An Experiment in Anxiety

A Conversation with Joshua Cohen on PCKWCK

Most authors give interviews when they’ve been done with their books for more than a year. After the long processes of copyediting, cover-approval, and book-tour scheduling, the actual composition of the book is a distant memory. The following conversation with the novelist Joshua Cohen was conducted last Tuesday, when he was about 40 percent finished with his new book, PCKWCK (his tenth)—and, for a few hours every day this week, the newest novel in existence.

Cohen, whose last novel, The Book of Numbers, was widely celebrated as the most sophisticated and successful literary engagement with the internet to date, is writing PCKWCK live, in real time, over the internet. Every day this week, between 1 and 6 p.m. ET, visitors to PCKWCK.com see a blinking green cursor where Cohen, holed up in a basement in Brooklyn, is presently writing or editing the text. Users can post comments in a carnivalesque (e.g., anonymous and unmoderated) chatroom that occupies the book’s right-hand margin. And they can fill out a questionnaire that aggregates data that Cohen uses to formulate the next chapter of the book.

The project was conceived by Cohen and Useless Press, a collective that produces data-driven internet experiments. On Friday, the text of PCKWCK will be taken offline and the book, along with many of its comments and other user-generated data, will be published in a bound edition, with all proceeds going to the ACLU.

I spoke with Cohen over the phone minutes after he finished his second day’s shift. He was exhausted, and drank Negra Modelo.

—Andrew Leland

I. PCKWCK

THE BELIEVER: It’s pronounced Pickwick, is that right?

JOSHUA COHEN: I’m trying not to pronounce it. 

BLVR: Okay.

JC: It’s loosely, thematically based on Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, one of the most famous—if not the most famous and most successful—early serialized novels. That’s the story of the Pickwick Club, which is a group of British gentlemen who go tear-assing around the countryside in pursuit of knowledge, and they end up really getting drunk and getting into fights with high hilarity along the way. But in my rewrite, Pickwick seems to have become a military contractor that extraordinarily renders people and tortures them.

BLVR: Including your narrator?

JC: Including my narrator so far, yes.

BLVR: Well, that suggests my first question. Which is that seeing what unfolded the first two days, there has to have been some degree of preparation.

JC: There wasn’t actually that much preparation beyond reading The Pickwick Papers and walking around, thinking about it. For me, this is an exercise in increasing ego by destroying ego. And satisfying my vanity by shattering it. I didn’t make any notes. That’s part of the agreement I made with Useless Press. I didn’t write anything on any surface, in any way. I was thinking, but it was the kind of thinking where you’re walking down the street and something pops into your head and you make a note not to forget it. But I didn’t say, I’m going to sit in a chair and think. I wanted there to be a degree of accountability. We’re living in this time of complete transparency and complete accountability. Give the culture the art it deserves.

BLVR: And you’ve been vocal about, I think you called it, “outsourcing our memories to our devices.”

JC: Obviously I have some anxiety about this. I was born before the internet, born into a culture of the book, into a family that valued books. I was taking books as the model of all thought—in the sense of worrying, fussing over fixities. Having a perfectionism. Having a notion that it’s never right, never at its depth. It’s never been contoured in its most perfect way. The idea and the expression coming at the same time, being inseparable. A book’s a constant search for this elusive perfection. And once you see the world that surrounds it, that enfolds that notion of perfection, it becomes harder to sustain.

First of all, there’s the rate of production that the internet demands: this gaping maw that just wants content. We throw content down it. We send messages to each other and the messages build up and the rate of communication constantly escalates. And as it does, the notion of the slow, painstaking culture worker becomes not only economically devalued, but also culturally devalued. That kind of work is seen as pretentious. It’s seen as something that becomes superior, snobbish. I don’t like those characterizations, but I also don’t want to feel so distant, so split in myself. This was an attempt to integrate those aspects of my life—or destroy all of them.

And I should say: I don’t really believe this is a novel. It’s certainly not a good novel. But it’s not even a bad novel. It’s whatever a person can do, whatever I can do, sitting five days a week with a camera on me and trying to make sense out of a mess. With a large part of the mess being given to me by user data and by comments.

BLVR: So tell me how it’s been going. 

JC: I finished about ten minutes ago, so I’m just exhausted. It’s ironic that you want to talk to me when it’s finished for the day. I was a younger, brighter person at 10 a.m. I actually have no concept of how it’s going. The project seems to me to be beyond my comprehension, because I’m worried about the sentences. The sentences are just at the point that I can read them and not vomit. I don’t have an idea that there is a through-line. I can’t read my own work, but I certainly can’t read my own work written under pressure.

Beyond that, this work is presented in the context of a project. And I don’t have the ability while working on the writing to be looking at the comments or the metrics or anything like that. I should probably change some sentences from today. I’m going to look later tonight at what the data show or else I’ll fall asleep.

BLVR: So you don’t look at the comments at all while you’re writing?

JC: I can’t. If I’m trying to write somewhat of a coherent episode in a period of five hours, I can’t be looking at multicolored scrolling hate-speech.

BLVR: But today some of that multicolored scrolling hate-speech actually made its way into the novel. Or some version of it.

JC: No, no. That was yesterday’s. I woke up this morning and looked at the entire chat log from Monday. I picked out some things I was going to use, and I picked out the metrics—or the data we got for answering these questions we brought in. And I tried to, as quickly as possible, shape an idea for where a narrative would go.

I get the data at midnight, and I get the full chat logs at midnight. I looked at it for two hours before I fell asleep. And I looked at it this morning until one o'clock and I started. And it’ll be the same thing tonight. I’ll get the data and the chat logs and I’ll see if I can stay up till two and parse things out.

II. NO ONE HAS MORE REALITY HUNGER THAN A TORTURER

BLVR: People in the chatroom are really invested in the idea that you might be seeing them, and seeing what they’re saying.

JC: What do you mean seeing—like physically seeing them?

BLVR: No, like you might be reading what they’re writing.

JC: Well, then they’ve never written. Or they’re much faster writers than I am. I’m looking at the same page everyone sees, except mine doesn’t have my face on it. It doesn’t have the image, the camera. Because I asked Sam [Lavigne, who developed the pckwck.com for Useless Press] not to put it on. I didn’t want to see my face. The chatroom was more difficult to remove for reasons I don’t actually understand. So I have it over to the side of the page so it’s actually not registering in the margins of my screen. Sometimes it gets tugged over a little if I drag a window. But I’m barely seeing it, let alone reading it.

Do they think I’m reading these things and participating and writing back? Or do they think that I’m reading it later?

BLVR: I get the sense that they imagine you’re writing and glancing over, the same way it works for the readers: we’re reading the text and we’re kind of glancing over at this other scrolling text next to it, and vice versa.

JC: But the reader’s experience is reading it. And I’m writing it. It’s not like writing an email where you can be writing an email to someone and you can be chatting to someone at the same time. I’m trying not to totally embarrass myself. Maybe I’m making a mistake. I’m going to embarrass myself anyway, maybe I might as well read comments all day. But no, I’m not looking at the comments.  

BLVR: Were you expecting the comments to be so out of control? It seems like you had to have known—just because this is the nature of all internet comments.

JC: Were they totally horrible today?

BLVR: No, I think probably less horrible than yesterday. If you read through the log yesterday, you know what they are. But it’s a madhouse, right?

JC: Honestly, I didn’t expect the comments to be as horrible as they were the first day. Horrible in the sense of hateful—I did not expect that. I thought that there’d always be some of it, but I don’t know who’s going to sit around and look at a guy do something for five hours that is fairly intellectual, and boring. Also, this is literature. I didn’t think it was a Reddit thing.

I also had the idea some things would be objectionable and, frankly, that’s why I conceived of the frame narrative of rendition and torture. I did that hoping if there was anything in the comments, the commentators would be cast as my torturers. And I would think if most people had any sort of political sensibility, that it would at least show them the weight of their speech in the context of the story. It’s their choice not to care about that. The text is coming down on Friday; we’re going to publish it as a book along with the comments, as well as some of our metrics. Then all the proceeds from the book go to the ACLU. To me, these are deeply important aspects of this project.

BLVR: Will the comments be published in full?

JC: No, because that would be a few thousand pages. I think we’re going to select certain comments. It’s a question of whether we’re going to proliferate things that are particularly hateful out of context. And we would never do that. We’re having a discussion about whether we black out some of the words—there are a lot of possibilities. It’s certainly not my desire to make more of this stuff in the world; it’s more my desire to provide a forum for the reweighting of speech. And that might be a stupid and really idealistic thing to do, but you know what? So is writing a fucking novel.

BLVR: Is this idea specific to the internet? Do you have the same sense of your books’ readers as interrogators?

JC: Not at all. And I’m not making a moral equivalency between online commentators and torturers. I’m making a metaphor. And the metaphor is essentially one where one can act with complete impunity and not really care or be held responsible for damage.

Part of the mechanism of the book, of course, is to do something under duress. You never get a full confession out of torture. You only get a false confession. You only get a mess out of torture. You only get the garbled. And the position of the torturer is of the all-powerful bully who can decide beyond the fact that they can inflict pain and wound you and possibly kill you. They’re also people who can decide what is true and what is not. And it’s that aspect this project is directed at.

BLVR: In that way, it’s directly bound up with the idea of the novel and fiction.

JC: Right. Is the narrator the author? Is he telling me the truth? No one has reality hunger more than a torturer, who’s convinced himself or herself that the person they’re torturing has information that would stop an imminent attack. Who’s deluded themselves into thinking that they’re the only thing that stands in the way of this person or this person’s organization or this person’s relation or acquaintance inflicting horrible damage upon the world. The degree to which they can push these people for information. And to me, fiction does have some of these aspects. How far can you push on a fictional text to see where the truth is before you’ve lost all the meaning of reading literature? You’ve lost the entire point of reading. 

I’m not saying reading has a point, but you’ve lost the meaning of reading.

BLVR: Is Dickens your source just because of the seriality? Why Dickens?

JC: The enormous pressure he was under. The great pressures of producing that much text. It was the sense that your best inventions are the ones forced out of you. The entire reason The Pickwick Papers is published is the explosion of the printing press. He’s writing at a time when it was cheaper than ever to mass-produce content, and to disseminate it. And it seemed to me to be a time close to our own. Also a time, by the way, that was the original Victorian, right? I’m not sure we’re any less repressed.

BLVR: So you said that you can’t really write a novel in the span of a week.

JC: [Laughs] No. What does a novel mean? I could write a lot of pieces of paper.

BLVR: Can you compare your process of editing or revising or writing your actual novels to this?

JC: No.

BLVR: You can’t?

JC: No. This is maddening. This is instant publication. I do sit and write books that are real books. I do sit and write for five hours a day, for more than five hours a day, but I don’t emerge from it feeling so wasted. This is an experiment in anxiety. And to me all of that is intimately tied up with the internet, the degree to which all of us are made anxious by the volume of communications. I used to support myself as a journalist, and then the internet devalued that and I had to write more pieces for less money. The economic pressures attendant on being a culture producer: these all play into it. Writing a novel was always the life aside from that. There was always a church-state wall. And writing a real novel was the church, by the way.

BLVR: When a reader of PCKWCK clicks anywhere on the text, little hearts blossom on the page. Do you see those, too?

JC: That is one thing I see. I see a lot of hearts, yes.

BLVR: How’s that?

JC: Distracting.

BLVR: Yeah. But don’t you like it, too?

JC: I would prefer to write on a surface that wasn’t blooming with hearts, yes. Given the choice.

Andrew Leland is host and producer of the Organist (kcrw.com/theorganist), the Believer’s podcast with KCRW. He lives in Missouri.