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

Michael Taeckens

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. 

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 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, Roxanne 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.

Reviewers & Critics: Parul Sehgal of the New York Times Book Review


Michael Taeckens


Parul Sehgal is a senior editor and columnist at the New York Times Book Review. Previously she was books editor at NPR and a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. She grew up in Washington, D.C., Delhi, Manila, Budapest, and Montreal, where she studied political science at McGill University, and moved to New York City in 2005 to study fiction in the MFA program at Columbia University. In 2010 she was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Her TED talk on literature, titled “An Ode to Envy,” has been viewed more than two million times since it was posted in the summer of 2013.

What was your path to becoming a literary critic?
Random and inevitable. I’ve written a bit about how books were a highly controlled substance in my childhood home. My mother had a marvelous, idiosyncratic library—lots of André Gide, Jean Genet, and Oscar Wilde, lots of philosophy, and lots of Jackie Collins. But she was terribly strict, and the library was off-limits to us. Naturally my sister and I became the most frantic little book thieves; I must have spent the first decade of my life with a novel—and usually something massively inappropriate like Judy Blume’s Wifey or Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge—stuffed in the waistband of my pants. Reading was an illicit, compulsive, and very private activity for me; discovering criticism—in the Washington Post Book World—opened up a whole world. I suddenly had interlocutors. It was thrilling.

More prosaically—and to the point—I needed a job after graduate school, and Publishers Weekly was hiring. From there I started freelancing for a number of places: Bookforum, Slate, the New York Times Book Review. I just got addicted to the form, its constraints and possibilities. Book reviews remind me of that great Zoë Heller line about kissing: It’s about trying to be creative in a limited space.

Has your background in creative writing informed your work as a literary critic? Do you think literary criticism as a practical pursuit can be taught, and do you think it should be in MFA programs? 
It has given me a huge admiration for fiction writing. It’s lonely and difficult work, and I think having attempted it helps me treat books with care and respect. I found MFA workshops enormously helpful too, but not for the expected reasons. I don’t think they made me a better writer, but I learned how a certain class of people talked about literature. There was a whole depressing vocabulary: about reader “investment,” about how certain effects were “achieved” or endings “earned.” Has anyone written about when and why so much finance jargon has migrated into fiction classrooms? As for whether criticism should be taught, why not? Good criticism can refresh our responses. Last year I taught a class on criticism at Columbia that was largely devoted to unlearning boring, clichéd, or, worse, fashionable ways of thinking about books. And given how difficult the world is for young writers, why shouldn’t myriad kinds of practical writing be taught in these programs—book reviewing, grant writing, copyediting? 

Talk a little bit about your role at the New York Times Book Review—what kinds of books do you oversee, and within those categories, how many books do you look through on a weekly basis? 
I live in the shadow of wobbly stacks of books…who knows how many? I shudder to count. I handle a variety of topics: some fiction, lots of nonfiction—science, technology, philosophy, psychology, nature, and religion. 

Other than your interest in a particular author, what sorts of things influence you when selecting a book for coverage? Do relationships with editors and/or publicists help? What about blurbs and pre-publication reviews?
I look at everything—blurbs, trade publications—but it really comes down to sitting with the book and reading those first few pages or chapters, waiting for a voice and argument to emerge. I don’t think relationships in publishing do much to influence my thinking, but there are a few editors I really admire, who have interesting minds and interesting taste: Fiona McCrae and Jeff Shotts at Graywolf, Eric Chinski at FSG, Ed Park at Penguin Press. I’m always curious to see what they’re up to. 

You write Roving Eye, a brilliant New York Times Book Review column devoted to international literature. What was the genesis of this column? Considering that international literature by and large gets such short shrift in U.S. culture, do you see this column as a corrective of sorts?
Thank you! All credit to the editor, Pamela Paul, who’s a champion of international literature. I think the column is partly a corrective—but that sounds so dry and dutiful, no? I like to think of it as a way for readers to discover not only books in translation but books that are exploring some terrain or technique we might not have encountered—as with the Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, who is so much more sophisticated on terrorism and political violence than any American writer I’ve read, or the French writer Virginie Despentes, who has created a genre of her own—queer, punk, feminist, screwball noir. 

You also write for the New York Times Magazine—several essays for the First Words column on language, and in late 2015 you profiled the wonderful Mary Gaitskill—and you’ve written critical work for other publications, including Bookforum, where you’ve written about Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Lorrie Moore, and Anne Carson. Will we be seeing more of this kind of work from you? 
I hope so. I have wonderful editors at Bookforum and the New York Times Magazine—the great Michael Miller and Sasha Weiss—who let me, and on occasion push me, to veer off course and try something new. I’m very lucky in this way. And I love author profiles and essays on language not least because I’m always looking for ways to smuggle in book criticism where people don’t expect it. Book reviewing can get a bad rap as glorified book reports, when it really is this amazing instrument, this vocabulary of pleasure.

In an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, you mentioned that when you’re reviewing a book you read it twice, and then “The third time, I kind of dip in and out of it as I’m actually writing the review…and often as I’m writing, my opinion of the book radically changes.” I find this fascinating. Is this system unique to you, or is it somewhat prevalent among book critics? And do you find it at all frustrating—or perhaps rewarding—when your opinion about a book changes during the process of writing?
I suspect most reviewers experience this to some degree. It’s what makes it interesting, the process of self-interrogation: Why does that character please me? Why does she feel so real? What makes someone seem “real” in fiction anyway—and just what kind of achievement is it? It’s a conversation with the self, with one’s own tastes and biases—or it is for me at any rate. There’s something Cezanne said that I think about a lot, something like, “I know what I am looking at, but what am I seeing?” That’s what reviewing feels like to me. It’s very much to “re-view,” to see again, to try to see farther and see deeper.

Social media: helpful or a hindrance? 
Neither—an occasional pleasure. I’m not really on social media; I’m only on Twitter and that only nominally. I’m too secretive and long-winded and erratic in my habits—but how I love to eavesdrop. 

In your NBCC speech you said, “A review is someone performing thinking, and our finest reviewers are, to my mind, no less remarkable than our finest athletes: What do they do but exercise their precision, subtlety, and stamina for our enjoyment?” Aside from your esteemed colleagues at the New York Times, who do you think are some of our finest reviewers working today? 
Kathryn Schulz is almost upsettingly good, isn’t she? Who else can move so effortlessly between science and literary fiction? She has the range. And I think she’s one of the few white writers I know who consistently and interestingly thinks about race. Kevin Young is a genius. I think Dayna Tortorici is an extremely fine and precise thinker, and I wish she’d review more. The Irish critic Mark O’Connell can’t write a boring sentence. I love Steph Burt’s mission to find and defend the new. And then, of course, there’s James Wood. I’ll never forget reading him on how Orwell possibly cribbed a detail from Tolstoy—a man about to be executed adjusting a blindfold that was tied too tightly. I was unspeakably envious. To be on such intimate terms with these books—what could be better?  


Michael Taeckens has worked in publishing since 1995. He is a literary publicist and cofounder of Broadside PR (

Parul Sehgal (Credit: David Surowiecki)

Reviewers & Critics: Laura Miller of Slate


Michael Taeckens


Laura Miller, a journalist and critic living in New York City, is a books and culture columnist for Slate. In 1995 she cofounded Salon, one of the first online-only magazines, where she worked as an editor and staff writer for twenty years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column in 2003 and 2004. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000) and Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).


What was it like writing about books for a web publication in the 1990s, when print criticism still completely dominated the scene? Did you have a particular mission in mind for literary coverage when you launched Salon?
It was a great time to be writing and editing pieces about books because the idea of an Internet magazine was totally new. There were no rules. But there were also no guidelines. We had to make things up as we went along, and from square one, which is an experience hard to convey now, when everyone is used to getting journalism online. I spent a lot of time just drawing rectangles on legal pads trying to conceptualize how to publish a “magazine” that had no material substance. But that scrambling was very much outweighed by the thrill of doing more or less exactly what we wanted. With no metrics, no conventional wisdom about what “worked” online, we had a very rare freedom. I also worked with amazing people. Dwight Garner edited our books coverage back then, and every November we’d go on these epic reading binges to come up with a year-end top-ten list between the two of us.

The main thing we aimed to do was to bring a more elastic, less stuffy style to bear on literary criticism and journalism, a more informal voice. That voice is now ubiquitous on the Internet, so it’s also hard to convey just how refreshing it felt. We often used reviewers, Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor in particular, who were primarily film critics of the Pauline Kael school—although they were very knowledgeable about books. If we had a mission, it was to bring that kind of lively, vernacular approach to book criticism and journalism.

Did Salon’s books coverage change in style or volume during your two decades there?
Enormously. We went from running a book review every day to running a couple of books pieces per day along with the review during the dot-com boom, to, near the end of my tenure, a definite press from above not to cover books at all unless they offered a “red meat” political angle. That’s one of the reasons I left Salon—its divestment from substantive literary coverage.

Now, at Slate, do you purposefully seek books from presses outside the Big Five?
At Slate I’m fortunate enough to work closely with a great editor, Dan Kois, and we kick a bunch of ideas around every month or so. The focus is more on what will make an interesting “column,” which is technically what I write for Slate, although it sort of alternates between reviews and essays. As a journalist, your concern is for your readers—and editors/bosses—with providing them with interesting, arresting, trenchant writing. It’s nice if that also means bringing attention to a smaller press offering, but that’s not a priority. No respectable literary journalist considers helping out authors or publishers to be a central purpose. That would be a big mistake. A publication commands a significant audience because it prioritizes running pieces that are interesting and meaningful to that audience. Once you start to put someone else’s needs ahead of your readership, they tend to evaporate. Readers are really good at detecting ulterior motives.

In an interview with the National Book Critics Circle, you said, “I’m under the impression that most literary critics are primarily interested in writing, and while I find that subject fascinating, I am probably more interested in reading.” I find this rather intriguing, and think it’s a chief reason your writing on literary culture is so distinctive. Can you elaborate on your statement here?
We live in a time when everyone wants to write and seemingly no one “has time” to read. Everyone wants to speak and increasingly few people want to listen. People sometimes scoff when I make this observation and claim that aspiring writers read more than anyone else, but that is not my experience. I’m constantly meeting people who, when they learn what I do, always want to talk about the book they plan to write despite the fact that they seem to find no books worth reading. We fetishize the idea of being a writer in a variety of ways, most of them narcissistic. So when I meet a big reader who professes no desire to write, I think of them as a beautiful, almost mythical creature, like a unicorn, to be celebrated.

I also believe that reading is a profoundly creative act, that every act of reading is a collaboration between author and reader. I don’t understand why more people aren’t interested in this alchemy. It’s such an act of grace to give someone else ten or fifteen hours out of your own irreplaceable life, and allow their voice, thoughts, and imaginings into your head. I can’t respect any writer who isn’t abjectly grateful for the faith, generosity, and trust in that. I think there’s an unspoken, maybe even unconscious contempt for reading as merely “passive” in many people who obsess about writers and writing. Discussion of writers and writing generally bores me. But I’m always interested in why people read and why they like what they like. That’s far more likely to surprise and enlighten me than someone fretting about daily word counts and agonizing over their process.

Another hallmark of your critical writing is your interest in and attention to a vast array of authors—from Haruki Murakami, Rachel Kushner, Helen Oyeyemi, and Colson Whitehead to George R. R. Martin, Tana French, Neil Gaiman, and Elmore Leonard. How do you choose which authors to write about and which books to review?
I can’t say! I follow my nose, I guess. I’m generally looking for something that interests me because that’s the only means I have for inferring what might interest my readers, which is always the first goal. Genre is a complicated issue because it can be both an unfair stigma and an identifier of books that are reliably formulaic in an uninteresting way. But as a rule I find that it’s pretty easy to ignore genre divisions. They’re a marketing tool for publishers and readers with specific tastes, but it doesn’t serve a critic to believe in them unquestioningly.

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing what to write about?
As a duty, not much—and really, what writer wants to be read out of someone’s sense of obligation or desire to look good to others? But it would be very boring to constantly read and write about the same sorts of books with the same sorts of people in them, so variety is something I seek out.

Is there anything from the publishing side that raises your interest in a particular book or author—the size of the advance, notable blurbs, your relationship with an editor or publicist?
There are some editors with distinct tastes worth following (or avoiding), and a handful of publicists I trust to tip me off that something might really appeal to me. But mostly I tune out the marketing because it’s just not a reliable indicator of a book’s merit. Blurbs are hopeless: They’re mostly the result of favor trading. I do pay attention to trade reviews, and within the business of covering and publishing books there’s an extensive grapevine that I try to tap into frequently. Those are impartial takes. One thing I’d say to smaller publishers is, if they get starred trade reviews it would be worth it to send an email saying, “Would you like to see a copy?” If it’s not a press I work with a lot or have in my rolodex, making it easier to act on advance reviews is helpful. There are weeks when I just don’t have time to hunt down the contact information online.

You also write about a fair amount of nonfiction as well. Do you believe that reviewing a work of fiction is a markedly different art from reviewing a work of nonfiction?
Of course. Fiction is a work of art conjured out of whole cloth. It may be based on real world events and people, but it has no obligation to them. Nonfiction has a relationship to the truth that also needs to be considered. On a journalistic level, readers are typically more interested in nonfiction reviews. A review of a novel is interesting to the extent that you’ve read or intend to read the book, but you can learn something from a review of a nonfiction book even if you never read the book itself. People like learning stuff.

In August 2012 you wrote a Salon article, “The Case for Positive Book Reviews.” Where do you stand on the value of negative reviews?
I don’t think that a harsh (or even a merely unenthusiastic) review of an obscure book has much meaning in a world where the vast majority of books go almost entirely unnoticed. “Guess what. A book you’ve never heard of isn’t much good” is not an appealing premise for most readers. On the other hand, when a book has some stature in the world, it’s another matter; knocking down the unjustly prominent is part of a critic’s mandate. It’s just that hardly any books are prominent. Readers often really enjoy savage or derisive reviews. There’s a great, pent-up feeling of resentment out there on the part of readers who feel that they are constantly being sold—by reviewers and publishers—on books that are bad or just far less good than the praise they get. It’s kind of dumb, because what’s going on is usually just a disparity in taste, but we persist in the desire to believe that there are objective, consensus standards of good and bad. There aren’t. I’m not very keen on gratifying the anger people inflict on themselves as a result of embracing that belief at the expense of some poor author who has no responsibility for this.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier? Has a work of criticism ever changed your opinion of a writer’s work?
I have to be constantly reading new books, so I rarely get the opportunity to revisit anything. Sometimes I bail on a book if the first chapter or two don’t grab me, and then later the enthusiasm of others makes me wonder if I should have persisted. But by the time I’ve read and written about a book, my opinion is pretty solid.

What advice do you give to young students who aim to become professional critics?
My advice to people who want to be professional critics is not to. It wouldn’t be responsible to encourage young people to pursue a career path that is so economically unfeasible. It’s a nice sideline, but the only deliberate path I can think of to recommend is journalism school. There you can at least learn an assortment of skills by which you might—might—someday make a living as a writer. But it would be smarter to have a reliable day job that pays the bills and gets you out into the world and then write reviews on the side.

How many books do you typically receive per week—and of those, how many are you able to write about each month?
I get maybe seventy-five to a hundred books per week. It depends on the week. I write about three or four new books per month, since sometimes the topics of my column aren’t specific new books but an essay about a cultural topic or author/book from the past.

In an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn you stated that Twitter is “an absurd place to look for literary criticism.” Outside of that, has social media been helpful at all in your role as a literary critic?
I follow many people whose opinions and taste I value, so if they’re enthusing about a forthcoming book, I want to know that. This is especially true of big readers who are not writers—booksellers, bloggers, vloggers, etc.—and who operate outside of book/publishing enclaves. I like to know what all kinds of people are reading and what they think of it, especially if they’re the sort of people who pay real money for the books they read. I don’t follow publishers and I take all recommendations from published authors with a huge grain of salt because, as with blurbs, that part of Twitter is full of disingenuous logrolling.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’m a big audiobook fan, so I fill in the gaps of my work-related reading with listening. I really don’t need to be doing any more sitting down, thanks very much. The titles tend to be a mix of classics—as much Trollope as I can get—and new fiction that for one reason or another I didn’t end up reviewing, like Nathan Hill’s The Nix and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. I’m addicted to Audible’s daily deals for members, which offers all kinds of titles for five dollars or less. That’s where all my impulse buying goes, and I’ll probably never have time to listen to everything I’ve bought from them. 


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

Reviewers & Critics: Dwight Garner of the New York Times


Michael Taeckens


Dwight Garner is one of the most beloved book critics writing today. His New York Times reviews, whether positive, negative, or mixed, are always entertaining—not an adjective most would use to describe book criticism. Language comes alive in his reviews; one gets the sense that he’s playing with words and having fun along the way.

Raised in West Virginia and Naples, Florida, Garner started writing for alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix after graduating from Middlebury College. In 1995 he became the founding books editor of Salon, where he worked for three years, followed by a decade as senior editor at the New York Times Book Review. He has been a daily book critic for the New York Times since 2008. The author of an art book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements (Ecco, 2009), he is currently working on a biography of James Agee. You can follow him on Twitter, @DwightGarner.

With Goodreads, Amazon, and countless blogs, it seems like everyone’s a book critic these days. What credentials do critics have that make them critics? And what was your own path to becoming a professional book critic?
No credentials are required to write criticism: Either your voice has authority or it doesn’t. Either it has style and wit or it doesn’t. Thank God there’s no grad program, no Columbia School of Criticism. Nearly all the best critics are to some degree autodidacts. Their universities are coffee shops and tables covered with books.

I grew up in a house that didn’t have many books in it, beyond the Bible and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, at any rate, and where culture wasn’t particularly valued. I loved reading critics—book critics, movie critics, rock critics—from the time I was young. They gave me someone to talk to, in my mind, about the things I cared about. I’m the kind of reader who’s always flipped first to the “back of the book” of magazines, or to the arts pages of any newspaper. I worked in a record store during high school and wrote rock reviews for the school newspaper. This makes me sound almost cool; I was not almost cool. I was also the editor of my college paper. But I prefered writing book reviews, which I also did. Writing book criticism seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a chance to talk about everything that matters—the whole world, really.

You can’t trust Amazon reviews; I’m less certain about Goodreads, which I don’t know enough about. I’ve found it to be a terrific resource for certain kinds of information. Good writing is good writing wherever it appears, definitely including blogs. The more voices the merrier.

Facebook and Twitter have been a terrific boost to authors and publishers. Has social media aided your role as a critic?
I forget who it was who said that Facebook is a smart service for simple people while Twitter is a simple service for smart people. Ouch, right? But true enough. Twitter is companionable if you follow the right people, and you can dip into real-time conversations about books. You can see what people are saying; you can glean links to reviews. If people I respect are talking about a book, and it’s not on my radar, I’ll put it on my radar. I’ve reviewed books because I’ve seen interesting people talking about them.

Does buzz—a big advance or an author’s name—influence you?
Buzz matters and it doesn’t matter. Occasionally you might weigh in on a book because you have something to add about something everyone is talking about, perhaps to deflate the hype. Book critics envy movie critics only in that movie critics write weekly about things people are talking about and are likely to see.

Are you able to select which books you review or are they assigned to you? If you have a relationship with a publicist or editor, does it tip the balance?
At the Times we pick our own books. The daily books editor, Rachel Saltz, is a mensch, though, and is great at suggesting things. I review six or seven books a month; my schedule is two reviews one week, one the next. It’s about [equivalent to] the schedule of a major-league pitcher. Two or three of those books I know almost on contact that I want to review, because I’m interested in the author or I’m interested in the topic. After that, it gets headache-making. I sit down once a week or so with a big pile of galleys and poke around in them, looking for signs of life.

Relationships with publicists and editors (I don’t have many of those) don’t matter, either—a book is worthwhile or it isn’t, and the good ones know that. Having said that, a really good editor or publicist will know that very rare occasion to send up the bat signal, to indicate that a genuinely extraordinary book is on the horizon. Alas, even the bat signal, three times out of five, turns out to be hype.

Given the inordinate amount of review copies you must receive daily—just how many do you receive on an average day?—it seems like an e-reader would possibly help lighten the load. But the allure of physical books—even with galleys—is so hard to resist, isn’t it?
I get twenty-five to thirty books a day, and they really pile up on the porch. Last summer an elderly woman heard our three dogs barking—the windows were open, and we were out—and she saw the huge, sloppy pile of mail out front. She knocked on our neighbor’s door and asked, “Do you think the person who lives there is dead?”

I read e-books sometimes, mostly on my phone, but I don’t like to review from them. I write all over my books, I really mark the shit out of them, and I’m not confident that the notes I take on, say, a Kindle, will be recoverable in ten years. They’ll vanish, like the e-mail messages or the photos you meant to save from the laptop you owned three laptops back. So give me the dead-tree edition. I suspect I’ll always feel this way. Oddly, I do prefer to read magazines now on my phone or laptop. I find it easier on the eyes.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier?
I deeply regret one or two reviews I’ve written. I was too hard, once, on a writer with a first book out; I still mope about my arrogance. These are the kind of reviews I’ve heard described as, “You know that thing you’ve never heard of? It sucks.” I regret a few raves, too—times when I’ve gotten carried away. I want readers to trust what I have to say on an intergalactic level but also on a bank-card level. Books aren’t cheap. I don’t want thousands of people walking around thinking they’d like to dun me for $26.95.

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?
Very nearly always. It matters especially with fiction. I recently read the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in just a few days. Each is five hundred pages or so. It felt like I was back in college, cramming for an exam. But those are beautiful books, and I feel lucky to have been able to submerge myself in them. It was like having a lovely fever.

Negative reviews: Do they have a purpose and a place? When a review is mostly a summary with nary a positive or negative opinion in sight, is that essentially a kind version of a negative review?
I hate summary reviews, unless the critic is very knowlegable about the topic and is sort of touring it for you. It’s among my goals as a critic to rarely if ever write one. You can’t trust a critic who doesn’t write negative reviews. Most books simply aren’t that good. I try to find things to admire even in books I don’t like, and I try not to be punitive and to have a sense of humor. But what’s a critic for if not to think clearly, make fine discriminations, and speak plainly?

There’s been a lot of talk within book-critic circles about the VIDA Count and calls for more racial and cultural diversity. Do you take this into consideration when deciding what books to review?
I try not to think about it. I try to pluck the books I most want to review, and hope that my interests are not so unlike everyone else’s that the mix will be a genuine mix. But it’s always in the back of the mind. It matters.

If you could change one thing about the book-reviewing process or the world of book criticism, what would it be?
I wish more young novelists wrote criticism, or at least kept a hand in. Some do, but fewer than in generations past. Doing so used to be part of being in the guild. I discovered a lot of novelists through their criticism. Now everyone plays nice, at least in print, and it gets dull.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
The notion of reading for pleasure versus reading for work doesn’t have much meaning for me—it’s always both. But when I’m off duty, I most often find myself poking around in cookbooks. I thought my wife and I owned a lot of them; we have eight hundred or so. Then I met Nathan Myhrvold, who has fifteen thousand! I guess if you’re that wealthy it’s easier to be a collector.

I also like to read poetry and things like old collections of rock writing. Robert Christgau’s record guides from the seventies, eighties, and nineties are devilishly funny, and I find all kinds of things I want to listen to in them. I’ve heard that Christgau is writing a memoir. There’s a book I’m looking forward to. Put me down for that.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995, most recently at Graywolf Press and Algonquin Books. His website is

Maureen Corrigan (Credit: Nina Subin)

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  • February 12, 2019