Critiquing the World, One Review at a Time: An Interview with M.A. Orthofer

By: Sharon Huberfeld  |  March 13, 2016

M A Orthofer

A few weeks ago, I was settling onto the subway and started reading on my phone. I came across a fascinating article, published in The New Yorker, entitled One Man’s Impossible Quest to Read- and Review- the World. This man, by the name of M.A. Orthofer, was a lawyer, originally from Austria, who created a website, when the internet was still young, called The Complete Review. The idea was simple: to combine reviews from many different newspapers, magazines and the like onto one web page, and add his own personal review. What started small ended up becoming massive. There are over three thousand eight hundred and sixty seven books reviewed on this site, most of them by Orthofer himself. I decided to interview him myself to learn more.


Huberfeld: What is the first book that you remember reading?

Orthofer: I have no clear memories of any specific title, just a blur of books, of always something at hand.


Huberfeld: What do you find most compelling about reading?

Orthofer: How it lets you step, instantly, into a different world – someone else’s carefully imagined and conceived representation of the world, so often accomplished from perspectives and with a creative use of language that I’d be unlikely to ever think of on my own.


Huberfeld: What motivated you towards the practice of law and not towards something in more of the writing field?

Orthofer: Not sure what would be more a ‘writing field’, but as to publishing and bookselling, I imagined neither would allow me to focus on the books most of interest to me. As to the practice of the law, it seemed to match my abilities reasonably well.


Huberfeld: Do you still work as a lawyer, and if so, do you see reading or legal work as your primary occupation?

Orthofer: I occasionally do some legal work, but the site is definitely ‘primary’. That said, actually keeping up the site – the need to constantly update links, or to seek out links and reviews to quote from for books I’m reviewing – cuts considerably into my actual reading time.


Huberfeld: What types of books are you most interested in? What prompts you to pick up a book to review?

Orthofer: Fiction above all else – and specifically novels. But I’ll read almost anything. At the site, the only category of books that I am more likely than others to get to are books by authors already under review at the site, but otherwise I’m especially drawn to the new: a different spin or approach, a book originally written in yet another language, or from yet another time.


Huberfeld: What do you see as the purpose of a review?

Orthofer: To provide information that might be helpful to a potential reader so they can figure out whether or not it’s worth their while – taking into account that different readers look for very different things in their reading.


Huberfeld: What are the most important components of a review and how do you structure it?

Orthofer: I focus very closely on the book at hand – rarely providing much context (avoiding discussion of the book’s place as part of the author’s complete output; how much attention the book has gotten; similar books; etc.). I probably go overboard in this consider-it-in-isolation regard, but given that widespread practice tends so completely in the other direction I see it as a useful counterbalance. I tend to provide plot-summary – I figure readers want to have a fairly good idea of what the book is about/the basic plot-arc – but try hard to avoid major spoilers. I try to give a sense of suspense, language, character development, and what the author does that works (or doesn’t). I try to consider what aspects of the book might appeal to readers. And to a considerable extent I also rely on readers having gotten used to my tastes, and what I like and what annoys me: the advantage of collecting so many reviews in one place is that readers can see for themselves how I reacted to books they liked (or didn’t) and get a sense of just how close my opinion generally is to theirs.


Huberfeld: What prompted your interest in creating a website?

Orthofer: When I first started using the internet (late-1990s) I found that many people were posting reviews of books, but no one seemed to be linking to other reviews. The original idea for the Complete Review was to collect and provide all those links; adding my own reviews/commentary on the books themselves came sort of as an afterthought.