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Since writing Fargo Rock City, a memoir of growing up as a heavy-metal fan in rural North Dakota, Chuck Klosterman has become one of the few pop-culture critics to become part of pop culture himself. His essay and reportage collections Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs; Killing Yourself To Live; and Chuck Klosterman IV (his latest) are popular among college students and rock-music devotees, and hated by some colleagues who find Klosterman glib and distastefully middle-of-the-road in his opinions. Klosterman recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his working habits, his reputation, and his growing disillusion with the art of criticism.
The A.V. Club: What's a typical working day like for you?
Chuck Klosterman: Well, I haven't really done much of anything today. I got up at 10:30, tried to do a little writing, but really didn't do anything. I went running, then I had to buy a Syd Barrett Pink Floyd record for something I'm working on, so I walked to the store and bought that. Then I came back here and I've been watching an NFL Films documentary on Lawrence Taylor. That's basically been my day. Not too strenuous.
AVC: Generally speaking, how much time do you spend writing, as opposed to listening, watching, experiencing and so on?
CK: It's confusing. I write pretty fast, probably faster than most people. But I might think about something for six hours, then write it in 20 minutes. So did I write for six hours and 20 minutes, or just 20 minutes? I never know how to answer the question. I used to write absolutely every day, except for days when I had to travel or something, but that's not the case now. There are days now where I don't do anything.
AVC: Are you much of a rewriter? Or do you bang it out and it's done, ready to go?
CK: If I'm doing an Esquire column, I'll write it on a Monday night, then go through it Tuesday afternoon. That's about it. If somebody asked for the first draft of something I'd written, it'd probably be pretty close to whatever got published. I get enjoyment out of writing, but I get absolutely no enjoyment out of rewriting, so I don't do much of it. The more you work on something, certainly, the better it gets. But there's also a pretty clear law of diminishing returns. It drives me crazy to do readings of my books, because if I read anything I've written in the past, I'd like to almost rewrite everything. If I could, I'd completely rewrite Fargo Rock City, and every sentence would be just slightly different. In all likelihood, most of them wouldn't be any better. Some of them would just be changed back to whatever form they used to be, before I second-guessed myself the first time.
AVC: When you read other people, do you unconsciously edit what you read, or just take it in?
CK: I sometimes find myself thinking, "I wish I could write like this." Or "I would have done this differently." I've been asked to do book reviews, but I don't do them. Whenever I read a book, if it's better than what I could do, I think it's fucking awesome, and if it's even a fraction not as good, I think it's terrible. I think anyone who's not as good a writer as me is absolutely a hack, and I think anybody who's a slightly better writer than me is brilliant. So of course that makes me a horrible critic when it comes to books, because I can't distance my own experience from what I'm doing.
AVC: When you're reading reviews of your work, do you generally find them fair, as someone who's done a lot of criticism yourself?
CK: The people who review my books, generally, are kind of youngish culture writers who aspire to write books, or write opinion pieces about what they think of Neil Young, or why they quit watching ER or whatever. And because of that, I think there's a lot of people who write about my books with the premise of, "Why this guy? Why not me?" The thing is, if I write about Van Halen, no one really thinks I'm writing this because, in truth, I would rather be a successful guitar player. And if I wrote about Marie Antoinette, no one thinks, "Well actually, he wishes he were Sofia Coppola." But when someone writes a book review, they obviously already self-identify as a writer. I mean, they are. They're writers, they're critics, and they're writing about a book about a writer who's a critic. So I think it's really hard for people to distance themselves from what they're criticizing.
And it's kind of my own fault too, in the sense that I've used my own life as a literary device so much. I think people feel very comfortable reviewing the idea of me, as opposed to what I've actually written. I find that most of the time, when people write about one of my books, they're really just writing about what they think I may or may not represent, as sort of this abstract entity. Is that unfair? Not really. If I put myself in this position where I'm going to kind of weave elements of memoir into almost everything, well, I suppose that's going to happen.
AVC: A lot of people actively dislike you.
CK: I know, yeah, yeah.
AVC: Are you okay with that?
CK: I basically made a decision long before any of this happened that you can't allow yourself to be affected by positive or negative feedback. The problem a lot of writers have is that they really, really enjoy people saying, "You're brilliant." They let their self-perception be dictated by reader response. But if you're going to let other people make you feel good, you're going to end up feeling bad when they say the opposite. You've got to be a cultural stoic. Then you won't be devastated by people who respond negatively. Of course, the downside is that it sort of stops you from being able to enjoy people liking your work.
Anyway, the amount of response I get, in both a negative and a positive context, is completely related to the amount of books I sell, I think. It seems to have nothing to do with what I'm writing, but what degree of success I'm perceived to have. It's really weird, especially since I spent so much of my life covering people who are famous. It's interesting to actually have it happen to me on some level.
AVC: Your most recent book features a lot of celebrity profiles, some of which are pretty savage. When you go into these peoples' homes and hang out with them, do you feel any responsibility to convey the warm personal encounter you had?
CK: I feel like a lot of people involved with celebrity journalism have interesting ideas about the people they want to write about going into the interview. Then as soon as they actually sit down with that person, they basically ask the questions they think journalists are supposed to ask, and they start viewing themselves almost as a peer of the subject. Like they're going to become friends. That's why most celebrity journalism is so terrible.
I can tell when I've met a bad journalist when they say, "I've met Madonna," or "I know Marilyn Manson." Because I haven't met anyone I've ever interviewed. I've sat down in the position of an interviewer, and they've sat down in the position of an artist trying to promote a product. We have no relationship. I'm able to ask them questions I'd never be allowed to ask them if we were casual friends. It's a completely constructed kind of situation. I just try to ask questions that I'd be legitimately interested in if I were reading this article. What's the only thing in this day and age that people in the media can offer the average person? Access, essentially. We can say, "This is how it feels to be in the room with Taye Diggs."
But I'm surprised you think my interviews were that critical. If anything, I kind of worry that they're maybe, I don't know… I'd hate to think that anybody I did a piece on felt it was unfair. Because it's obviously very disenchanting to give your time to a journalist and then realize that they basically came into the piece with set ideas, and all they intended to do was talk to you long enough to validate their hypothesis. I'd like to think I haven't done that, but I'm sure people disagree. I think Billy Joel feels otherwise. I feel that was a pretty objective piece, but my sense of objectivity is subjective, because I'm talking about myself.
By the way, try not to make me sound too pretentious in this interview.
AVC: Did you read a lot of criticism and celebrity journalism when you were a kid?
CK: Almost none. I guess it really didn't even dawn on me that you could be a rock critic as a job until I was maybe almost out of college. I knew criticism existed. I read Rolling Stone and Spin. Siskel and Ebert were on television. But I had absolutely no idea how to get that kind of life. And moreover, it didn't interest me that much. I just sort of read normal books growing up. I wasn't that media-conscious. I felt like the one thing I was able to do was to listen to a record and decide whether I liked it.
AVC: Have you gone back and read the rock-critic canon, so to speak?
CK: Nope. All my friends are rock critics, so we talk about rock criticism a lot. Because of that, in order to be part of the conversation, you have to have an awareness of what the discussion is. But I guess I don't really know who you mean.
AVC: People like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau.
CK: I've read a lot of Greil Marcus' writing. I have actually read more about Lester Bangs than I've actually read by him. And Christgau still works, technically, so it's kind of easy to experience him. But I've never read, like, The Aesthetics Of Rock. If for no other reason than because that book is in a really problematic font.
AVC: You spent a few years in the rock-critic trenches after college, writing for dailies and alt-weeklies in the Midwest and picking through homemade cassettes by local bands.
CK: I did that, but I was also a reporter at the same time. In the eight years I worked at newspapers, even during a little stretch when I was a film critic, I was never, ever doing exclusively criticism. In the daily newspaper world, much more value is placed on reporting than on thinking abstractly about art. The eight years I was in newspapers, I was mainly a journalist in the conventional sense, and just doing criticism when there were opportunities.
AVC: That fiction piece you included in your new book is about a film critic who gives everything two stars. Was that your style?
CK: No. That was fiction. When I was a film critic, the reason I kind of found it disenchanting was because the things that I wanted to talk about were the ideas in the movie, the theme of it, and contextual elements that weren't necessarily central to the story. But the only thing people really wanted was a plot description and how many stars I'd give it. It didn't matter how much effort you put into writing a piece, they looked at it solely as a consumer's guide toward going or not going to films. So that's why the job didn't interest me much.
I guess if you were a film critic who gave two stars to everything, in a way, that would be pretty realistic. The overwhelming majority of film, and actually the overwhelming majority I guess of everything, is just okay. But when you're doing criticism, you tend to exaggerate the degree to which you like and dislike things. And I'm no different than anyone else. Every critic does that.
AVC: There's a finite amount of things to review every year, and a certain percentage of them have to be "the best" and a certain percentage "the worst," whether they're really that great or that bad.
CK: Exactly. People are more interested in reading bombastic ideas, whether they're positive or negative. Part of me has sort of lost interest in doing criticism because of that. I've always realized that criticism is basically autobiography. Obviously in my criticism, it's very clear that it's autobiography, but I think it's that way for everybody. Different critics go to different lengths to disagree with that sentiment, but ultimately, they're the person experiencing this art, and whatever judgment or taste they use is internal, and says more about them than about the record they're writing about.
AVC: Do you still feel obliged to keep up with everything? Do you try to listen to as much stuff as you can and see as much as you can?
CK: Not really. I basically write about the things I'm interested in. Sometimes, somebody will say to me, "Because you write about popular culture, do you feel obligated to watch Grey's Anatomy?" I've never seen an episode of Grey's Anatomy. I don't know if it's good or not. It might be awesome. The fact of the matter is, I don't feel any sort of social obligation to see it. If I basically view criticism as sort of an interesting form of writing about oneself, an interesting form of autobiography, then I don't feel any pressure to have any kind of authoritative, universal voice. That kind of thing has never interested me.
After I wrote Fargo Rock City, I remember one time Dee Snider from Twisted Sister had me on his radio show, very upset because he felt that I was trying to erase Twisted Sister's legacy from the metal historical record. And I didn't really know how to explain it to him beyond saying, "This book is not about the history of metal. It's about my history with this music. And I didn't listen to Twisted Sister. It has nothing to do with anyone besides me."
AVC: If you have a critical aesthetic, it seems to be based upon trying to spark an appreciation for things that have not necessarily been appreciated by the critical culture before.
CK: I don't know that I have an aesthetic, really. If I do, it would be that I think there are people who want to think critically about the art that engages their life, and I think you can do that with any kind of art. There's this belief that some things can be taken seriously in an intellectual way, while some things are only entertainment or only a commodity. Or there's some kind of critical consensus that some things are "good," and some things are garbage, throwaway culture. And I think the difference between them, in a lot of ways, is actually much less than people think. Especially when you get down to how they affect the audience. So when I write, I don't think it necessarily matters what I'm writing about. I think it matters the way I think about it. The chord changes, and the lyrics on a record have value, but their real value is how they shape the way people look at their own lives.
Anyway, I don't know if what I do is as much a conscious choice as some people seem to think. Some people seem to think I spend a lot of time almost positioning myself in culture. And if that's happening, I'm not aware of it. Maybe I am, but I don't feel like I am when I'm trying to figure out what to write about.
AVC: If you had to choose at this point between being a sports writer or a music critic, which would it be?
CK: That's a hard question. I guess I don't see them that differently. I've always sort of felt that writing is writing and journalism is journalism, and the idiom itself doesn't really play that much of a role. If I had to let one completely disappear from my life from a consumer perspective, it'd probably be easier for me to quit listening to music than it would be to quit watching sports. But if I had to make a choice between only writing about sports or only writing about music, I would probably write about music. I'm not sure why that is. There seems to be more to write about with music, just because it's more of a splintered thing. There's more subgenres. With sports, it's more objective in a way. Somebody always wins. There's nothing to debate. People can debate, to this day, The Beatles versus The Stones. They can't really debate the 1978 Cowboys against the 1978 Steelers. I mean, they can, but people who are on the side of the Steelers are going to be in a real position of power. Super Bowl XIII kind of settled the question.
AVC: You don't write much about things you hate. You're enthusiastic about some things, and you try to adjust the general opinion of well-loved things closer toward the middle. Occasionally you write about things you strongly dislike. But by and large, you aren't a panner.
CK: Yeah. I mean, I don't… The thing that has always baffled me about people's perception of my writing is the sense that I'm a very controversial, opinionated, polarizing person. I feel like I write about things that I'm interested in, and I describe why they're interesting to me. I could be negative, I guess. It's far easier to write why something is terrible than why it's good. If you're reviewing a film and you decide "This is a movie I don't like," basically you can take every element of the film and find the obvious flaw, or argue that it seems ridiculous, or like a parody of itself, or that it's not as good as something similar that was done in a previous film. What's hard to do is describe why you like something. Because ultimately, the reason things move people is very amorphous. You can be cerebral about things you hate, but most of the things you like tend to be very emotive. It's really hard to do a literary reproduction of what makes you happy. That's what I try to do, I guess. If nothing else, it seems like there's enough people out there telling the world what isn't cool, or what's terrible, or what's depressing. I think there's an element of cynicism in my writing, but I'm an optimistic cynic.