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.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. His books include the nov­els Mov­ing KingsBook of Num­bersWitzA Heav­en of Oth­ers, and Caden­za for the Schnei­der­mann Vio­lin Con­cer­to; the short-fic­tion col­lec­tion Four New Mes­sages, and the non­fic­tion col­lec­tion Atten­tion: Dis­patch­es from a Land of Dis­trac­tion. Cohen was award­ed Israel’s 2013 Matanel Prize for Jew­ish Writ­ers, and in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young Amer­i­can Nov­el­ists. He lives in New York City.