

Orthofer has now expanded that content to bring us in book format The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a superb resource for English language readers interested in fiction from around the world. The guide is divided into profiles by region and country each of which contains a commentary on literature from that part of the world and a multitude of author names to explore from 1945 to the present day. The Guide could easily just be page after page of lists but Orthofer avoids this with his short but insightful summaries about trends in each country.

How well does he have his finger on the pulse in each of these countries? I used the section on my home country of Wales as a test. Actually I was impressed to find there was  a section on literature from Wales – we’re such a small nation that we usually get overlooked or lumped in with our big neighbour England. Orthofer accurately comments that government support for the Welsh language has led to a resurgence in Welsh language writing. He gives examples of both 20th century and contemporary Welsh language writers and those writing in English (Robin Llewelyn, John Williams for example) but it was odd not to find even a mention of people who I consider to be big names from the past like Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high but I’d love to know what people from some of the countries he includes, think of his selection.

While the country profiles are  a useful gateway into each location, the part of this book I enjoyed reading most was Orthofer’s introduction in which he analyses the current state of literature in translation and why so little of it exists. American and British publishers continue to show reluctance to invest in translated works, he notes. Even the university presses concentrate on very narrow slices of international literature. Despite the presence in the United States of so many foreign authors, most of them are unknown to American readers. When the American houses do go for a work in translation “… too often it is the second-rate works – the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers – that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).”

In Europe, Germany’s support for translated works has led to greater exposure for Scandinavian and eastern European countries while readers in France benefit from the more generous support given to translation in that country.  Orthofer sees two glimmers of brightness however. One is that other countries, most notably India and southern Africa, have made a concerted effort to translate more works from their regional languages. The second is via the determined efforts of some small and nimble publishers determined to raise the profile of great writers from all parts of the world. As Orthofer says early on in his book: “Great literature and great books know no borders.”

End Notes

The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A Orthofer is published by Columbia University Press. Many thanks to the publishers for making this available via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. As an indicator of how much I appreciated this book, I’ve now gone and bought my own copy.



About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 23, 2016, in Book Reviews, world literature and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. Thanks Stefanie for this link. As for Archipelago Books, I am lucky since my local bookstore in Chicago is devoting a section to their catalogue..

  2. This sounds like a great resource. If you are looking for a good internet resource, the Three Percent Blog is all translation all the time:

  3. Christina Kraemer

    I cannot recommend Words Without Borders enough. It is a nonprofit site that publishes work in translation in a free monthly online magazine. One nation is featured each month. General news is also covered.
    Check out Archipelago Books, a nonprofit publisher that publishes new and lesser known works in translation and those written in English. They are beautiful. Known for publishing Knausgaard.
    Because of my enthusiasm, I decided to make my first comment.

    • Thanks for taking the leap forward into commenting here Christina. Words without Borders I enjoy too though I found it only recently. Archipelago books I’ve not come across before but will be sure to dive in

  4. It sounds like a great resource for English speaking readers.
    So who did they pick for France?

  5. Years ago I participated in an translated reading challenge that I really enjoyed – forced me to read from countries I’d never read from previously. I discovered some great new authors via this challenge and have continued to read more although I have not managed to read as widely as I did since that challenge. I do think it is largely because the translated books that get decent profile are from a handful of countries, notably Scandinavian countries. I get the Scandinavian-noir trend but I do think it’s surprising in Australia that in an average bookshop I’d find more from Norway than I would from my neighbouring countries in Asia!

    • Asia does seem to be under-represented in translated fiction. We’re hearing more about South Korean literature now because of the success of The Vegetarian and Japan has done reasonably well because of the big names (Murakami et al). But there are so many other parts of Asia that we hear little of

      • Agree. I’ve read some books by Xinran, who is a female researcher who writes about woman and children in China (non-fiction). An Indonesian book, Beauty is a Wound, got a lot of publicity last year, and yes, lots from particular Japanese authors but still relatively singular examples when I’m standing in a bookshop looking at a wall of Aus, US and UK authors.

  6. I want it!

  7. Are you familiar with Alice Thomas Ellis? She is a wonderful Welsh writer. I especially remember her ‘The Sin Eater’ and ‘The 27th Kingdom’.

  8. This sounds great. If there is a corresponding website I’ll be checking it out.

  9. I’ll echo Claire and say you might like Ann Morgan’s book Reading the World — though bear in mind it’s more about the politics of translation than it is about the actual books she read for the blog project.

    • Her project was an amazing achievement and she did so much to highlight the issue of lack of translated fiction. I read a few reviews of her book and many of them were quite dismissive, saying that she was telling us nothing new, which I felt unfair.

  10. Yes, Ann Morgan spent a year reading around the world and in some cases actually had to get help to get a work translated in order to accomplish the task, but what a great resource she created, still available via her blog and then she wrote a book about the experience and has given talks.

    I read a lot from other cultures, and about a third of it in 2015 was translated, I know it’s very limited, but the works I have read have been great, for the moment we seem to be in an era where we have greater access to works written by second generation immigrants if it is to be in English, but I hope that niche publishers begin to branch out and translate more from other languages, works from within other cultures are rich with more than just storytelling, the open our minds to other ways of living, seeing, thinking and being in the world.

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, very interesting!

    • That sounds like a pretty impressive statistic to me Claire. I refer to Ann’s blog a lot when I am trying to find something from one of the smaller countries in the world. She had that great example where a group of academics were so interested in her project they came together to do a translation for her.

  11. It is so often a question of finding something of worth that has been translated into English, isn’t it. I heard a blogger who had set herself the task of reading a novel from every country in the world talk about this and saying that it was a major problem. And please don’t get me started on finding children’s literature in translation. If we could encourage children to read over their national boundaries then there might be some hope of their demanding more books in translation as they got older but the situation there is far worse than it is for adult fiction.

    • This guide doesn’t even mention children’s literature which is telling in itself. Do publishers just think there isn’t enough profit to be made?

      • That’s an interesting question. There is probably some truth in your suggestion, but it is also the case that there is a very definite difference in tone between children’s literature from the UK and that from the continent. You could translate the words but to what extent you could translate the attitude towards childhood I’m not certain.

  12. This really does sound like an excellent resource. As an outsider, it’s tough to break into another country’s literature.

    • I rely on insights from colleagues in work – everytime we have a meeting where there are people from different nationalities, I badger them for recommendations

  13. I got this through Edelwiss, and it’s the sort of book that’s better in book form, as any reference book is. I thought it was fascinating.

  14. Thanks for highlighting this book. I too like the Complete Review site and would love to see what they write about with regards to Southeast Asia!

  15. This does look useful! I like The Complete Review site also. My experience has been that for the most part it has been easier to find books than I expected. Maybe I just initially expected it to be quite hard.

    • i think it depends where in the world I’m looking for a book. Some countries I completely failed with – if you come across any author from Kirabati do let me know because I drew a blank

      • Some countries are definitely hard! I guess I meant that fewer countries are hard than I expected. I’m helped with the hard ones by including non-fiction and books by non-native authors. For Kiribati, I haven’t found anything by a Kiribati author. However, Kiribati is home to one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas, so I’m planning to read a book about that.

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