On Thursday, at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony, Maureen Corrigan will be honored with the Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Criticism. She answered some questions from NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critic Justin Rosier.
Do you see any difference between how you approach radio criticism versus writing for publication?
Radio is about storytelling—which I love—and I’m always conscious that when I’m doing a review for Fresh Air I’m talking to people all over the country who are in their cars, who are making dinner. Maybe they’re listening while they’re at work. I even heard from a guy I went to grad school with that a mutual friend of ours was listening to a review of mine when his wife was going into labor! So you are speaking to people who are in the midst of their lives, and you’ve got to open up a review in a way that’s going to grab that audience. So I’ll usually try to tell a story of my own that somehow folds into what the book is about.
Years ago, I reviewed Stephen Greenblatt’s book about Poggio Bracciolini.( The Swerve: How the World Became Modern). Bracciolini was an antiquities hunter back in the late Middle Ages in Italy. It was all about how the classics were recovered in the Middle Ages and how the Renaissance got kick-started. And I’d just read a piece in the paper about Ikea deciding to discontinue making bookshelves. Instead, all those bookshelves would now be marketed as curio cabinets, because they were going to put glass doors on them. It gave me the idea about commenting on another change in the history of civilization, in how we regard and value books. I opened up with that because everyone was talking about the loss of those Ikea bookcases, and then segued into Greenblatt.
If I’d started the review by saying, “Stephen Greenblatt’s amazing new work of nonfiction is about Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter in the late middle ages…” I mean, really: Half the audience as smart, and as educated, and as curious as they may be, they’re going to sleep already. They don’t really understand, “What does this have to do with me?” I was trying to think of a story that would lead the listeners into a book by Greenblatt that at first doesn’t seem to have anything to do with them.
So do you feel that you have more leeway with a reader’s time in comparison? Where you can be a bit more gradual in terms of the lead?
I think I can be more gradual with the lead in writing, in print. On radio, I feel like I’ve got to grab the listener—maybe even seduce the listener in some way into, “Hey. Listen to this story. Listen to why this subject is something that you need to know about. This writer has a story to tell you, and it’s worth those four minutes of your time to listen to me talk about this book that you haven’t read.” That’s also always a challenge: The people who I’m talking to haven’t read the book, and I don’t want to go into plot summary too much because I think that’s one of the Deadly Sins of book reviewing.
Giving up the plot points.
I feel like you can always tell when someone doesn’t like a book that they’re reviewing, and they don’t really want to say so, probably because they’re making connections, and you just get paragraphs of plot summary. So I don’t want to do that. But I want to in some way convey why people should be interested in the story.
My language has to be vivid, it has to paint pictures in the listener’s minds, because that’s what radio does. So it’s a different kind of writing. And of course I have less space. My reviews are about 775 words, tops. So I’ve really got to compress everything.
So convergence, as a thing, isn’t necessarily something that has affected how you work? It’s just whatever the form needs, that’s what you respond to?
I think it’s the other way around. I started off writing for the Village Voice, which was the greatest place to start as a book critic. And it was still the writer’s newspaper when I started writing for it, in the 80s. And the Voice would let a nobody—which I was—write if they thought you had something, if you had a voice yourself. The leads in my reviews—some of those reviews were 3,000-5,000 word pieces. Those leads would go on forever. They were probably self-indulgent, and telling stories that I thought were funny or brilliant but maybe weren’t that great. But I like to tell stories, I like to be autobiographical sometimes, and I think coming from the Voice and going to National Public Radio (NPR), that that kind of writing just melded perfectly with what Fresh Air wanted.
And did you always want to be a writer, or a critic?
I wanted to be Charles Dickens for a long time when I was growing up. I really loved Dickens. I went to Fordham, in the Bronx, for college, and had two of the greatest teachers of my life there. And then I wanted to be like them. I thought, What a great way to live your life: as a literature professor.
So then I got to grad school at the University of Pennsylvania on a fellowship, which was wonderful, but I was there during the heyday of Deconstruction, and all of that language of critical theory. I mean, we had things like Friday Afternoon Sherry Hours every week where you were expected, as a grad student, to stand around with your professors over glasses of sherry and talk about Derrida. It was for me kind of a class/culture shock. My dad was a blue-collar guy, a refrigeration mechanic, so this was all very different for me. And I did not feel comfortable. But on the other hand I really wanted to get my PhD, so I stuck it out.
But while I was at Penn, a friend of mine decided she was going to leave the grad program, and she applied for a job as an editor on the Voice’s literary supplement. She asked if I would help her, along with another friend, tweak the take-home editing test the Voice gave her. It was really happenstance. She got the job and asked, “Do you want to try and write a book review. I said, “Sure.” It was such a freeing experience to be able to write about books and be funny, or enthusiastic, to kind of put yourself…not necessarily first-person, but to put some flavor of your own response as a reader into the review, which at the time I certainly couldn’t do in academic writing. So I kind of fell into it that way.
Later on I discovered writers like Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Susan Sontag—those mid-twentieth century public intellectuals, but I didn’t know them at the time I was starting grad school. The Voice was like heaven. I’ll always be so grateful for them just saying, “Yeah, try and write a book review.” To discover that way of talking about books, where you could still be smart but you could also be your whole self.
That’s so interesting, all of that. It’s still a real thing, where people want to talk about Walter Benjamin, or Derrida, more than they do Sontag, or Trilling.
There’s a quote that means so much to me that I came across in the Nation when Irving Howe died. The writer said, “Irving Howe taught us that enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.” And when I read that sentence, it immediately engraved itself into my brain because that attitude is still alive in the halls of English departments across the land. If you’re enthusiastic, you’re a popularizer, or you’re second-rate. It’s out there, and it’s tiresome, but thankfully there are other places where that attitude doesn’t prevail.
How do you go about writing reviews—scheduling, drafts, deadlines and all that? Or does it vary from project to project.
It does vary. For thirty years, I’ve been the weekly reviewer for Fresh Air, so I’ll wind up talking about that the most.
That’s really crazy. I mean, it’s good crazy, but it’s crazy. I get over 200 books a week delivered to my house. The UPS, postal folks—all the delivery guys are coming all day long dropping off advanced review copies on my porch. So there’s all of those books. I’ve already got a list of what’s coming out that season that I’ve put together with my producer, Phyllis Myers, that I’m interested in because I’ve read other books by the writer or because the subject sounds interesting, or off-beat. There are all sorts of reasons why a book might catch our attention. I do this list in conjunction with Phyllis because usually if Terry Gross is interviewing someone, I’m not going to do a review of the book. We try not to duplicate things. So I’ve got an idea of what I’m going to be doing a few weeks out, but sometimes it changes.
If I start a book by a writer who I’ve read in the past, and I’m like Eh, it’s just okay, and maybe the writer isn’t that well-known, or maybe it’s a first novel, what’s the point of dissing [it], if nobody has heard of it anyway, [or] if it’s not getting a huge buzz? So then I’m going on to another book, and sometimes a third book. So there are weeks once in a while where I’m reading up to midnight, and we’re recording the next day at 3:00 p.m., and I’m getting up at 5:00 a.m. and writing the review. That’s often what it’s like. Usually for Fresh Air I’m writing the review the day that I record it. It’s every week; it’s relentless. And I’m teaching, too. So that’s the Fresh Air schedule.
I have a little bit more breathing room with the Washington Post. I also write for The Wall Street Journal semi-regularly, so those assignments are set farther out, so I have time to do the reading and writing at a more leisurely pace. But Fresh Air is real deadline [-oriented] writing. Maybe you’ve found this, too: There’s kind of a sick thrill about that tight deadline.
With radio, maybe they need that piece the next day. So if I don’t get it in, or it’s not good, that’s going to be a real problem. There is that sense of adventure, of wow: Can I really pull it off again, and again, and again. But I think you get into that rhythm, those of us who do it. We like that.
You teach at Georgetown. What is your experience teaching literature and criticism to students?
I don’t know if it’s all that different at Georgetown that it is at other “elite universities.” There’s a range. I’ve always got a ton of students who’ve been bitten by the bug. They love literature, they love writing; they’re deep into it. And they’ve read a lot. It’s lovely. And there are kids who are at the beginning of that journey, and maybe they’re just discovering a writer whose book will mean something to them.
I do teach a couple of courses that are about criticism. I teach a course on public intellectuals in America, and I just taught a course about literary prizes. It was focused on the Booker Prize of 2005, and the finalists for that prize. It was a really good year—people like Zadie Smith, and Julian Barnes. A lot of standout nominees. But because of my own experience, especially being a juror for the Pulitzer Prize, it’s really of course about literary value and evaluation. How do we decide whether something is good or not, whether something is better than something else? How do we do that as critics? So the students in both classes are reading a lot of essays and criticism by people like the folks we’ve just talked about. We read Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Feel Free. (An NBCC Criticism finalist this year.) We read some oldies but goodies, like Barbara Herrnstein Smith—her famous essay on literary value and evaluation. I had her as a professor at Penn. We’re trying to figure out whether there are standards that aren’t just subjective that we can use to make these kind of distinctions.
I think students really enjoy jumping into those discussions, and I think especially these days they enjoy talking about diversity, identity politics, and we get into those issues. But I would say that maybe one student out of 500 is actually delusional enough to think that they’re going to make a living out of it. It’s hard if you’re working as a freelancer. It’s really tough.
Are there any other skills or interests that you impress upon students as a professor, or is it case-by-case, class-by-class?
If you’re interested in something, really dig deep.
Years ago, I had Ezra Klein come in to my class on public intellectuals, because I also want students to go out there and interview people who they think are public intellectuals now, and who are doing that type of writing. And this was before Ezra Klein really hit it big, so I was able to get him to come in to my class. But I remember he told the students he was really into healthcare policy. Other people weren’t. And he really became the go-to guy for discussions about healthcare policy. So it’s not particularly whether you’re interested in a literary subject, or what. If something catches your imagination, your curiosity, your critical interest, really read deeply into that subject. Read other good people who have written about it. Pit your intelligence against theirs and sharpen your writing skills. Get smarter and become a better writer that way.
You also seem to have very varied interests in terms of what you’ll review. Are there any critical concerns that you’re preoccupied with these days?
I think my biggest concern is to do what you nicely said I do. I try to be as inclusive as possible, and that means not only to try and find writers that I’ve never heard of, who are writing about situations that I’ve never heard of, different kinds of backgrounds, all races, all kinds of identities. But I’m also really interested in trying to go out there and be as inclusive with genres of the books that I’m reviewing as well. So not just reaching for literary fiction, or the splashier works of nonfiction, but also graphic novels, small presses, off-road interesting true crime stories. Just cast the net wide.
That’s really one of the greatest things about my job at Fresh Air. I often tell people that I’ve done everything from one of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books to a posthumous book by the late British historian E.P. Thompson on the Muggletonian religious sect in eighteenth-century Britain. (E. P. Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law). You know: small academic press books. But if it’s interesting to me, and I can make a case for why it should be interesting to people who are listening, I’ve got the go-ahead.
[Another] gift of my job is if I can find someone who doesn’t have a big national reputation, but whose writing is really good, Fresh Air is definitely a platform to bring people to the notice of the listeners out there who care about books.
How has book criticism changed throughout your career?
It’s changed in the ways we all recognize: in the way that the culture has changed. All those book review sections that were existent when I started writing—I mean, 90 percent of them are gone. So that’s a big thing. Everything migrated online.
I think that with the rise of the internet and all its democratic possibilities that there’s been a more of a pushback as the critic weighing in and giving their judgments on books. There’s sort of a sentiment of, “Well, who do you think you are? Are you some kind of elite person who’s a gatekeeper? Why do we need you?” There are all these other platforms where ordinary readers will weigh in. And that’s fine. Let them.
I just know that as a reader myself that I want to read something by [Louis] Menard. I want to read something by Laura Miller. I want to know what they think. I may not agree with them, but they’re bringing something to those essays and book reviews that’s more than just, I liked this or I didn’t like this. That’s not telling me whether a book is a good or not.
That’s always something I try to do with my students, to divorce that question of, “Did you like it?” from the question of, Did you think it was good?” What’s the basis of whether you think something is good or bad versus whether you like it? There are books I reviewed for Fresh Air that I think are really good. I didn’t particularly like them because they’re not my style, they’re not my taste, but the reviews are good because the book is. They [just] aren’t something that I’d pick up on vacation, say, or as pleasure reading.
Any advice for aspiring critics?
Probably the advice that everyone gives you: Write for everybody, [and] write constantly. Don’t look down your nose down at those venues that don’t have that intellectual cache. I love that Christopher Hitchens could crank out those books on Orwell and then he would also write for Golf Digest. For all of us who do this job, we’re lucky, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s also fun. It’s fun to read, to weigh in, to argue, to force yourself to think more deeply about something. To get back to that originating passion is always helpful as a critic. It’s a great job. You get to engage [with] everything.
And I would also try to get paid as much as possible.
J. Howard Rosier lives in Chicago, where he edits the journal Critics’ Union. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Criterion, Kenyon Review, Bookforum, and The Believer. Rosier is the recipient of the James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle.