Chuck Klosterman Returns
Chuck Klosterman has kept busy since we last spoke in 2011. He continues his work with the arts and culture blog, Grantland.com, and has added another item to his already long resume: replacing Ariel Kaminer as the New York Times magazine's The Ethicist. Klosterman also has a new book out, I Wear the Black Hat, an examination of villains in pop culture. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Chuck and chat about his current work, how we approach the concepts of good and evil, and the impact the Internet has made on reading and writing as a whole.
What attracted you to the idea of writing about villains? Did the decision have anything to do with your last book, The Visible Man, in which the most compelling character is a villain?
I wouldn’t say it’s an offshoot of it, but it’s connected. My books are published by Scribner, and I signed two book deals with them: for a nonfiction book and a fiction book. First time we did that it was Downtown Owl and Eating the Dinosaur, then I signed another two-book deal under the same sort of auspice. Initially, I was supposed to do this book first, but I really wanted to write The Visible Man. My original concept for I Wear the Black Hat, at least in my mind, was this massive overview of the concept of villainy, but it didn’t work out that way. It ended up kind of becoming an essay collection, similar to the other essay collections I’ve done, except these essays are all fundamentally intertwined by one idea. It’s a short book actually. My thinking as I started working on this was: there are many books that I have not read or have not finished because they were too long, but I’ve never not finished a book because it was too short. I thought to myself “Why am I working from this idea that I have to have a long book in order for it to be valid, when as a consumer, I don’t like that?” I would always prefer the books to be as efficient and compact as possible. So then I thought the most important thing about this book was to get all the ideas that I wanted into the text with no duplication. That there would be no ideas that I sort of hit people over the head with over and over again to somehow prove that it’s comprehensive.
I guess to answer you question: all my books are really just…what I am engaged with at the time. When I wrote Killing Yourself to Live, that was the stuff I was thinking about in my own life. When I wrote Eating the Dinosaur, that’s the stuff I was thinking about that summer. This book is just what I’ve been thinking about as I get into my forties...I think that the process of maturation makes a person more sympathetic towards “bad people”.
Follow-up on that: you just turned forty-one, you’re married, and you’ve got the two regular gigs with The Ethicist and Grantland. Obviously the trajectory of your life has changed, but do you think that’s affected your writing in any way?
Oh yeah, I mean, definitely. I don’t know if I could give you a cogent explanation as to how, but I can feel that it has. When I was in my twenties, and even the early part of my thirties, it always seemed like I was working toward a later point in my life. I felt like I was still becoming whoever I was going to be, but now I absolutely feel like this is my life. My day-to-day existence is not some precursor to a life I’m going to have. This is it, this is the person I am. When that happens, I think that you start becoming much more critical of your own worldview. When you’re twenty-five, you’re still kind of building what your worldview will be, the decisions you make about music and film and politics and sports and religion, like you’re putting together the platform for your life. Now it just seems like this is who I am, but because of that, I sort of feel differently about everything.
Does that make you look at your past work in a different way?
I don’t read my past work now, because…OK, anybody who reads their past work, it’s going to seem bad to them, right?
Assuming you’re developing as a creative person, yeah. (Laughter)
Well, yeah, but even if you’re not! I’m sure Jimmy Page does not listen to Zeppelin records because that’s not how it works. You just don’t do that! If I read Fargo Rock City now—which I really started writing when I was 27—it would seem like it was written by a totally different person, and it was. I was a totally different person then. For me, what makes a book seem good is when I see an idea that I had never previously considered, or when I see somebody thinking in a way that I do not have the potential to do on my own. Obviously that can’t happen with my own work. I can’t write an idea I’ve never thought of, so anytime I read my own books they seem banal to me, because there’s going to be nothing in that book that strikes me as new or insightful. So then it just comes down to a question of the quality of the writing, the craft of writing, the sentence structure and stuff like that, and it always seems like I’m better at that stuff now than I used to be. From a purely mechanical perspective, discounting the ideas, every book has gotten better, because…I mean, I’m better, y’know? (Laughter)
You mentioned that your last deal jumped between nonfiction and fiction. How is the transition between the two styles of writing?
I think it’s less of a jump for me than it is for other people. I don’t say that because it feels identical to me, but when I talk to other writers it does seem that they feel the difference is more profound. But you know, [the transition] is not that unusual. Jonathan Lethem does it very naturally, as did Norman Mailer…there was a long tradition of doing this, but in the last twenty years, there does seem to be more of this belief that to be good at something you need to be a specialist. I guess I don’t feel that way. I mean, when I write fiction it’s harder, mostly because you do have to have a degree of, for lack of a better term, inspiration. It’s really hard to make yourself do fiction if you just don’t have an idea to attack. With nonfiction I’ve done it so much—I was a newspaper reporter for eight, years, a magazine journalist—I can do it almost mechanically. I’m just lucky that I have a natural sense for how nonfiction is supposed to read. I’ve never in my life been assigned a profile of a celebrity or a trend piece on something and found myself asking “How do I structure this?” For whatever reason, that’s the most natural thing to me. In fact, if someone asks me to help them structure a piece, I don’t even know what to say because to me that seems like something that I just do. So when I’m doing a nonfiction book, even if I don’t feel like writing on a given Wednesday I can just make myself do it, because I know how it’s supposed to be, and I can think to myself “I’ll go back two days from now and make this better.” That’s much easier than fiction, where if I don’t feel like I have something to write, I just don’t write.
I feel like with fiction, when you go back and rewrite it’s a lot more complicated.
Well, nonfiction is a little like bowling, in that you can be perfect. You can write a story or a paragraph or a sentence and it’s a strike. It couldn’t be any better than that. It has everything: it’s interesting, it’s entertaining, it’s clear, the facts are right…fiction is not like that. It’s more subjective. I’m not writing fiction to prove to somebody that this idea is correct, or that this version of history is wrong. I write fiction to make somebody feel excited by "X", or moved by "Y". I almost want to make the person who’s reading it feel as though they are writing the book they are reading with their mind. So making it structurally better doesn’t always have that impact: sometimes it just makes it more like other people’s work. I think that’s one of the unappreciated difficult things about fiction: it’s very hard to write a novel in a way that isn’t a different version of all the other novels you’ve read. I would like to write books that don’t seem like other books but it’s hard to do that, because there’s this expectation of what will be in a novel. One thing that is sort of maddening to me about fiction that I don’t know how to get around is that there can’t be coincidences. Things have to make sense in a way that they don’t in nonfiction. You’re doing this interview with me: the best outcome for you would be if I said something non-sequitur and weird and way too personal. That would be a thing that everybody would be drawn to in this piece. But if a character does that in fiction it makes people say, “that’s unbelievable” or “that seems false”, or that the author is lazy. That it’s unearned. You hear this a lot with TV writing, when critics talk about Mad Men or Breaking Bad or whatever and they’ll say, “I didn’t like this episode because I felt that when Joan had that interaction with Don Draper it seemed unearned,” even though in real life bizarre, unorthodox conversations happen all the time. It’s almost like people want fiction to be more real than life.
What came first, the gig with The Ethicist or this book, and did one impact the other?
The idea for the book came first. Like I said before, all these books are sort of what’s on my mind in the present tense. I’m sure that it’s not coincidence that I was interested in doing The Ethicist around the same time I was writing this book, because it’s sort of about the mediated experience of consuming ethics as entertainment. (Pause) I write these pieces for Grantland…say I write 5,000 words on Tim Tebow, to get the question of “what is faith”, or I write this long piece about Nickleback and Creed to get to this idea “why is it acceptable to hate things arbitrarily”. I found myself thinking: "I wish I could just get to the kernel of an idea that I’m using these kinds of obstructions to think about," and that’s what The Ethicist is. People write me questions and I answer them and isolate the part that’s about ethics. If somebody asked me a question that involves their bank or standing up at a concert or something, my response isn’t really about or shouldn’t be about the specifics of what they’re describing. It’s really about the nucleus of what they’re describing, because I’m talking about the personal problems of one person, but I’m really writing for everyone who reads the column, not one person. But by the time the person gets me the question and it gets in the paper a month has passed, so if they have a real pressing issue that’s important, I email them directly, I don’t save it for the paper. The questions I pick for the paper are the ones that I can translate for other people, and sort of talk about the center of the problem and not the details.
Did you pick the sorts of concepts you wanted to talk about first, and then arrive at which villains those concepts centered around, or did you decide you wanted to write about a certain villain first?
The latter. I had various lists on my computer and phone of all these people, and I’d sort of sit around and think: “Why is this person a villain and what’s interesting about that?” And over time I started grouping those individuals together. I would group NWA with the Oakland Raiders with Lars Von Trier because these are people who are problematic on purpose, and consciously want to be villains. The first thing I knew I wanted to write about was the Monica Lewinsky situation, and then I started thinking about the movie Basic Instinct. There’s an obvious relationship there: one part of it is sex, another is that Basic Instinct stars Sharon Stone, who has always had this intangible relationship with Bill Clinton. So that’s how I did it, I guess.
This book is in the same wheelhouse as your other nonfiction books, but to me the tone is very different. It’s still an examination of culture, but except for Fargo Rock City, this is the first book that features multiple essays tied around one central theme. I don’t want to say it’s more serious or grownup, but…Do you feel that you made a conscious decision and said: “I want to write more outside this persona or voice that’s very present in my early books”?
(Long pause) Yes.
(Pause) Right on. (Laughter)
I wouldn’t say it’s academic. No academic would think it’s academic. I had this idea when I started to use all these conscious obstructions. No swearing was one. The other was that there would be no memoir material that wasn’t happening to me in the present tense, that I would never write about anything from my past. I would use no footnotes. Ultimately…it didn’t work. I can’t get around myself. At one point I thought: “Why am I making these rules? Why am I trying to prove to people that I can write a book without swearing when I swear in conversation all the time and I don’t think it’s remotely problematic?” So I said, “Well, I’m not going to worry about that. I’m not going to be gratuitous about it but I’m not going to stop myself from saying whatever I think is the best way to make a point.” I suppose I did think, when I thought it was going to be this big comprehensive book, that it was going to be voiceless, almost. Part of the reason that I took The Ethicist job is because I feel like too much of my writing career is based around voice, that I can sort of write about boring things that are semi-interesting just because of voice, and that maybe it’s bad or weak somehow. But then I thought: “Do I like reading voiceless books?” (Pause) OK, what’s the best thing about my writing life? I guess it’s that I get to sit in a room and think about how I feel about culture, and how I think about myself. But I’ve probably done too much of that. It’s almost a problem.
Was it more of a personal challenge, to see if you could step outside of writing in that voice or that style?
Yeah…y’know I keep thinking that I want to write a book that I like, that I go back and read and think is great, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve kind of accepted that I’m never going to write a book I like, so now I think: “Well, if I’m never going to really like it because it’s always going to seem bad to me, I should separate myself from the idea of what good and bad is and think about the content”. That almost sounds depressing the way I said it, but it’s true. I just realized some things about myself, that I’m always going to look at my old work and want to rewrite it. If I could rewrite this book again, I would, even though I know that would make it worse.
Is that the worst part about writing for the Internet, writing something and then immediately seeing it and wishing you could rewrite it and being unable to?
That’s part of it. The worst part about writing for the Internet is that the Internet changed audience expectations. When people read something on the Internet for free, they seem to work from the perspective that the content exists for them to respond to it. Writing books is still so vastly superior to any other kind of publishing because books are still the only thing…
For the author?
Yeah. Because when somebody buys a book, they don’t buy the book waiting to get to the end, or skip to the end and then comment on it. They do to some extent with Goodreads or on Amazon, but for the most part when somebody gets a book they do it because they think “I’m interested in this.” Everybody complains about this, but…it’s crazy. You read an article online and start reading the comments and realize that some people barely read the piece. That’s understandable, but then you see some people whose comments prove they’ve only been reading the comments. It’s like the article only existed so these people could have their shadow conversation, and I find myself thinking: “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting work into something when all these people really want is a headline that will direct them towards saying whatever it is they feel like saying?” It doesn’t seem worth it. It seems like a rip-off for everybody.
I try not to read the comments but my own vanity gets the best of me sometimes.
This is the paradox of being involved with criticism. All my life I’ve loved reading reviews, and then I became a critic, reviewed records, books, and movies…now I’m in a position where people are commenting on my work, and I’m not supposed to care? After spending all this time caring about what people were saying about a fucking Poison record, now I’m not supposed to care about what people are saying about my work? It’s impossible not to care, at least somewhat.
They say you have to have a thick skin for it.
Well, you do. I guess “care” is the weird word. I don’t really care, but I am interested, because while it’s wrong to look at comments and think they’re an accurate depiction of how your work is being consumed, it’s also wrong to think that they’re all bullshit. Sometimes there are things wrong with pieces and people want to comment on them but…it takes away the pleasure of writing and to me, of reading. Sometimes I’ll be reading something that’s interesting and I find myself thinking “Ugh I know what people are going to say about this,” —I don’t even mean my work, other people’s work—and it disappoints me while I’m doing it. It’s that weird thing: Americans are obsessed with the word “democracy” and democratization, and they’ll say the Internet to some degree democratizes media, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. What if we democratized plutonium, and everybody who wanted to could get a hold of weapons-grade plutonium? Would it be better? It would certainly be more democratic!
Do you think that attitude is watering down art as a whole to some extent?
I don’t think that it’s stopping people at the highest level. If Kafka was alive today he’d still be doing the work he was doing because people like that don’t care about attention and money and critical response. Is it watered down…there’s an institutional voice to the Internet just as there’s an institutional voice to academic writing. When you think about it, the Internet should have spawned all these great new writers, but has the Internet generated a great writer or great critic? There are so many people writing about music on the Internet, I feel like there should be five Robert Christgaus or five Greil Marcuses but there’s not even one. There’s not one person whose role in culture is as important as those guys who has come out of the Internet, or who is perceived as having insights that are so meaningful that they are almost dictating the collective conversation. I mean, when Christgau reviewed records in the 70s, if he hated a James Taylor record, the conversation was then: “The perception of this record is that it's disappointing.” He would start the conversation, almost. People would respond to that. It doesn’t really happen now. It’s almost like a collective mob that’s always closest to the middle.
Do you sometimes view yourself as the villain?
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean…sometimes I feel like the way villains are perceived is the way I feel like I am perceived. And I think to myself: is it true? Am I bad for culture? People have accused me of that.
Really? On what basis?
I think on the basis, particularly, that Fargo Rock City afforded the idea that all personal experience is a valid form of criticism. And that it has changed or moved the goalposts of criticism. That now it’s acceptable to say that “product A” is good because it felt good to me and mattered to me, therefore it matters. That wasn’t really my intention, but that’s how some perceive it. One thing I do feel weird about is that with Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, my big point in that book was that it doesn’t matter what you think about, it’s how you go about doing the thinking. You can think about culture through the lens of Pamela Anderson or Saved by the Bell. But some people, I think, read that book and went “Ah! This means I can write about Britney Spears now,” and they didn’t do the critical thinking part. It almost made it acceptable for people to do cultural criticism without criticism, to just write about culture and say it’s criticism. I think some people think I am to blame for that because the book was popular.
It’s said that in times of stability, audiences become more comfortable with inspecting bad or dark things. Do you think that’s true and do you think our cultural landscape is reflecting that now in terms of who is presented in pop culture as a villain?
I think that argument is a good argument to make, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true. During the Clinton years, the most stable time in my life, in terms of being an American, there was the rise of boy bands, Britney spears, etc. There was some really great filmmaking in 1999: Magnolia, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich…I don’t know how necessarily reflective they were as far as the stability of the country. I don’t feel like our culture got less dark. I think it got more serious and seriousness feels like darkness.
I guess the best example is the post-WWII 50s. The 50s were perceived as being this kind of family-oriented, idyllic period. Now of course, if somebody wrote about the 50s, it’d be about the secret darkness of the suburbs. Mad Men is a pretty dark depiction of that period. Is that a product of how people feel about the world now, or is it just an accurate depiction of that period? I don’t know if audiences are affected by the climate of a given time. In 1995, a pretty stable time in America, would people have been more open to legitimately dark work?
Let’s say there was a new Velvet Underground in 1995: would people have been more into that? I don’t know. I don’t necessarily think so. It would all come down to whether or not it fit in with the taste of the time. So many of these cultural decisions that are really big or really meaningful are made by the uninvested. The reason that Nevermind became such a huge record was not because the core group of people who had always been into punk and alternative music suddenly expanded, it was because people who were uninvested heard the songs and thought “this sounds like a better version of metal”. Nevermind, from a production standpoint, is almost like a pop metal record. Kurt Cobain said something like, “this sounds more like Dr. Feelgood than a Melvins record,” and that's very true. So it was kind of the uninvested person that made Nevermind a huge, huge album. That’s usually how it is. Any time you’re trying to figure out why something becomes massive, the people you have to study are the people who don’t really care. Those are the people who dictate how the world is, at least culturally. They’re the people who decide elections. They’re the people who decide everything. The people who really care and have a real cogent explanation for why they’re invested in something and why it means something to them, they’re always kind of on the fringe. The world is decided by people who are just along for the ride.
Do you think we need villains?
Oh, yes. If you have no villains you have no heroes. If every person in culture and every person on television was good, we would hate whoever was the least good (laughter). That’s just how it is.
What about Tony Soprano (RIP James Gandolfini) and Walter White and Don Draper, these villains that we root for?
That’s just something that’s changed. Things change sometimes in big ways and we don’t realize it until it’s already happened. There was this whole period in the 80s when suddenly you could talk about drugs on TV, on a show like Miami Vice. You couldn’t make a drug dealer good: you could make him interesting but he had to be a bad guy. It was almost as if TV was enforcing its own institutional standard of “It’s not acceptable to have a TV show where somebody doing a bad thing is a good person." I’m sure you’ve been reading these obituaries about James Gandolfini, and seen how David Chase in some ways was initially alarmed by how much people seemed to relate to Tony Soprano in that first season. It didn’t really make sense to him because he had a television mindset: how can I convince people to feel empathy for this bad person? It turns out all you had to do was put him there.
Do you think that’s because a lot of people feel they are being unfairly treated as villains themselves?
I think that’s part of it. But it’s more a part of the natural maturation process. It’s almost a cliché, but I use it at the beginning of the book: I feel like people’s relationship to Star Wars is the easiest way to illustrate this. When you’re a little kid the person you like is Luke Skywalker, who is only good. He’s trying to do the right thing all the time and if he makes a mistake it’s because he wants the right thing too much. Then you get to be a little older and you start getting interested in rock music and sports and you start realizing there is cache in being a bad boy type, so you like Han Solo, but he’s still ultimately good. But when you become an adult, you start to realize that the decisions bad people make are sometimes made with good motives because it’s the only choice they have, or because they’re trying to do what’s best for themselves, and this idea of doing something for this altruistic goal of helping the universe is sort of a fiction, that actually, people want their own lives to be good. So you start relating to Darth Vader, and you start seeing this negative person as a person and not a robot. When you’re a very little kid you think of Darth Vader as a robot or a machine, and as an adult you think of him as man trapped in a robot. I think that’s what happened. There’s been this collective understanding in the culture that if you want to make art you can certainly say who’s right and who’s wrong, and what’s black and white, but that’s not real to people who live in a grey world.
What’s your next project?
Well it’s weird to say, but I don’t have one. I’m doing The Ethicist still, but I’m not going to sign another book deal until I have a very clear idea of what that book is going to be. The rational thing for me to do is sign a new book deal just before the second book comes out. If I went to Scribner now I could get a really good deal, I think, because the book hasn’t come out yet, hasn’t failed yet, and they have to assume and work from the perspective that it’s going to be great. But I don’t want to come up with an idea and feel like I’m locked into it. I want to just spend some time thinking about what I want to do next...I feel a little tired.
Chuck Klosterman is a contributing editor at Grantland and the New York Times Magazine's The Ethicist. His latest book, I Wear the Black Hat is on sale July 9th.
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