Over the past few years, Joshua Cohen has steadily amassed a staggeringly impressive body of work. His criticism appeared in Harper’s; Four New Messages, his collection of novellas, earned rave reviews for its deft prose and bravura displays of nested storytelling, and his novel Witz was both dense and dreamlike, evoking centuries-old imagery and New Jersey rest stops in equal measure. All of which begs the question of what’s next for Cohen — one that I sought to answer via this interview.
I feel like the past year has found you doing more high-profile nonfiction, including writing about Atlantic City for The New Republic. Do you have anything else planned along similar lines?
The Atlantic City thing was just a brief love-hate-letter to a city that formed me, chiefly by its formlessness. It’s a depressing nonplace that’s always taken money from the dying and now is dying itself.
From last fall through the winter, I enjoyed writing the New Books column at Harper’s, and I’m only bringing that up (crude transition) because there were a number of books I wish I’d written about in that space but, for one reason or another, I skipped. In order of how bad I feel for not writing about them/how good v. how critically neglected I felt they were: Claudio Magris’ Blindly (reason: couldn’t fit it in, thematically); Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times (waited too long to get to it, according to arbitrary, editor-defined “window”); Gerald Murnane’s Inland (I’d been told that J.M. Coetzee was writing about it for the NYRB (still, I was disappointed by his review – it read like a step by step guide to patting someone on the head, autotranslated from the Hungarian)); Dror Burstein’s Kin (my own timidity about writing about too many Israelis – people might get the idea that I was Jewish – and too, the column was threatening to become a Dalkey Archive Fest (see below))…
Do I have anything else planned? You, my friend, have a great arm for softball. A great arm for T-ball. I have a book, nonfiction, publishing in the UK in mid-May: Attention! a (short) history. It is exactly that: a history of attention, and it is short. “Truth in advertising,” by the way, is perhaps the best catchphrase of late last century.
Is Attention the book that you had mentioned when you were interviewed by Jason at McNally Jackson last year? Any plans for a US release at this time?
It is, yes. But no plans yet for a US release. Or, no definite plans, though perhaps by the time this interview is published there will be, and I’ll have moved to the slopes of Mont Cocaïne, Switzerland, on the proceeds of a book about Freud, and William James (who, however, preferred nitrous oxide).
How did you come to write the introduction for Dalkey Archive’s new edition of Charles Newman’s In Partial Disgrace?
Ben Howe, Newman’s nephew, and the book’s editor – though his job was more than that – he was the book’s saving angel – graciously asked me. I had the family’s support. I’ve always wanted to write that. I had the family’s support. In Partial Disgrace – I’m not sure what I can offer after the logorrhea of the intro. The book couldn’t have been put together better (and that was Ben, with guidance from his editor at Dalkey, Jeremy Davies); the manuscript/s was/were a mess only a genius could have made. It’s for readers who liked Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, but wanted factual Paris to be a fictional Hungary, more sex, and more dogs.
As someone who really enjoyed your column at Harper’s, I’m curious: do you have any other regular reviewing gigs coming up?
I don’t. Either I can’t find one, or there isn’t one to be found (that would pay for even just one point five of the three things that Mrs. Gartner, fourth grade social studies, taught me were essential: “food,” “clothing,” “shelter” – Mrs. Gartner spoiled me for life…).
Seriously though, I’ve been lucky. Criticism became a viable career with the expansion of the popular press, enabled by the linotype machine, in the 1880s, and became unviable careerwise but fascinating as a populist pursuit with the expansion of the individual press – why not? – enabled by the internet. I am, at 32, a member of the last generation of American writers to have made a living from writing about print culture for print – or, perhaps, from writing about books for any media. I supported myself in this way for 11-12 years, and so any sadness I feel is shit in a fist compared to older friends and acquaintances who’ve put in double, triple, quadruple that time and now find themselves unemployed.
It’s a cliché – itself an old printing word – but true: one of the many ways that capitalism works, or doesn’t, is that it forces more responsibilities on less people. In books, that means that over the past century editing, for example, has gone from being the province of editors, to that of agents, to that of MFA programs. I might not have a problem with a future in which the writer must become his or her own publisher (editor, art director, marketing department), distributor, wholesaler and retailer… But I do have a problem with the disingenuousness of the job description. Read between the lines and find a future in which the writer is also the reader – the only reader. Which is fucked. For me, the only justification for a massmarket has always been how it’s kept me out of “communities.” I don’t do well by communities. I like living alone, borrowing clothing, and eating all my meals at delis.
Most of what we’ve been talking about here falls under the heading of nonfiction. Do you have any longform fiction in the works?
Guilty, yes. That’s the title. “Guilty, yes.” It’s the book Nabokov would’ve written had he liked Joyce. … Why can’t I answer the question without self-effacing or informercializing? I’ll try.
You remember the Biblical book called “Numbers”? That’s the one in which the Israelites, freed from slavery, are condemned to wander around the desert for 40 years, are condemned to die in the desert, and so only their children may inherit the Land.
Now, make those 40 years roughly 1970-something to 2010-something. Make that desert America. Make that Land something online. “Moses” helped to found a search-engine. “Joshua” is Joshua, and more.
A few years ago, The Cupboard released Bridge & Tunnel (& Tunnel & Bridge), a chapbook of work written while on public transit. Do you still find yourself writing while in transit, or have your methods changed since then?
I don’t, unfortunately. I used to live very far out. Brighton Beach far out. Now I live out of a bag at my aunt’s.
Photo: Adam Gong