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Complete Review review

M.A.Orthofer has long been an underappreciated chronicler of underappreciated fiction, foreign and otherwise, at the complete review, started in 1999 to provide reviews (his own, graded, with copious links to others'), and augmented in 2002 by the Literary Saloon, with news on publishing, prizes, and much else besides. It's been my go-to site for well over a decade, a catholic and reliable guide (my own assessments generally differ by no more than a plus or minus from his letter grades), and so I was skeptical that I might derive further benefit from his latest offering, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction [Columbia Univ Press]. Thankfully, I was wrong to doubt of the benefit—while aimed at those less familiar than myself with foreign fiction, its organization is both comprehensive and comprehensible, leaving little in the way of gaps. It is a reader's guide to post-WWII novels, a survey structured geographically by country, primarily dealing with 'literary fiction' but not neglecting 'genre' writing (or the blurring between them), giving each nation's headliners due attention (though rarely more than a page) and making mention and more of other noteworthies, necessarily broad-brush but more than cursory. It should be said that this is presented from a Western anglophonic perspective (though some as-yet untranslated works are mentioned) and that the segmentation somewhat overweights national culture—a boon for those who want to explore on that basis, but an impediment to elaborating upon deep cross-cultural strands (and for those wanting a more personal take there's always Ann Morgan, bordering on travelogue; cf Latterly). In some respects, the novel form, while capacious, is a western cultural imposition, and the paucity of examples in some regions is due to factors beyond authoritarian or totalitarian restraint, lack of infrastruture, or embedded oral tradition (and my interest is piqued more by incorporation of local forms than adaptation of local color). The selection of authors is generous (a cast of thousands!) and up-to-date (though of course a snap-shot of a moving target that's already moved on: e.g., Northwestern University's Writings from an Unbound Europe series is cited in appendix but was discontinued last year), and little is omitted (I was surprised that Robert van Gulik wasn't mentioned in reference to Chinese detective fiction, though that was originally before the scope of this book) (mere quibbles, but the nature of the project invites such sport). In sum, yes this scratches the surface, more than just barely, and it's a huge surface, and man is it itchy, and his sharp thumbnail sketches provide some relief: as his editorial policy at the site puts it: "These are things we try to do here at the complete review, but we only manage to scratch the surface. ¶ Scratch deeper."


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