By Joshua Cohen
Various Podcasts and What Remains of “New Journalism”
“To live in America today is to sit slackjawed at a helpless recline, stuck between the external forces that seek to disempower and control us, and our own internal drives to preserve, protect, and defend our hearts and minds.”
That’s the hot young journalist Joshua Cohen writing in the introduction to his new collection of essays, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction.
The work is a grand collection of disparate pieces held together by Cohen’s info-rushed, regularly snarky, but astute sense of contemporary politics. Not politics as in the governmental kind, but that involved in making decisions, prioritizing the mess we’ve made of our lives, external and internal. In fact, it’s easy to see why Cohen, who moves effortlessly between novel writing, short stories, and a steady stream of magazine and newspaper pieces, was last year named one of our great young writers in any genre (he’s 38, and originally from Atlantic City).
Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction is also the latest in a long line of works announcing innovations in journalism that reaches not only to the advent of the New Journalism of Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, but all those great American novelists from Twain and Crane through Dreiser, Anderson, Hemingway, and so many more who got their start making facts of everyday news stories.
I looked up Cohen while trying to gauge where New Journalism—all journalism for that matter—may be headed at this strange junction. A whole batch of pieces came to view from a decade ago, when the term “new” was being applied to a whole body of work getting attention for links to Ira Glass’ pioneering radio work with “This American Life,” as much as anything showing up in print. But then nada, up to a very recent onslaught of magazine and newspaper pieces about the new reign of podcast journalism.
I’ve been waiting to see how journalists will deal with the failure of publications they made livings submitting to. With increasing competition between not only journalistic outlets, but modes of journalism (entertainment vs. investigative vs. national vs. local, or anything slightly op-ed); and this growing cry of “fake” rendering moot anything once labeled adventurous and pioneering in any way.
In the meantime, I have headed back into earlier works of great social analysis, from Greil Marcus’ always relevant books (Lipstick Traces, Midnight Special, A New Literary History of America, etc.) to George Packer’s The Unwinding, and the Hudson Valley’s own Luc Sante (Low Life, Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005, The Other Paris). Moreover, I’m appreciating the continuing importance of non-algorithm-selected compendiums of writing in magazines, on radio, and in local newspapers that still value the humanity of individualistic minds tackling the challenges of our distracted lives.
As well as those singular voices that still speak, to unseen futures in languages learned from all that’s come before. Non-fiction lives and, I believe, will continue to grow on a personal basis. It has to.