Reviewers & Critics: Maureen Corrigan of NPR’s Fresh Air

by
Michael Taeckens
2.13.19

One of the familiar voices readers have grown accustomed to hearing on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross belongs to Maureen Corrigan, who has been the book critic for the show for the past thirty years. But Fresh Air is just one of the outlets through which Corrigan has been sharing sharp, smart literary criticism for decades. She has also been a book review columnist for the Washington Post Book World since 1990, and her essays and reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, the New York Times, the Nation, the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. Corrigan is also the author of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (Little, Brown, 2014) and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Random House, 2005). In 1999 she won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Criticism, and on March 14 she will be awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. 

Maureen Corrigan (Credit: Nina Subin)

Corrigan was born and raised in Queens, New York, and went to college at Fordham University in the Bronx. She earned her MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. While in graduate school she taught English at Penn, as well as at Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College. In 1989 she began teaching at Georgetown University, where she is currently the Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism. 

You first started reviewing books for the Village Voice, which eventually led you to NPR’s Fresh Air, where you’ve been the book critic for three decades. How did that relationship with the Village Voice first begin, and how did your role as a book critic expand from there? 
I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, crawling toward the completion of my dissertation on the great Victorian culture critics—figures like John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and William Morris. Not surprisingly, I was depressed, not only by the “gloom and doom” subject matter of my dissertation, but also by the dismal job prospects for English PhDs and by the culture of the grad program itself at the University of Pennsylvania. (Penn, at that time, was much more insecure about its status as an Ivy League school, so the English Department, in particular, overcompensated by adopting Oxbridge customs such as holding a weekly “Sherry Hour” for faculty and graduate students. At one of these gatherings, the professor I was TA’ing for announced to the assembled grad students, “None of you will ever be as brilliant as Ira Einhorn.” Einhorn had been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, a Bryn Mawr student named Holly Maddux. He had hidden her body in a trunk in his West Philly apartment. Einhorn fled the country and, at the time of my professor’s tribute, was on the lam in Europe. The fact that Einhorn was the pride of Penn’s English Department told me something, but I was there on fellowship and determined to get my PhD, so I stayed put.)

A friend of mine was in the History PhD program and was equally disenchanted. She decided to apply for a job as assistant editor at the Village Voice Literary Supplement and asked me and another friend to help her “tweak” a long book review essay the Voice had given her as an editing test. We three pulled an all-nighter, whipped that review essay into shape, and she got the job. As a “thank you,” she asked if I would like to try to write a book review for the Voice. I’d written book reviews for my college newspaper, so I said, “Sure.” It was like someone had thrown open the door into a dazzling world of light and color after I’d served years in twilit solitary confinement. The Voice was known as “the writer’s newspaper,” and it was. If the editors thought that you could write, that you yourself had “a voice,” even if you were an unknown, they would give you space for long review essays. Unlike the theory-encrusted language I’d adopted for scholarly writing, in my Voice pieces I could be funny, irreverent, digressive, and enthusiastic. Many years later, I came upon a memorial essay for the critic Irving Howe in which the author wrote, “Howe taught us that enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.” That sentence has always stayed with me. In graduate school, enthusiasm was disdained as the response of the unsophisticated. The Voice gave me back my whole self as a writer and critic. Even today, when I’m having trouble with a review, I’ll think to myself, “Pretend you’re writing this for the Village Voice,” and that thought usually frees me. 

All this time I was living in Philadelphia and listening to a local, three-hour show called Fresh Air. I thought Terry Gross was the best interviewer I’d ever heard and I also revered the show’s then-book critic, John Leonard. I’d read in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the show was going to be picked up nationally and was looking for more critics. So I did what you did in those days: I gathered together a lot of my “clips” from the Village Voice and sent them into Danny Miller, who is still Fresh Air’s executive producer. Danny is a mensch, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He did that thing no one ever does: He actually called me to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He said I was “too academic” for the show. (I’d been reviewing a fair amount of academic press books for the Village Voice.) 

Months went by and then I wrote something different for the Voice: a long exposé about my experiences as a grader for two summers for the Educational Testing Service, grading AP English Exams. (In short, a scam.) That piece caught the attention of folks at Fresh Air, who really liked it. Naomi Person, who was then a producer with the show, called and invited me to turn it into an on-air commentary. In order to do so, I had to cut down the Voice essay (around 3,000 words) to 750 words. That was one of the best writing exercises of my life: Extraneous modifiers and flabby phrases and clauses had to be cut, cut, cut! I worked with Naomi, who was very patient, for weeks to learn how to revise the piece for radio. After I recorded the piece, Fresh Air asked if I would like to do some occasional book reviews. But Naomi had to check first with the show’s book critic, John Leonard, to see if it would be okay with him. John was known for his generosity to younger writers and critics. He told Naomi, “Sure, bring her on board. There are plenty of good books to go around.” John eventually left the show and I became the book critic. It’s been almost thirty years and I can’t imagine a more wonderful job for a book critic. Every week I review books for our audience of almost 7 million people. We’re the third most-listened-to program on NPR (after the news shows), and with around 3 million downloads a week, Fresh Air is NPR’s most downloaded podcast.

Reviewing for radio is a different beast than reviewing for print—are there any particular advantages or challenges to the radio format? 
Radio is about storytelling. I’m always conscious that I’ve got to catch the attention of my listeners as they’re driving, making dinner, walking the dog. (Someone I knew in my grad school days told a mutual friend a few years ago that he was listening to one of my reviews as his wife was in labor. I don’t know how to feel about that.) I try to begin with an anecdote from the book I’m reviewing or a telling comment that will make people pay attention. (Mine was one of the early reviews of Amy Chua’s blockbuster, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I began with a stark judgment to stoke listeners’ curiosity about this author and her book that most hadn’t heard of yet. I said, “Amy Chua may well be nuts.”) My review of Greg Grandin’s great 2014 nonfiction book, The Empire of Necessity, which is about the real-life slave revolt that inspired Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, began with a description of the boarding of the ship, which the slaves had taken over:

Shortly after sunrise, on the morning of Feb. 20, 1805, sailors on an American ship called the Perseverance, anchored near an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile, spied a weird vessel drifting into view. It flew no flag and its threadbare sails were slack. The captain of the Perseverance, a man named Amasa Delano, decided to come to the aid of the ship, whose name, painted in faded white letters along its bow, was the Tryal.

If I had begun that review by talking about the connection to Benito Cereno, I would have lost listeners who’ve never read the Melville story. By beginning with an eerie anecdote, I’m hoping to draw listeners in and prompt them to go on to read both the Melville and Grandin accounts.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for short reviews, which radio reviews necessarily are. My reviews average about four minutes, which is a surprisingly long time to listen, uninterrupted. Too many reviews that I read in print or online are puffed out with plot summary. No one wants to hear the plot of the book. People want to hear why the book may or may not be worth reading. The images and scenes I describe from the novels and nonfiction I review for Fresh Air help answer that crucial question: Why is this book worth my time? Or not.

Does reviewing with a radio audience in mind alter the way in which you typically approach a book, or in your process of reading or taking notes?
I read and take notes the same way, whether I’m reviewing for Fresh Air or for the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, where I also contribute reviews. I read with a legal pad and Post-it notes at the ready. When I finish a book, I use a neon-colored magic marker to circle the best quotes and most important notes about my responses to the book so that they stand out as I’m writing my review. It’s low-tech, but it works for me.

You also review books for the Washington Post Book World, where you’ve had a regular column since 1990. Do your Post reviews appear in revised form on Fresh Air? Where else have your reviews appeared?
I sometimes will review a book for the Washington Post, and Fresh Air will decide they’d like me to do it on-air. The reviews are around the same length, but I’ll usually change the openings and endings for Fresh Air, again because I’m writing for the ear. Same process with some of the reviews I’ve written for the Wall Street Journal. I’ll sometimes re-do them for Fresh Air.

I do write reviews for both the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal that I don’t re-do for Fresh Air. I also occasionally write on-line reviews for NPR.org that aren’t aired on Fresh Air. I’ve also written reviews over the years for the New York Times, Newsday, the Nation, the New York Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Boston Globe, among other venues.

Do you have free rein to review what you want at Fresh Air or do you make your decisions in consultation with Terry Gross and/or producers?
I have a lot of freedom to decide what to review. I’ve been able to review everything from a posthumous book by the late British historian E. P. Thompson, on the Muggletonian religious sect, to one of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. 

My producer, Phyllis Myers, and I make up a list of titles for possible review about a season in advance of publication. Phyllis will show the list to Terry’s producers and, usually, if Terry is interviewing an author, I won’t do a review simply because there are so many books coming out every week and we like to cover as wide a range as possible. Sometimes, though, Terry will interview an author after I review the book.  

I think one of the greatest things about Fresh Air is our flexibility. That review list is not writ in stone. Every week, we’re reassessing. If, say, I’ve done a lot of novels by “big name” authors from prominent publishing houses (this usually happens in the fall), we’ll try to change up the list by looking at debut authors, smaller or academic presses, non-fiction or graphic novels. We’re always on the lookout for something fresh, so that we’re not just reviewing the same old, same old. In the past couple of months I’ve reviewed, among other things, an academic press book, Let the People See (Oxford), about the Emmett Till case; If You Ask Me, a collection of Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice columns from the 1940s to 1960s; Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart; Sarah Smarsh’s debut nonfiction book, Heartland, about the rural white working class; Esi Edugyan’s historical novel, Washington Black; Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita, about the true crime case that influenced Nabokov’s novel; and Ling Ma’s dystopian debut novel, Severance

On average, how many books do you receive per week? And of those, how many are you able to review?
On average, I receive over 200 ARCs a week delivered to the front porch of my rowhouse in Washington D.C. Those include coffee table books, cook books, how-to books, and pop-up books, as well as mysteries, literary fiction and non-fiction, memoir, political books and on and on. Most of those books immediately get put in the “Donate to Library” piles in my basement. Out of those 200 books a week, I’m able to review one for Fresh Air. During the summer and at holiday time, I do a few round-ups (“Year-end Top Ten; “Summer Reading”) that allow me to fold more books into a review.

Your taste in literature is admirably wide and varied—from mysteries to high-end literary fiction and nonfiction to the social sciences and well beyond. How do you decide which book to review in any given week? Other than your interest in a particular author, what sorts of things, if any, influence you in your decision-making process—relationships with editors and publicists, starred pre-pub reviews, big-name blurbs, large advances, social media buzz within the literary community? 
I try not to know editors, publicists, authors, and people in the publishing world. I don’t go to book parties or publishing events; I’ve only attended BEA the years my own books have come out. I stay home and read, which is what I most like to do.

I receive at least twenty e-mails a day from publicists pitching books. I pay attention to a few publicists whose track record is good (i.e., they e-mail me only when they seem genuinely excited about a book and they obviously listen to Fresh Air). I don’t read reviews of books I’m interested in until after my own review has been written. Blurbs are iffy. Some folks blurb all the time, so their words of praise on the back of a book don’t mean much. Other folks are more selective, so I’ll pay attention to those blurbs. I also check in with trusted sources at my local independent bookstore, and I pay attention to Publishers Weekly and the other pre-pub sites online. And my producer, Phyllis, often will make recommendations for books I may want to check out.

I am aware of the “hotly anticipated books,” and I do check many of them out. I also try to follow the work of writers I’ve admired in the past to see what they’re up to. I’m always on the lookout for something—whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or other—that seems freshly thought-out; something that seems to be written from a writer’s deepest and most authentic place. That’s how Sarah Smarsh’s just-published memoir, Heartland (mentioned above) felt to me. I started reading it because I’m drawn to books about social class. (Again, as I mentioned above, I come from a working class background and one of the reasons I admire The Great Gatsby so much is because I think it’s our most eloquent novel about class in America.) Smarsh’s voice came through as unmannered and alive. She’s also a wry and smart writer with an appreciation of the complexities of “white privilege,” as applied to the white working class. So, I was sold on her book quickly.

I usually give a book fifty pages; if there’s not something about that book that grabs me—voice especially, situation, language, plot—I’ll probably put it aside and pick up something else on my list or something unexpected that’s arrived on my porch. That’s how I came to review Gabrielle Burton’s great memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner many years ago. Gabrielle’s daughter had sent it to me with a letter. I picked it up and thought, “Hmm. A memoir about retracing the route of the Donner Party and finding one’s place as a woman coming to feminist consciousness during the Second Women’s Movement. I need to check this out.” Within the first few pages, Gabrielle’s voice captivated me. That memoir was originally published by an academic press and I’m gratified to say that after my review on Fresh Air, it reached a much wider audience, as it so deserved.

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing what to write about?
I think I’m very conscious of trying not just reach for the familiar when I’m choosing books for review consideration. At the same time, I don’t want to be mechanical about those decisions. I think, as a critic who aims to be as inclusive as I can, I fall back on Matthew Arnold’s famous guideline—with a twist: I’m always looking for “the best that is known and thought in the world”—by as diverse a group of writers as I can find. 

When you’re reviewing a new book from an author with previous books to his or her name, do you read the author’s backlist as well?
The hard reality of my reviewing schedule is that I don’t have time to do a deep dive into an author’s backlist. If there’s an earlier book that’s regarded as significant, especially in the author’s development, I do feel as though I need to read that book before I review the current one. And, there are a lot of authors I follow, even if I don’t review their work every time. (Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Claire Vaye Watkins all leap to mind.)

Where do you stand on the value of negative reviews?
I’m a critic, not a publicist. It’s ludicrous to think that the state of literature is so fragile that it can’t withstand negative reviews—while film, restaurants, television, and music are able to hardily shrug them off. I think negative reviews, especially of books by well-known authors, are an important contribution to the conversation about art and ideas. The only instance in which I would decide not to write a negative review after reading a book is in the case of an unknown first-time novelist or nonfiction writer. No one knows the book anyway, and the only reason to review that book would be to recommend it to potential readers.

If a writer has a solid reputation and if the book is well publicized, so that our listeners are going to be curious about the book, I will go ahead and write a negative review. I also write negative reviews when I feel that an author is getting lazy, relying on the same devices, or insulting the reader. See my review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth; I’ve had it with him.

You’ve published two critically acclaimed works of nonfiction. How did it feel to be operating from the other side, having your own literary work assessed by fellow critics? Has that experience instilled any sense of a deepening empathy with authors whose works you choose to review?
As a writer, I try not to think about how my books will be received. As a reviewer, I try not to think about whether I’m pleasing or angering authors and editors. I feel, in both cases, that my sole duty is to the work. I always set out to review a work of fiction or nonfiction on its own terms; and in my books, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and So We Read On, I tried to write the best literary memoir and deeply-felt appreciation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, that I could. 

I’m fortunate that my books have garnered praise, but, as to be expected, there were a few dissenting reviews. Writing about Fitzgerald—who died in 1940 thinking himself a failure—helped me take the long view. Fitzgerald’s last royalty check was for $13.13.  Just imagine.

Early on when I began reviewing for the Village Voice, I enjoyed trying to be more “Dorothy Parker-ish” in my pans. I remember reviewing a biography of Thomas Carlyle and quipping: “This book needed to be done, but doesn’t need to be read.” It’s a good line, but I wouldn’t use it today. It’s too glib.

You teach popular literary criticism classes at Georgetown University. Can you talk a bit about these classes and what changes you’ve noticed—both in the field of literary criticism and in your students—since you began teaching them? 
I teach two courses at Georgetown that explore literary and cultural criticism. One is called “Writing to Be Heard” and it traces the work of Public Intellectuals in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We read, among others, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Traister. The students in that course also do a final project in which they go out and interview people they consider “public intellectuals” today. Lots of those public intellectuals have been really kind to my students: Years ago, one student had the fabulous experience of killing a bottle of Scotch with Christopher Hitchens, while they talked for hours. Connie Schultz and David Frum were also standouts in terms of their wisdom and kindness. But what’s interesting is that when I give students that final assignment, the people they’ll often put on their “wish list” of public intellectuals are late night talk show personalities like Trevor Noah or Bill Maher. It’s hard for them to think of writers who have the gravitas and the reach of the public intellectuals of the mid-to-late twentieth century.

The other course is one I’m currently teaching called “Winning Fictions,” on literary value and evaluation as seen through the lens of literary awards. This semester, we’re reading the short list of the 2005 Booker Prize (as it was then called). That was a contested and particularly good year for the prize. Works by Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, Julian Barnes, and Sebastian Barry were on the shortlist and John Banville’s The Sea won the award. We’re also reading criticism on the topic of literary value, such as James Wood’s book How Fiction Works and Zadie Smith’s essays from her recent collection Feel Free.

In both courses, I think students are always intimidated by learning how much knowledge these critics, past and present, had at their fingertips and also by the assumptions they could make about the education levels of their audience. Critics just can’t get away with tossing off classical or even historical allusions so freely anymore. (A reference like “The Maginot Line” would need a footnote.) I also think students are surprised by the length of the critical essays we read and by their ferocity. When you read a review essay by Edmund Wilson or Alfred Kazin, you get the sense that literature mattered to these guys in a way that I think many critics today—myself included—think we first have to make a case for before proceeding to talk about a work.

Do you think literary criticism should be taught in MFA programs? 
Yes. It’s thrilling to read someone with a sharp mind thinking things through in print, especially if the prose is entertaining and acrobatic. And some of our greatest fiction writers have also been some of our most incisive literary critics, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe.

Which book critics, past or present, do you particularly admire?
All of the names I’ve mentioned above. I also admire so many of the women Michelle Dean wrote about last year in her terrific book, Sharp—Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Mary McCarthy. I’ll read anything by James Wolcott, Walter Kirn, and William Deresiewicz—I wish they were writing more criticism. I also pay attention to Rebecca Mead, Parul Sehgal, Laura Miller, Walton Muyumba, and Dwight Garner, which doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but they make me think. 

Of those publications that still devote space to literary criticism, which are your favorites?
The Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose has been on my night table for a couple of years; so has All the King’s Men. I want to read a lot more of Willa Cather than I have. I also keep planning to take advantage of my faculty benefits at Georgetown and take a course on Dante. We’ll see. The one “downside” of my professional life is that there’s very little time—between reviewing and teaching—to just graze around and read at will.

 

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR.