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30 Days, 30 Authors: Joshua Cohen

Saturday, November 21, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for Harper's, The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, and others. He lives in New York City.


The Doomed Generation

Monday, June 08, 2015 | Permalink

Joshua Cohen's most recent novel, Book of Numbers, will be published this week by Random House. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Torah is a stickler for chronology, and all its he-begot-she’s, and she-begot-he’s, are as much attempts at establishing a lineage as they are at establishing authority—documentation issuing from the Father of Fathers, God. There are ten generations between Adam, the first man, and Noah, the second first man, and then ten generations again between Noah and Abraham—whose son was Isaac, whose son was Jacob, whose sons went down to Egypt, where their descendants were enslaved.

To insist on this provenance is to insist that the people Moses led out of Pharaohnic bondage were a People—Israelites or, once they’ve received the Torah, Jews. In Hebrew, the fourth book of the Torah is called Ba-Midbar, literally “In the wilderness”—though in English the title is Numbers, after the census with which it begins. God orders Moses to poll the members of each tribe: Moses thinks he’s raising an army, God knows he’s counting the dead. None of the numbered will be allowed to cross the Jordan into Canaan—none will survive to fulfill the Promise of the Land. The Torah’s penultimate book is rife with the ultimate, as the newly liberated are condemned to drag through the desert for forty years—a generation’s span—until all who’d hesitated at the shore of the Red Sea, and revolted at Sinai and worshipped the calf, have expired. Slaves don’t get kingdoms, is the rabbinic interpretation—either be born into freedom, or die from its lack.

This, then, was my source: a story about how story breaks down—with the symbolism of Genesis and Exodus sacrificed to the literalist bureaucracy of Leviticus, which rendered it unto smoke, and accountancy. With the last of the great characters punished and perished (Moses’ sister, Miriam, followed by Moses’ brother, Aaron), the masses are left lugging the tabernacle around until they too have wasted away—into corpses computed like so many shekels, gerahs, ephahs, and cubits.

After Numbers, nothing’s left. Deuteronomy isn’t a book, but what happens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), summaries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instructions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)…

To read about Numbers’ doomed generation was to read about my own—a generation born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the millennium freed by the screens, to search—or, in alternate terms, to wander. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, securing while surveilling—our manna is data, information, the content that never quite contents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourning, we keep moving on: nothing can hold us, nothing sustains. It’s as if we’re always seeking a site just beyond—a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on.

Book of Numbers is my attempt at writing just that: a novel that encrypts my experience of this transition, from the culture of the book, which I continue to idolize, to an online Zion—a Zion 2.0—that will remain in Beta forever. The forty years of Numbers became 1971 (the microchips) through 2011 (the leaks). The sand of the desert became the Silicon of the Valley. My company in peripety is a search company—Tetration (the number four abounds). Moses—whom Freud regarded as a foreigner, an Egyptian prince—is Moe, an Indian engineer of genius. Korach, the rebel, is Kori, Tetration’s treacherous President. The CEO is named Joshua Cohen, who just happens to share that name with the failed novelist hired to ghostwrite his memoirs (the JCs also share an age: almost forty). May you find whatever correspondences you seek—but don’t forget Joshua the spy, who was sent out from the wilderness to the borders of Canaan, to determine whether or not it was conquerable.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Witz), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, The Forward, and others. He is a critic for Harper’s Magazine and lives in New York City.

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Ten Questions for Joshua Cohen

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 | Permalink

In its review of Four New Messages the New York Times said of Joshua Cohen, “he’ll make you want to be an angel investor in his stuff. What’s a book but a public offering? You’ll want to be in on the ground floor.” Jewish Book World’s Bob Goldfarb asked him about his work.

Bob Goldfarb: You’ve been compared to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. Can a contemporary writer avoid the anxiety of influence?
Joshua Cohen: Pynchon I thought a lot about in my late-ish teens; Wallace, though, never gave me “the howling fantods”—I was too young (b. 1980) to know to cheer the ’90s revolt against literary blankness and, by the time I began reading him, in the early oughts, I was living in Europe and more susceptible to that education. Wallace was always much too direct, too straight, for me (the concerns, not the style). He never talked out of the side of his mouth. His irony was not mine—was too goyisher, to put it bluntly. … No one has ever evaded influence, or anxiety—in or out of books.

BG: Is that harder for a writer who is also a critic?
JC: Criticism just pays the bills, but fiction remains indebted – to both fiction AND criticism.

BG: You sometimes write in a very vernacular voice. How much of that is ventriloquism or social critique or satire, and how much is it an extension of your own personality?
JC: Why can’t my own personality be one of ventriloquism/social critique? The more voices I write, the less I’m sure I exist at all.

BG: You also deploy an enormous vocabulary with lots of words never heard in conversation. How do you picture your readers reacting to them?
JC: I don’t consider a reader’s reaction to anything—I consider my own. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I follow the advice of Reb Spiegel, fifth grade, Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County: “Dick. Shun. Airy” (the class loved that gag, he loved that the class loved it). I might point out that dickshunairies are more available, and more useful, than they were in 1990.

Continue reading.


Friday, August 10, 2012 | Permalink
In this week's installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchanged ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part I here and Part II here. They have been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.



I like this idea of the computer being an “extension of [your] bedroom.” But I’m not sure it’s extended enough. Because for me it’s an extension of my bedroom as well, and of yours also, which is to say of Amanda’s too—sorry if that’s creepster.

What I mean is, I’m going to hold you to your Hendrix promise. He deserves more than 45 min.

I can only say that I wish I shared the options of your optimism with regard to the (other) options available. I would like to say the computer has enlarged my world in a positive way, but that would mean my assent to the idea that enlargement-of-world (TK Heideggerian German compound) is or could be positive. Rather to bastardize Wittgenstein I’m convinced that the opposite, not the world, is everything that is the case. I am too much the information addict, too much the hoarder. My head’s an uptown brownstone tenanted by the bros. Collyer, who’ve recently stopped paying rent.

My only hope, I tell myself, is surveillance, self-surveillance. So much of my life is lived under the sign of this limitation, this autorestriction. In the same way I can’t be around drugs, because I’ll take them. All of them. I’ll never keep a firearm in the house (the apartment, I mean, not the Collyer cortex). This is one feature of my personality it’s painful to admit to my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends/myself, but !unsurprisingly! less painful to admit in an email to be posted on a blog to be read by googolions, including, I’d assume, my parents/siblings/romantic partners and friends. Myself. One way I have of explaining this unsurprise is through fiction: If I write it, then it can’t be true, ergo it is not true. Another way is through nonfiction: By writing it, I have freed myself to live a fiction (denial). Regardless, it’s a fact that there’s never been an access I haven’t advantaged. It’s also a fact that I derive a certain pleasure from the intropunitive. I feel like, lamb spines aside, I should be paying you by the hour.

It’s out of this regulatory impulse that I wrote Four New Messages—what I told you on that drive up to that crazy Jewish bookery outside Amherst still holds (I was being “honest”). These messages were meant to be instructional, exemplary: “Emission” telling you to be careful about what you say, anything and everything will be held against you not in the divine court/congregation/community marketplace, but everywhere—even by strangers, who are the freshest gods. “McDonald’s” exchanges a sacred fear of words—the Tetragrammaton, for instance—for a profane fear of being labeled “the type of guy who lunches at/writes fiction using the word McDonald’s.” It’s an exercise in typing—not with the keyboard but with the mind: typology. “The College Borough” warns against exogenous ambition: beware of challenging the world. “Sent” warns against endogenous ambition: beware of challenging one’s self. It’s a depressing msg, further burdened with a don’t mistake the real for the virtual sermon straight out of Antiquity, whose transmission was also “wireless.” A crude summation, but at your request and, again, I can’t help myself.

I’ve always loved “the cautionary tale”—stories wherein a hero’s felled by worst weaknesses in a fashion so schematic as to put the lie to art. From Aesop to Belloc’s travesties, to Der Struwwelpeter (my father’s favorite book growing up) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (one of my own childhood favs), these are moral works not just because they contain morals but because of why they were written, or what they were written for/instead of (their justification) (raison d’êtiolation): implicit in all of them, in their very bound being, is this auxiliary lesson that it’s good to make good art, but it’s even better to save a soul. That’s why I chose the title, which rings to me like a companion to How Much Land Does a Man Need? or What Is To Be Done?

Of course I understand how deep my tongue is in everyone’s cheek with all this didactic pedantic pedagogical ethical shit. Obviously too I believe in art, good words (gospels) in good sentences, and haven’t yet discalced the Nikes to go a’begging. But the impulse remains: I needed rules for myself, I wanted rules, and these are they—narratized only because it was never the blank prose of the NJ criminal law code that kept me out of trouble, but the case histories of strangers, acquaintances, friends.

I’d like to conclude by noting that writing itself developed this way (the Book Council will appreciate this, trust me): the ten commandments appear only in the second book of the Bible, condensing a Genesis that less efficiently, but more effectively, formulates/dramatizes what happens when you take a life, lie, cheat, covet.

We’ll sacrifice our lambs on the morrow and dedicate all but their spines to yud hey vuv hey,


Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and, most recently, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic forHarper's Magazine.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

Quality Grumbling

Wednesday, August 08, 2012 | Permalink
In this installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Read Part I of their exchange here. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.



This is what I’ve come to expect from you—this level trust of gut. It’s one of your best qualities—both as a writer and a friend. And it’s a quality I frankly covet for myself. When you write that it doesn’t bother you to “use the same computer to type [your] fictions as [you] do to write [me] a note about where to lunch on Sunday,” my commonsense alert goes off and I get depressed and crawl into a corner where I smoke and drink icewater and lament my preciosity. (Both you and I know I could have used the word “preciousness.”)

So I’m chastened, but still some quivering gelatinous part of me—say, my knee—wants to maintain that there’s an element of computerwriting that somehow eludes analogizing with writers of the past using the same pen to draft both a shopping list and War and Peace Redux. The computer, for me, has always had a business aspect, or, better, what the MBAs might call an opportunity cost. It seems to professionalize me in ways that disgust. It does this by insisting, by its boxy gray existence alone, the concept that my writing might, will, one day be public. Now my conscious mind knows this, my conscious mind craves this, but I’m not sure that the conscious mind is the best of all minds, for me, to be writing with. I need to fool myself to write. To tell myself nothing matters, no one cares, I don’t care. That the desk and chair I’m describing has nothing to do not only with the desk and chair I’m occupying but with all possible desks (escritoires) and all possible chairs (Aerons) I might access online.

Not that the escritoires and Aerons haven’t helped me, but the computer compels me toward that help.

So yes, yes, our conclusion might be the same: the problem “is not with the tool but with the user.” But then the very moment I agree to agree, Heidegger jumps me with his Ge-Stell, or “enframing”: the artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist. I fantasize, whenever I make a mess of my life, that all equanimities and pragmatisms are just technological enframings of a natural frenzy.

Here, I’ve searched it up for us:

This, though, is from The Discourse on Thinking:

“Still we can act otherwise. We can use technical devices, and yet with proper use also keep ourselves so free of them, that we may let go of them any time. We can use technical devices as they ought to be used, and also let them alone as something which does not affect our inner and real core. We can affirm the unavoidable use of technical devices, and also deny them the right to dominate us, and so to warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.

“But will not saying both yes and no this way to technical devices make our relation to technology ambivalent and insecure? On the contrary! Our relation to technology will become wonderfully simple and relaxed. We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no,’ by an old word, releasement-toward-things.”

In Heidegger’s day I would’ve been too lazy, or too dead, to have typed this out. Thank God for copy/paste.

The German for “releasement” (indeed, Heidegger/his translators, John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, could have used “release”) is Gelassenheit.

That’s a good old word to repeat while waiting for the F Train at 4AM.

My tone question was related, in a sense. The computer gives us so many selves, or gives us the option of being so many selves, that what’s needed—or what I need—is some variety of Gelassenheit from a core personality, or from the idea of a core personality. It’s my inability to release—let’s please release all the sex from that verb—that makes me wary of publicity. You’ve asked me to articulate a guiding policy or principle for peddling one’s own book, but that’s what I’d wanted from you—but that’s what you’ve given me. Your formulations are sound, especially this one: “Anything you’re willing to say ‘Yes’ to and actually do, you can be responsible for.”

That sounds, I am serious, like something Jesus would’ve said, had he taken a correspondence course in logical positivism.

I’ll end with the concept you find most interesting—the one I find most interesting too—at least a concept we both can address without getting too bijou philosophical or maudlin: Voice.

It’s true that voice has been troubling me lately. I seem to have become more social/engaged than ever—I have many friends, I read many things—but when it comes to writing I’ve lost any inkling of what one can assume when addressing a reader (or, for that matter, a friend). No, no, I haven’t lost that old power o’assumption—I never had it—and it’s only because I’ve become so friended and am reading so much that I’ve noticed, very recently, this lack.

Lately I’ve found myself very much taken with two ways of writing: very general and direct, not fablespeak but more like late Tolstoy, and very specific and personal/private, oblique, think diaries (Dostoyevsky’s, Pepys’s), letters (Byron’s), think of unbooks, unplanned, accidental, collations (often posthumous, often not intended for publication) of whateverthefuck by Canetti, and, oy, Kafka. Notebooks by Tennessee Williams, Ashbery. Anything in the middle reads, I was about to write “mediumsized,” but more like a sales pitch, an upsell beyond all comprehension. This might be Quality Grumbling—me complaining about contemporary writing without the skill to convince—this might even be Reality Hunger, with a side of fries, but I suspect—pace David Shields—that both those appetites are subsumable under a single rubric: we don’t know how to address one another anymore. Because maybe there isn’t an “other.” Maybe there are only fragments of a “one.” It could be that childhood, for everyone, was more whole and coherent. And that growing up is just this superdistracting superdistractible search for someone or something else. The keywords are “Sie und du,” “monoamine oxidase inhibitors,” “Saturday Night Function (Ellington-Bigard),” and “Gershon Sirota.”

Google “Gelassenheit”—the site autocompletes with “gelastic seizure”:



“The artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist”—this is undoubtedly true, and it complicates the argument I was trying to advance with my perhaps somewhat pat examples, but I’m not sure that my entire line of thinking is negated by the admission that the relationship between the user and what he uses is one of reciprocal modification. I don’t share your sense that the computer has an ineluctable aura of “business” about it. Growing up, there was almost always a computer in my house. I can say with something like complete confidence that I was the first of my childhood friends to ever go online—onto Compuserve, via a 14400 baud modem that we hooked into the house’s only phone line. I also played a lot of video games as a kid, mostly on consoles, because we only had one computer—it lived in the family room—and my father was very wary of any activity that might damage it (keyboards don’t stand up to punishment quite the same way Nintendo controllers do). Later, when I got my own computer in my very own room, the feeling was not unlike getting my first stereo, or, for that matter, my first little writing desk. What I mean is that it didn’t feel limiting, it felt freeing. Here was something that was all mine that I could use however and for whatever I wanted to without asking permission, waiting my turn, or having someone look over my shoulder while I did it. The computer was an extension of the bedroom itself—another space, this one virtual, over which I had exclusive dominion, could personalize after my own taste, and which expanded the range of work and play activities available to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten over that feeling. I know so many writers who say that they can’t work at home, so they go to coffee shops, libraries, even pay to rent office space—this is a problem I’ve never had. When Amanda and I got this apartment back in February it came with a home office. This is probably the first time in my writing life that there hasn’t been a direct sightline to my workspace from my bed. A good thing, to be sure, but it’s taken a while to get used to.

None of which is to say that I’m unambivalent about the computer, only my ambivalence locates itself elsewhere than where yours seems to. My last year of high school I spent a lot of time online—in part because I was feeling very done with my hometown and in part because better technology made more things possible and I was interested in seeing what they were. I IM’ed with people I could have just as easily been on the phone with, I hung around Grateful Dead message boards looking for people to trade tapes with (cassette tapes!—sent through the U.S. mail). I downloaded lots of dirty pictures, and I played a massive-multiplayer online role playing game, where you had to team up with strangers you met in the virtual fantasy world and fight an unending battle against whatever was around. This, to me, is an example of “the tool making the user”—I felt it and could acknowledge it even as it was taking place—but I’ve switched my “user” back in for your “artist” because I’m not sure whether the re-making effect ever extended to my art. If I were writing a memoir, I might speculate at length about the effect of the computer on various aspects of my life (sexual, social, etc.) but suffice here to say that once I got to college, re-situated in a place and with a group of people I liked, whose artistic and political interests I either shared or adopted, I stopped doing most of the aforementioned online activities, because the point of all that shit had been to assuage loneliness and/or pass time, and now I had places to go and people to see.

All of which, I guess, is to say, that the computer has never seemed to me to have a developmental role in the way I make or think about my art. Rather, art is—among many other things—the arena in which I can process/analyze/interrogate the role the computer plays in the other areas of my life. Which brings us around to your book. Two of the stories in Four New Messages are explicitly concerned with the impact of the way the virtual and meatspace worlds inform each other. In “Emission,” the main character, a drug dealer, does something sleazy at a house party, which gets converted into salacious web gossip, gunks up his Google-ability, and basically ruins his life. Which is truly saying something since his life was something of a ruin to start with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Richard Monomian’s original transgression is in any sense redeemed or excused, but as the story progresses there is a sense that the punishment has outmatched the original crime. Though of course “the punishment” itself doesn’t seem to be purposefully delivered—it’s an unplanned side-effect of the reporting party’s use of the web as reporting medium. In “Sent” there’s a kind of reciprocal feedback between the virtual and the physical. That novella opens with what might be my favorite episode from this collection, and one of my favorite pieces of yours in general: the history of a bed from the time it was a tree in a forest, hundreds of years ago in Russia, taken through its chopping and carving and generations of ownership until it finally ends up as the “stage” for a cheap amateur (or “amateur-style”) porno that gets posted on the internet, where it’s viewed by an American manboy of our own era, who becomes so obsessed with the “starlet” he watches on the virtual screen that he decides to try and track her down in real life.

But all four stories engage with aspects of “the way we live now.” “The College Borough” is as fine a satire of creative writing-as-academic-discipline as I think I’ve ever seen. “McDonald's” attempts to resist the total penetration of our lives and selves by branding language/ideology: it goes on a kind of hunger strike from the corporate lexicon, and delirium ensues. I love the book, in no small part because it feels so straightforward—not light, per se, but certainly more inviting than your previous novel, Witz. Which, for the record, I loved very much—it was a great challenge and pleasure, on so many levels—but going from Witz to Four New Messages reminded me of DeLillo going from Underworld to The Body Artist and then Cosmopolis. Did it feel good, with the Great Big Book behind you, to get back to the story/novella form? How did you go about gathering these disparate tales together around their several central themes? If I was going to be a total shit about it, and entreat you to tell me, in your own words, what this book is “about,” what would you say? Actually, it occurs to me that I did get you to do this once before—when you were working on “Emission” and we were driving back from the reading at the Jewish book store in Massachusetts, I remember you describing the piece to me before I had ever read a draft of it, and that you said your intention was, in a limited but real sense, pedagogical. That the story would be offered in the tradition of the advice-narrative, in which the fiction illustrates a familiar contemporary problem, to which it offers both a solution and a moral. Do you still feel that “Emission” works this way? Would you say that the book as a whole does, or that it can? Why isn’t your book called “How Should a Person Be?,” or since that’s taken, “How a Person Should Be”?


Read Part III of Joshua and Justin's conversation here.

Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and, most recently, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic forHarper's Magazine.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

Promowork: A Necessary Evil

Monday, August 06, 2012 | Permalink
In this installment of the Visiting Scribe, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.



I hope you’re doing well. I’m looking forward to the lamb spines, certainly. Sunday would be good. They’re on me, of course, of course. I owe you as much plus drinks for your help with this—this—I don’t know what this is. The Jewish Book Council has apparently read and enjoyed this new book of mine, Four New Messages—now that, after Citizens United v. FEC, a for-profit corporation can be considered a person, I feel comfortable saying that a nonprofit corporation can at least read my fiction and enjoy it enough to ask me to write a series of posts for their blog, gratis. Rather the recompense is contained in the idea that these emails-to-blogposts—a medium perhaps appropriate for the book, because the book is set, partially, on the internet—would help publicize the book, would help sell the book to the Jewish bookbuying public (who buys books? Jews, women, Jewish women). I didn’t know what to write, so I roped you out of Park Slope and into public.

Which will be, essentially, our subject.

Now I’ve read a lot of your writing—I’d guess about 4x what’s been published—and you’ve read a lot of mine—let’s agree on the same random ratio(cination). Though most of the writing we’ve sent each other hasn’t been writing-writing, but this: emails. Stuff about what, where, when, a sliver of how—the why’s always implied. In fact, if this were an email only to you and not an open crier type bellringer I wouldn’t have to explain all these facts. We’ve already discussed this exchange. We’ve agreed that you’ll be remunerated for this interlocution in lamb spines at Xi’an Famous Foods. On Sunday. Time and which among the East Broadway, Bayard, St. Marks locations (not Flushing!!), TBD. We’ve discussed, we have, the Jewish Book Council. Their cattlecall auditions that offer Jewish or Jewishish writers slots in various book or bookish events throughout the country. Their general—let’s say shepherding or herding, to continue the metaphor—of the Jewish(ish) (and Jewish[ish] female) reading public(s). We know all this. We also know what it’s like to publish and promote books—to have to promote books—and God knows you’ve given gracious audience to my own whisk(e)y philosophizing over the necessary evil of this promowork, my barstool history take on how writers even just a generation older than us never had to care much about this, really actually didn’t feel it necessary to care much about this because the book advances and criticism gigs paid high enough and living costs were lower.

Also there’s the pride or pride in art issue.

Writers were either dignified or Norman Mailer (which was another form of dignity, perhaps).

But the purpose of this email isn’t to ask you to articulate your feelings about the devolution of authorship/authority via the devolution of PR responsibilities (though if you’re so inclined, go ahead), rather the purpose is to ask you how you feel, specifically, about my writing—our writing—this.

We spend most of our days writing words, some written for an intimation of eternity that to my mind has been projected from the purview of fantasy or dream to that of technology (our writing might last forever—not because it deserves to but because of the bytes), but others written to communicate South of Union Square Chinatown food options/rescheduling due to mass transit malfunction. Yet we write them on the same platform: the computer (to be sure: I use the computer only for journalism and to edit—all fiction’s drafted by hand).

I guess I’m not asking about your process (again, unless you’re inclined to address that)—or about if/how you consider those two types of writing differently (again, again, etc.)—I’m not asking about anything that might be answered better with a sneer at preciousness or, best, the offer of a singleride Metrocard to Maturityville—rather I’m asking about registers, valences, casualness/formality, Truth. How honest should I be about my attitude toward publicity? Should my attitude change and why? What are the uses of distance and estrangement and obfuscation and plain old lying—in life? in fiction? Lastly, until you give me your lastly: Omniscient narration and dialogue in fiction are often delightful when delivered in the same “tone,” and often delightful when delivered in different “tones.” But so many books I’ve read lately—contemporary books—fail to find a convincing similarity (everything overassumes in the vernacular, or bores back to the nineteenth century) OR convincing difference (the narrations stately like Henry James but the dialogues like a scatological Hank Jim). Why is this? Do people—which is to say “nonwriters”—have the same problem “in life”?

Answer those and I’ll spring for the ribs.


Dear Josh,

Okay. You’ve thrown a lot of questions at me here, so let me describe what I’m seeing and then let’s see where we are. (I almost wrote “hearing,” because when I read your words I hear your voice in my head, but if I were having the screws put to me by the fact-checker I’d have to admit that what I hear right now is the desk fan in my office, my own keys clacking on the keyboard of my MacBook, and Nathan Salsburg’s wonderful instrumental acoustic guitar record, “Affirmed,” which I switched to just a minute ago from Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, because that was too noisy to “hear” myself think over, despite having only a minute before that having posted on my Facebook page that I intended to listen to Hendrix for “most of the afternoon.” He’s lucky if he got forty-five minutes. So much for the honest presentation of a public self.) Like you, I compose my fictions by hand and type them up later, editing as I go, then printing out again for another read-through (often aloud) and hand-written edit. This process is repeated as many times as a given piece demands. But it doesn’t bother me that I use the same computer to type my fictions as I do to write you a note about where to lunch on Sunday, anymore than it would if I were to use the same pen I was first-drafting with to dash off your address on a postcard I was sending you. I don’t see the materials themselves as inherently sacred or profane. The computer is a nexus-point for so many different parts of our lives (public, private, interpersonal, professional, political, artistic, cultural-consumptive, &c.) that historically were experienced or pursued separately and without reference to one another—as in, when you were doing thing A, you were necessarily not doing things B and/or C and/or D. It’s up to the individual, therefore, to decide what degree of simultaneity is appropriate at a given time. Just because you have the ability to watch a dirty movie clip in one browser window while leaving a birthday message on your grandmother’s Facebook page in another browser window doesn’t mean that you should. Similarly, just because you have the ability to make lunch plans or trade gossip or read “status updates” using the same device you use to edit your magnum opus does not mean that trading gossip and reading status updates is a good use of your designated Valuable Writing Time. So the problem—if there is a problem—in my view is not with the tool but with the user.

Do I think that non-writers struggle to find the right tone—the thing that will make them sound like the people they wish to project themselves as or perhaps even actually are? Sure. I think everyone’s always working to become or at any rate maintain their status as their best self. If anything, the writer (more generally, the artist) has an easier time of it, because we spend so much time practicing on these microcosmic people we create just to fuck with; we have (or ought to have) a more refined sense of how these things work.

You should be very honest about your attitude toward publicity. I’d be curious to hear you articulate it, perhaps in the form of a guiding policy or principle if you have one. I’ll give you mine, which is to mostly say “Yes” to things, unless there’s a compelling reason not to—time or dignity being the main ones. The work of writing has literally nothing to do with the work of publicizing that writing after it’s finished. I’ve never sought “fame” or a spotlight for their own sakes (and God knows haven’t found them) but when I make the decision to publish my work, I’m saying that I want it to have an existence beyond my own desktop, a public life, and if it’s going to have one I want it to have the biggest, best one possible. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly about that. They’re two different skill-sets, two entirely different and in certain crucial ways irreconcilable frames of mind. There are ways to have fun with it and ways to get through it when it’s not fun, but more than anything else, choosing to participate affords you the best possible chance of message control. Anything you’re willing to say “Yes” to and actually do, you can be responsible for. The more hands-off you are the more you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s press releases, tag lines, and surmises, or at risk of simply being ignored.

I hope I haven’t gotten too far off track here. I worry too that my instinct to be contrary, when applied to your deep ambivalence, causes me to play the wide-eyed Happy Guy. There are a lot of things about “publicity” that I hate—particularly the way young writers are taught to crave it above all other things—such as craft, discipline, and integrity. And of course I notice that the one question I shirked was the one I was most interested in—the question having to do with voice in fiction, this notion of convincing similarity versus convincing difference. Maybe you can expand a bit on your concept, or clarify how you see this question of aesthetics/mimetics relating to these notions of the public/private self, writerly or non?


Read part Part II of Joshua and Justin's conversation here.

Joshua Cohen is the author of Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and, most recently, Four New Messages (Graywolf Press). He is the New Books critic for Harper's Magazine

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.

Book Trailer: Four New Messages

Thursday, July 12, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joshua Cohen, author of Witz and A Heaven of Others, will be publishing his newest book, Four New Messages, with Graywolf Press next month.  View a short film based on "Emission," one of the short stories from FNM, below:

Emission from Spinks on Vimeo.

Book Cover of the Week: Four New Messages

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ok ok, I know you have a bit of a wait for Joshua Cohen's new book, Four New Messages (August 7, 2012), but I couldn't resist sharing now (don't worry--we'll remind you).  To hold you over until then, check out reviews of Witz and A Heaven of Others and check out Cohen's posts on the Visiting Scribe.

Joshua Cohen Around the Web

Monday, November 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joshua Cohen, whose most recent novel, Witz, was published earlier this year, offers criticism and advice around the web:

New York Times review of Adam Levin’s The Instructions

Tablet review of the new translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

Advice from “Ask The Paris Review”

Shteyngart and J. Cohen Imagine the Future

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week, Vox Tablet invites listeners to consider some unconventional summer reading. Gary Shteyngart and Joshua Cohen have both come out with new novels that paint a very dark picture of the future… Read On