Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

Balakian Awardee Maureen Corrigan: ‘I’m so grateful for this life in books ’

by Maureen Corrigan | Mar-20-2019

On March 14 at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony at The New School in New York, Maureen Corrigan was honored with the Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Criticism. Below is her acceptance speech. And here's a review from her winning entry.

Thank you. I’m so honored to receive the Balakian Award, especially because it’s an award that comes from my peers in the National Book Critics Circle. I’d also like to thank emerging critic, Justin Rosier, for his wonderful interview with me in the Critical Mass blog.

I’m told my remarks should clock in five minutes or less and I can do that, no problem, because I’ve been writing book reviews for Fresh Air for the past thirty years that must clock in at around five minutes. So here goes.

It’s very powerful for me to be accepting this award here at the New School, because I started my career as a book critic a few blocks away at the Village Voice. It was the mid 1980s and I was a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Pennsylvania, working on my dissertation on the culture criticism of the Victorian Sages, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Like them, I was miserable. It was the high era of critical theory at Penn and I felt very alienated from the process of putting literature through the de-flavorizing machine of Deconstruction. I also felt alienated from the culture of the graduate English program at Penn, where Friday afternoon sherry hours were required attendance. A friend of mine who was equally alienated by the History Ph.D. program at Penn decided to apply for a job as an assistant editor at the Village Voice Literary Supplement and asked me to help her with the take home editing test the Voice gave her.

Think about that. Who gives a take home editing test? My friend got the job and as a reward for my “help,” she asked if I wanted to try to write a book review. It was as though someone opened the door to a wider world--a world of intellectual energy and light. When I started writing those Voice reviews, I was allowed to respond fully to the literature I read—with my head and my heart. Many years later I read an encomium to the critic Irving Howe that praised Howe by saying that he taught us that “enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.” I immediately committed that phrase to memory and I repeat it as often as I can, especially to my students. Writing for the Voice gave me permission to write about literature in my reviews with my whole self--with my intellect, enthusiasm, passion, and humor. To this day when I’m having trouble with a review, I tell myself to imagine I’m writing for the Village Voice and that still works to free me up.

It was after I wrote a different kind of piece for the Voice—a long exposé about what it was like to work as a grader for two summers for the AP English exam then run by the Educational Testing Service—that I was contacted by Fresh Air and asked if I’d like to do a version of that piece for radio. Back then, I was still at Penn and living in Philadelphia and listening to Fresh Air religiously. I thought Terry Gross was the best interviewer and John Leonard, a founding member of the NBCC and then Fresh Air’s book reviewer, was just the most brilliant contemporary culture critic.

Of course I said “Yes!” That exposé was probably about 5000 words (because, after all, this was the Village Voice, known as the “writer’s newspaper”) and I was told that Fresh Air reviews averaged about 750 words. Cutting down that piece was the greatest writing exercise of my life and the producer who took me through draft after draft and taught me how to write for radio is here tonight. I’d like thank Naomi Person for her patience and her guidance and I’d also like to thank her successor, my current producer at Fresh Air, Phyllis Myers, for accompanying me every week on the wild ride of selecting which books to review and editing those reviews against our tight deadlines. I’d also like to give a loving shout-out to Danny Miller, the executive producer of Fresh Air and, of course, to Terry Gross. You’ve all given me a career as a book critic I could never have imagined.

Doing book reviews on radio requires a different style of critical writing: radio, after all, is about story-telling. My challenge every week is to think about how to get listeners to turn their attention for five minutes or so to my review on Fresh Air. To do that I need to tell a story—which is not the same as summarizing the plot. In fact, I think the most boring thing a critic can do is to summarize the plot of the book for paragraphs and paragraphs in a review. Radio is also an intimate form: I’m speaking to people in their kitchens, their cars, their bathtubs. . . . Listeners get a sense of my estimation of a book not only from my words, but also from how I sound. As one might expect in such a personal form, I sometimes receive some very personal responses from my listeners. Not everyone is a fan.  A few years ago, I received an email with a subject heading that read simply, “Your Voice.” It’s probably wise never to open up an email with such a subject line, but I did. The listener (whom I’m sure was a man), proceeded to tell me that his idea of hell would be to be locked into a room with only my voice piped in hour after hour.

Everybody’s a critic, right?

When I did my first piece for Fresh Air, my father, who was a voracious reader in the evenings after working at his job as a steamfitter, told me that it was great that I got to be on radio but that, “there was no future in it. Radio was a dying medium.” I’m happy to say he was wrong. For the past thirty years it’s been my privilege and my pleasure to bring good and sometimes even great books to the attention of the NPR audience. I’m so grateful for this life in books and I’m grateful for this honor. Thank you, and, please, keep on listening.


Portrait by Paper Monday

Emerging Critics Series: Tanner Howard

by Tanner Howard | Mar-20-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately?

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work? 

My thinking right now is in many ways shaped by the Master's program I just began at the beginning of January. I've long been interested in urban issues, particularly questions around gentrification and housing, and so it's been remarkable to get to begin studying them at a graduate level. But there's so many other pockets of my brain that I have a hard time shutting off, even when it means I can't focus on what's right in front of me— there's always a little voice in the back of my mind trying to thread the needle of the various interests I hold into some wider, cohesive narrative.

Right now, another one of my animating interests is the ever-evolving role of technology in our lives, and ways in which we can hopefully reimagine some better form of the Internet to enhance the quality of human and non-human life. Though these investigations will quite often run on parallel tracks for some time before I'm able to synthesize, there's just something that I've always found so captivating in the moment when my brain finally snaps all of the disparate pieces together, when I feel I may be onto something novel that can propel further inquiry. But as of now, I feel like I'm hovering around the edges of that kind of synthesizing moment, and it's a real thrill contemplating what new aesthetic experience will ultimately bring it all into focus.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic? 

For me, I look to critics that express a profound and unrelenting drive toward the satisfaction of a sense of curiosity. An active mind is one that can only feel a temporary satisfaction as some nagging question is finally answered... until the pursuit of that first question creates its own new set of inquiries that lead, fractal-like, into a million possible new directions. I know very few writers who are able to transmit that unrelenting urge to know and to understand some burning question to their readers, and when I find it, I'm always floored by what it's like to be inside of their mental map. One person who's been a constant inspiration in the recent past is Hanif Abdurraquib, whose 2017 book They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is my favorite essay collection this side of Ellen Willis. There's a generosity at play in Abdurraquib's writing that's heartbreaking and refreshing all at once: everything he writes is imbued with the richness and heartbreak of living a life colored by loss and mourning, and yet carried along by the artists and people that help us find ourselves and a renewed desire to live on, day by day.

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work? 

A good question. Right now I'm struggling a lot with the confusion of living to write and writing to live. There's something so jarring about reaching a point when freelance writing becomes your bread-and-butter to pay the bills: it's at once a dream made real, and yet it stifles some of the initial joy that I felt around writing as a purely aesthetic/emotional experience. So while writing remains central to my creative and emotional landscape, most notably in the daily journal that I've maintained for over four years, I actually look to other creative pursuits that aren't writing or criticism for an outlet. It's all very amateurish, but I like to do a lot of collage and embroidery, to take my mind off of words and place myself purely in the realm of free association, images, and a sense of tactility. Nothing profound, I know, but I need that to make the return to writing consequential once more.

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work? 

Starting this new Master's program has been a challenge in that it's forcing me to recognize how unorganized I've generally been since graduating in 2017. It's not that I'm incapable of getting a lot done once I'm in the right headspace, but instead, I'm a bit paralyzed by the fact that I now need to make as much money as I had previously while devoting at least half of my week to schoolwork. For the moment, I'm trying to take things very day-by-day: knowing that, no matter what, I'll have something that I need to be doing keeps me going. That's actually made it much easier with schoolwork, especially because most of the work is reading. I don't need an excuse to pick up a book, and so whenever I hit a wall with other things I'm working on, switching tracks and curling up with a book and my cat is enough to get my mind moving again and thinking about the things I want to be thinking about.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment? 

It'd be something like this: later this year, Holly Herndon, an experimental electronic musician, will be releasing a new album featuring contributions made by an AI named “Spawn” that Herndon co-developed over the span of two years. When I first listened to the album, at one point, I was left sobbing, overpowered not only by the beauty of the music but by the implications of Herndon's work and her effort to demystify AI and its potential impact on our lives. Soon, I'm hoping to travel to Berlin to interview Herndon about the project because I think it really matters—not only to me personally, but also to the world that we live in. I want to give it the time and space it deserves.

Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and Master's student in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They write primarily about housing issues, queer culture, and Chicago history, with clips in the Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, CityLab, and elsewhere.

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