Promowork: A Necessary Evil

This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. Today, Joshua begins the conversation.


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.



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