Joshua Cohen in Berlin: An Interview

Joshua Cohen is an American writer. He is author of five novels, including Witz (2010), Book of Numbers (2015) and, most recently, Moving Kings (2017), as well as numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. He has worked as a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times, the Jewish Daily Forward and the London Review of Books, and has taught at Columbia University and the New School in New York, where he lives. In the winter semester of 2017/18 he is Samuel Fischer Guest Professor at the Peter Szondi Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin.

Interview by Chris Fenwick

You’ve lived in Berlin on previous occasions – I think you first came here in 2001, and the final part of Book of Numbers is set in a more recent incarnation of the city. What drew you here in the first place, and how do you feel about the way the city has changed?

I was told, I forget by whom, that the city was cheap. And the truth was, it was – it was cheaper. I had a job working for the venerable Jewish newspaper The Forward – I was the paper’s Europe correspondent. That meant: a whole lot of territory, not a whole lot of Jews. So I was on planes and trains and buses a lot, and that’s where I began writing fiction. In transit. In the window seat.

As for how I feel about how the city has changed, I don’t know. Let me just say that it’s cleaned up a lot. But then so have I. When I was here back then I felt as if Berlin and I were at the same stage of life: irresponsible about everything – about our money, our health, our sleeping – because our true responsibility was to history.


Roundtable: Beauty

On April 26, a roundtable discussion on beauty took place at Spektrum in Berlin. The event was organized and moderated by Dennis Schep (Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule). Participants were:

Christina Dimitriadis (Visual artist, NYU Berlin)
Chris Fenwick (Literary scholar, Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule)
Joshua Fineberg (Composer, Boston University)
Melissa Steckbauer (Visual artist)

roundtable beauty
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917


What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of the input statements and the subsequent discussion.

Dennis: What got me interested in this topic is the observation that, whereas one might suppose that art is about making beautiful things, nowadays this aim does not figure in artist’s statements, and neither is beauty a dominant concern in the discourse about art. After spending 10 years in the university and being accustomed to a critical vocabulary, I myself have come to suspect judgments of beauty: to say something is beautiful almost sounds naive. Recently, Sianne Ngai has argued that our aesthetic categories are no longer the beautiful and the sublime, but the cute, the zany and the interesting. Perhaps we could say that beauty is marginalized in the fields of art and academia. I am interested in the reasons for this marginalization.


Ernst, Tragisch, Problematisch – Guido Mazzoni on Late Capitalism and the Theory of the Novel

Guido MazzoniGuido Mazzoni is a poet, essayist and a founding editor of Le parole e le cose, Italy’s leading cultural webzine. He is a professor at the University of Siena. In 2011 he published Teoria del romanzo, which has now been translated into English for Harvard University Press.

Interview by Chris Fenwick

Guido Mazzoni, you gave a talk at the Freie Universität summarizing ideas from your new book, Theory of the Novel. Could you tell us in more detail about the argument of your book and how it differs from past theories of the novel?

In my view the novel is defined by two elements. One element is linked to a language game: the novel is something that narrates; the novel tells a story. The second element is the fact that the novel has become the genre in which you can narrate anything in any way whatsoever.

To turn to the first element – what does it mean to narrate a story? In the twentieth century, narratology established one ahistorical answer. My answer has a historical starting point.


The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to Bob Dylan

Ben Northern CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ben Northern CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pro/Contra: Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan

Chris Fenwick and Brian Poole


Chris Fenwick

I’m going to set out two arguments against awarding the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan. The first concerns the potential political function of the prize within the literary landscape. It ultimately suggests that Dylan is a conservative choice. The second is about the scope of the category “literature,” specifically whether it should include songwriters. Here I admit that Dylan is a provocative choice, but maybe not productively so. I’m not going to assess Dylan’s artistic merit, say he shouldn’t get the prize because William Faulkner is better or, for that matter, say that he should since half the pre-war laureates aren’t read any more and/or are rubbish. Dylan is clearly a hugely talented lyricist who has exerted a great influence on culture. However, because his body of work is significantly dissimilar in kind from that of previous Nobel laureates, carrying out a comparison of quality is impossible. The issue isn’t whether it’s fair that he get the prize, rather whether it’s coherent.