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Maureen Corrigan on "Fresh Air," banned books and the art of criticism

Maureen Corrigan is the book critic on NPR's Fresh Air.
Maureen Corrigan
Courtesy photo
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic on NPR's Fresh Air, spoke about her work with Little Rock Public Radio.

Maureen Corrigan, longtime book critic for NPR’s "Fresh Air" and a professor of literature at Georgetown University, visited Little Rock over the weekend to speak at the Six Bridges Book Festival. Her talk closed out the festival and kicked off “Banned Book Week.” Corrigan's presentation focused on the history of banned books.

In an interview with Little Rock Public Radio, Corrigan said “I have one area of certitude in my life, and it's about books.”

The Critic's Process

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Corrigan said she would receive up to 200 novels a week. For the show, she reviews about four a month.

“Sometimes I'll start reading and right away I'll say, 'Ugh,'” she said, estimating about a third of all books she begins reading go unfinished.

Corrigan says she used to feel drawn to a book based on the art on its cover. But after the pandemic, Corrigan mostly receives digital copies of books. Now, she makes her choices based on “the pitch.”

“Stuff jumps out of me when it's fresh,” she said. She cited the example of a recent novel called “Land of Milk and Honey” by C Pam Zhang. The book is a dystopian novel, a genre Corrigan is largely “sick of.” It tells the story of a chef who works for a millionaire after the earth is hit by some kind of natural disaster. Corrigan said stayed with her long after she read it.

Although, she says she doesn’t love many of the books to which she gives good reviews.

“There's a difference between liking a book and thinking that it's good,” she explained, saying as a critic she often tries to put her personal feeling about the novel aside.

Corrigan’s reviews are generally positive. She avoids giving negative reviews to debut novels, calling it “unnecessary.” She also avoids best-seller authors like Stephen King because his work is too widely-read for her reviews to have an impact.

The few negative reviews she has filed for "Fresh Air" were of books written by seasoned authors. For example, she has been publicly critical of author Ian McEwan.

“He started to do this maneuver in his novels that I came to really resent,” she said. “He would immerse you in a world and then kind of toward the end of the novel be like, 'This was all made up.'”

Her least favorite novel is a book of his called “Saturday.” She said the ending is “tripe.”

Corrigan has noticed several current trends in publishing. She found several novels written this past year that were set in the golden age of Hollywood. A new cohort of novels like “The Life of The Mind” by Christine Smallwood are about English departments and graduate schools. Several novels like "Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas are responding to the #MeToo movement.

Corrigan wrote a book called “So We Read On” about her favorite book “The Great Gatsby.” Out of all books, she says this is the one she wants to be buried with.

“It's got everything,” she said.

Banned books

Corrigan says recently her inbox, which was once filled with requests to read certain books, is now filled up with people sending her cases about recent book censorship and bans.

She talked about the history of book banning at a talk she gave for the finale of the Six Bridges Book Festival in Little Rock on Sunday.

“In my darkest moments, I really do think Americans care more, are more passionate about book banning than they care about reading,” she said.

Corrigan once believe that banning a book was a good way to make sure a book sold many copies, but now she questions if that is true. In the lecture, she mentioned one of the earliest examples of book banning.

In 1637, Thomas Morton wrote a book called "New English Canon." The book was critical of Puritans and depicted Native Americans in a positive way. Morton was exiled for writing the book, which largely disappeared for decades.

Corrigan says educators and librarians often do the same thing by removing books from library shelves or cutting controversial books from their syllabi.

Most banned books, she observed, are written in the first person.

In this way, she felt books “can be dangerous,” she said because “they get in your head.”

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.