|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.
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 Kings, Book of Numbers, Witz, A 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.