The acclaimed writer talks about culture in the age of Trump and why you still can’t bear to throw away that moth-eaten concert tee you bought in high school.
Pop culture critic and cocoa puff connoisseur Chuck Klosterman visits Boswell Books on May 19th to read from his new essay collection. Klosterman’s 10th book, the aptly named X, is being billed as “a highly specific, defiantly incomplete history of the early 21st century.” The description fits.
Klosterman has been writing about contemporary culture for more than a decade now. Early in his career, he spent his days working as an art critic for the Akron Beacon Journal and his evenings drafting his first novel, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta. In 2002, he moved to New York City, where he began racking up writing credits for Spin, GQ, Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian and the Washington Post. He also published eight more books – two novels, four nonfiction works and two essay collections. One of those collections, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, was dubbed “one of the brightest pieces of pop analysis to appear this century” by the A.V. Club.
All that is to say that Klosterman stays pretty busy. But he was kind enough to take a break from his writing and touring schedule to talk about pop culture and his latest book with us.
X is a compilation of essays you’ve previously published, with new introductions and annotations. A “Greatest Hits” album of sorts. How did you decide what to include in it?
Yes, it’s essentially an anthology of the essays I’ve written over the last decade or so. And, in terms of selecting essays, I probably erred on the side of including too much, as opposed to too little. If I found it interesting, or it got a big reaction, it’s probably in there.
In a review of the book published on Paste earlier this week, B. David Zarley wrote that you wallow in the trivial but you don’t trivialize. Do you think that’s true? Do you consider pop culture trivial?
Well, you certainly can’t argue that pop music or college football or what’s on HBO is essential to culture, that it’s inherently necessary. But I’d like to think that I write about ideas that are more broadly relevant, and that I work through those ideas through pop culture.
I look at criticism as a form of intellectual entertainment. It’s entertainment for people who like to think about the art that they consume. And, to me, thinking about the world is a meaningful act, in and of itself. It doesn’t matter what art you’re interested in – it’s the way you think about it that matters.
You’ve said that young people learn who they are through the art or culture they consume. Can you talk a little more about that?
The relationship people have with music, film and television when they’re in high school is very different than the relationship they have with those same things when they’re adults.
When you’re young, you’re not only trying to understand who you are – you’re also trying to understand how to present yourself to other people. Part of the way you do that is by saying that Radiohead is your favorite band or by wearing a “Pulp Fiction” shirt. When you’re an adult, though, you’ve already become who you are. You don’t need to use pop culture to build up your personality anymore.
Do you think that your personality becomes fixed once you’re an adult then?
I don’t think it becomes fixed, but it’s not influenced by culture anymore. It’s influenced by your relationships, by the choices you make. When you’re young, you have less agency. The only agency you really have is your taste. That’s why it’s so important.
You’ve also said that you aren’t interested in taste-making, that you don’t try to shape your readers’ opinions. How, then, would you describe your role as a writer?
A lot of people get into criticism because they want to convince others to see the world the way they do. I’m not interested in that. I’m just interested in describing the way I view the world. People can agree or disagree with me. I don’t care one way or the other. In fact, I think that a lot of people who enjoy my books enjoy them partially because they imagine they’re having an argument with me as they read them.
Much of your writing defies easy categorization. Do you think of yourself as a critic? A journalist? A memoirist?
I guess I just think if myself as someone who writes for a living. A generalist. And I know I’m lucky, because there aren’t many generalists left. The internet has changed writing in that way. It’s forced people to specialize.
You write both fiction and nonfiction, short-form and long-form prose. How does your approach, or your style, change from one form to another?
My style is kind of no style. [Laughs.] And I feel like that’s the best style.
That being said, when you’re writing fiction, you want to make it seem as real as possible. When you’re writing nonfiction, you almost want to make it seem supernatural, like it couldn’t possibly happen in real life. You’re always working against the natural obstruction of the genre.
You were born in Minnesota and grew up in North Dakota. Do you think your Midwestern roots influence your writing? Do you think that writers, in general, are products of their upbringing or environment?
Well, my upbringing has definitely influenced my criticism. I came from a farm town, from Wyndmere, North Dakota. Only about 500 people lived there. There was no cable television, nothing like that growing up. And so the only culture that got to me was the most mainstream, populist culture imaginable. As a result, I was forced to find meaning in things that I think a lot of critics would perceive as uninteresting. When I was a senior in high school, for instance, Guns N’ Roses was the most remarkable band I had ever encountered. I had never heard the Smiths, had barely heard R.E.M. – the bands that most critics were thinking about at the time just weren’t part of my existence. And now, as a consequence, I think I’m probably able to write about and find significance in things that other critics might dismiss out of hand or fail to understand because to them the meaning is purely commercial.
And now that you’ve been exposed to more culture, of the sort that critics more typically consider, are you still able to find value in, say, Guns N’ Roses or Kiss or the cultural forms that shaped you growing up?
I want to say yes, but here’s the problem: If I’m no longer able to do that, I’m not conscious of it. And other critics aren’t conscious of their inability either. People with fixed worldviews never realize that their worldviews are fixed. I suppose that worries me, the idea that having lived in New York for 15 years could have changed the way I understand culture.
Lastly, what’s your latest pop culture obsession? Any bands we should be listening to? Authors we should be reading?
I don’t really have an answer for that because we’re in an extremely strange cultural period. Everything is being considered through the prism of politics right now.
I think it’s going to be interesting when this period passes, though, assuming that it does. People are going to look back on the culture from this time and it will be as if they’re hearing it and seeing it for the first time; they’re going to absorb it as entertainment – instead of thinking about its political meaning – for the first time. But, at this moment, the entire world has a skewed view of what’s interesting.
Klosterman’s Boswell reading takes place at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 19th. Each $29 advance ticket includes a copy of X and can be purchased online, through Brown Paper Tickets, or by calling 800-838-3006.