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: http://​ssboth​well​.com/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​e​b​o​o​k​s​c​l​u​b​.​o​r​g​_​_​T​h​e​_​Q​u​e​s​t​i​o​n​_​C​o​n​c​e​r​n​i​n​g​_​T​e​c​h​n​o​l​o​g​y_and

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”: http://​en​.wikipedia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​G​e​l​a​s​t​i​c​_​s​e​izure



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.

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.