Chuck Klosterman may be America’s most gifted inhabitant of the Venn diagram overlap between pop culture and sports. Over his 20-year career, he’s published several works of nonfiction (including the New York Times bestselling collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and I Wear the Black Hat) as well as two novels (Downtown Owl and The Visible Man). To a certain type of reader, Klosterman may well be the most influential pop culture writer of our generation. Certainly, he was among the first to dive headfirst into close reading of celebrity and art in the way that has since become de rigeur for internet writers.
Now, Klosterman is back with his tenth book. Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century is culled from essays and journalism published over the past decade in publications like GQ, Grantland, Esquire, The A.V. Club, Billboard, and The Guardian. The collection includes profiles of Tom Brady and Taylor Swift; essays on Lou Reed and steroids; and meditations on The Walking Dead and Mountain Dew. As Klosterman says, the book is a “collection of his nonfiction dreams.”
We spoke with Klosterman on the phone while he was in Atlanta for his book tour, shortly after he had finished a Reddit AMA. Among others topics, we discussed Grantland (the website he helped found with Bill Simmons), Chris Cornell’s untimely death and why he’s moving out of Brooklyn.
Here’s our chat, lightly condensed and edited.
Several of the pieces in the collection were first published by Grantland, the now shuttered sports and pop culture website where you were a consulting editor. In the intro for the first piece, “Three-Man Weave,” you write that your “personal relationship with Grantland was complicated,” and that you have “conflicted emotions” over what the site was, “how it operated, and how it ended.” Why is that?
I remember the first conversation I had with Simmons about Grantland, even before it had a name. And at that point, I thought what we were talking about was going to be a lot smaller. Like, I didn’t realize that the idea was to get out there and compete with the Internet-at-large. But when it got going––and, yes, the content of the site was really good––it ended up being different than what I wanted to do with my life. Because, just prior to getting involved with it, I made the ideological decision to move away from writing on the Internet. And then this opportunity emerged and it was too hard to say no, because it seemed like a dream scenario. But the problem is no matter how you do it, because it’s all on the Internet, it’s going to become a part of the Internet. And after a while that’s how it felt to me. It almost felt like an amplified version of what I was trying to avoid.
What specifically were you trying to avoid?
I think of writing as a solitary experience. And it is a process that depends upon your own creativity. And then when you’re finished, it gets released into the world and your relationship ends with it. The creative period is all based on yourself and once it’s published you’re done. And the Internet is not like that at all. The Internet is a reactive medium––you are not only fixated on the audience, and how it’s being received, but even the process of what you’re writing about tends to become dictated by what’s happening on the Internet elsewhere. It’s a form of writing, of course, because it involves typing and storytelling and all of those things. But I think the gap between the media I got involved with in the early ‘90s and what it is now is larger than what some people realize. It’s philosophically different. I didn’t know exactly what I thought I was going to do, because the Internet is where writing exists now. I just didn’t want to be so immersed by that world. And you can’t succeed with a website if you’re not. It’s hard to be only involved with the Internet halfway.
To kind of riff on your statement that writing on the Internet is a reactive medium, one piece from the collection, a Grantland profile of the basketball player Royce White, you did get some backlash after it ran.
White brought up some very interesting ideas about how the NBA treats mental health issues. But does that mean all his ideas were good? On the one hand, he was taking a somewhat simplified view of a hard problem. On the other, he was taking the ethical high ground and it was very principled. And it was also somewhat of a dangerous move to make. But if there was backlash against that article it was because that piece was objective. That’s one thing that’s changed more than anything else. That people do not want actively objective reporting. They want you to come in with a pre-existing bias, tell you what that bias is and they can then decide whether they like or dislike that piece before they read it. So when someone gets upset by that type of profile, it’s because it did not attempt to try and persuade people to agree with what they already thought.
The art that we see as important now might not seem so important in 10 years because its impact or it’s reflection of the counterculture will be secondary to how good it actually is. And it might not seem so good if you remove that political context and a lot of other things that might be being ignored right now.
And yet, as you wrote, you once told someone your job is to “manufacture opinions.”
I said that to a guy in a hash bar in Amsterdam when I was kind of depressed. But there is some truth in it. At that time I was still writing columns for Esquire. I did it for four years and was burnt out. I really don’t think people should write columns for more than four or five years. It takes about a year to figure out what you’re doing, then you have two or three years where you can do it well and then you start to become a caricature of what you started out as. So I was realizing it was time to end that column. And why I thought that it was time is because it was a monthly article that I had to come up with some idea about popular culture that would be interesting to put in a magazine. It did almost seem like I was manufacturing ideas that would begin as a passive thought I had about something. And then I just would have to take that thought and keep slicing and building on it until it became a column. It became weird to me that the basis for whether a column was successful was whether it got a reaction. It didn’t matter what the reaction was, if people liked it or not. As long as there was a reaction, that meant the column was good. That just seemed real dumb to me.
In the intro to your profile of Taylor Swift, you write that you avoided describing how she looked and dressed.
Well, I was always under the impression that a part of profile writing involves a description of the subject. There is a way a person looks in a photograph of a magazine or on television. And then there is the way they look and behave in reality. You can’t really understand someone’s appearance until you see them in person. So, typically when I used to do a profile, say the one on Jimmy Page, I describe his hair, what he’s wearing, what he looks like, etc. But at this point I would feel very uncomfortable about doing that with any female subject. That’s because it would be taken as an insult to the artist because you’re describing what they look like. And inevitably, it’s either going to be either an extremely positive description––because well, most of the time that person is pretty good looking––or it’s going to come across as cruel it you describe them in a way that doesn’t make them seem beautiful. The idea of describing the clothes they are wearing. That seems like a significant thing but it’s almost not worth doing anymore. It’s a thing that’s slowly happened in the media and the culture that you have to accept that any attempt to describe someone physically will become the entire story in the eyes of someone who believes that such a description is an attempt to marginalize someone. So one of the reasons it’s so much easier to profile old white guys is no one gives a shit about that. I mean, you can describe some guy as looking like a potato and people will be like, “haha, that’s clever.” But, yes, there is no middle ground for almost anything now.
Still, Swift comes off as super smart and candid in the piece. Someone that wasn’t open with you was Tom Brady; a GQ profile you describe as a “failure.”
Well, if someone says to me that they like a profile because of the writing, that says to me that there was nothing in it that was relevant. So with the Kobe Bryant piece, people seemed to read it and walked away only talking about him. The fact that I generated that conversation was not central to people’s enjoyment of it. With Brady, I just wanted to ask him one question: about Deflategate. And he had no intention to do so or didn’t even know it would be asked. Looking back to that piece, I like to think I made the best of it, considering how fruitless the conversation was. But, in the end, I judge a profile by how interesting the things a subject says. Not by what I say.
Out of all the profiles in this collection, the person you were most intimidated by was author Jonathan Franzen––as opposed to Page or Eddie Van Halen or Bryant. Why?
The reason is that we do the same thing, except that Franzen is much better at it than I am. So, when I talk to Kobe, I’m not comparing my high school basketball career to his career. When I talk to Page, it’s a little bit intimidating but only because of this memory maybe I have of listening to Led Zeppelin when I was a young person and consciously remembering how crazy it would’ve been for that 14-year-old version of me to realize one day I would be sitting asking him questions about projects. if I don’t spend the time to project that bizarre trajectory of my memory and my life, it’s just like talking to another person. There are things I want to know about his life and his music and I just ask him.
But with Franzen it’s a little different. We’re working on the same ideas or the same goals, or whatever. But, yet, we’re not the same in any way. There would never be a situation where Taylor Swift would interview me. Like I would never even think to myself, “I wonder if she’s curious about me.” However, if our lives and our careers were a bit different, I suppose there could be a scenario where Franzen would be the person talking to me. But that’s how it is. So, it’s very clear to me that it is an unbalanced relationship. I’m on the train asking him questions. He’s not here to ask me anything. He’s here to answer the questions he feels like answering from me, and it just reminds me that we are not the same.
The two big thing you write about are pop culture and sports. With sports, you can measure success. But with pop culture and art, everything is subjective. That seems to be the underlying theme of “2+2=5”, one of my favorite pieces in the book.
It’s the central difference between art and sports. And the reason why, I suppose, is why sports really can’t be art. One is subjective. One is objective. Okay, you have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame. There are players that are in the Basketball Hall of Fame who one could argue do not really deserve it. Or someone could say that they were placed in the Hall of Fame, but they’re not really the peers of some of the others who have transcended athletes in this hall. But there’s nobody who’s like, “This guy who’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame is a terrible, terrible player.”
But in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that can definitely fly. I mean, Kiss is in the Rock Hall. There are people who think that Kiss is objectively terrible. They think it’s objectively terrible because they’re dealing with a subjective idea. They want to make it feel objective because they’re having an argument. So, that’s, sort of, an ongoing thing. That’s something everyone understands. That you can make an argument for any piece of art and if you’re good enough at arguing you will seem reasonable. But, no one can argue that the Falcons beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how clever you are. You can talk for three days. It’s not going to change the score of the game.
Living in New York changes your relationship to every other American city. Because living there is like living in a different country where they speak English.
A lot of your work has dealt with the death of celebrities. You have the book, for example, called Killing Yourself to Live. In this one, you have a piece that says that the mourning of celebrities on social media is a “form of lifestyle branding.” Most recently, this outpouring has happened over Chris Cornell’s death (who you once wrote about for SPIN).
Well, you know, it’s almost silly to complain about it, but it does drive me crazy. So, Chris Cornell dies. I was a pretty big fan of Soundgarden in the 1990s. And for a lot of people, they were a bridge between grunge and metal. Anyway, when he did die I saw so many rock writers and critics talking about his death and talking about the music of Soundgarden as if they had always liked it. And I just know that wasn’t the case. Some of these people, if you had asked them a few weeks ago to talk about Soundgarden’s album Superunknown, they would’ve made fun of it.
And I understand the idea that when somebody dies that you’re going to say positive things about them and that you’re going to focus on the best parts of what they did, and it’s totally reasonable to me. But it does bother me that people do want to sometimes pretend that the feelings they had of a dead person were the same person they had when the person was alive. That’s really fraudulent to me.
I’m very much hesitant to go on social media and comment on the death of anyone who has just recently passed because I do wonder if I’m actively changing my own memory of that person. Like would I just be lying about it? Monoculture is gone. So when somebody dies that shared moment is open ended. You can get involved in it and you can sort of write about your own life through the experience of this person. But it is, kind of, performative narcissism.
Your collection covers your work from the past 10 years. Basically, for you, what’s happened in sports and pop culture under the Obama administration. Now we have everything going on with the Trump era and you see so many people on social media thatfeel almost guilty absorbing pop culture because of how politically fucked things are right now. Do you see pop culture shifting right now because of the political climate?
Well, this has happened before. It’s interesting to me how much American culture has, sort of, blocked out the memory of the first three or four weeks after 9/11. When it was incredibly popular to hear people express the idea that maybe we just wouldn’t have popular culture anymore.
And irony, in particular, at the time.
Yeah, it was this thing that so much has changed that irony is over. That nobody would be ironic anymore and that we would just shift us towards this age of seriousness. Where, of course, then the previous and the subsequent two years were actually formed back the other way. That people were wild and consciously wild. The dumbest possible culture. Almost to escape from the reality they had just dealt with. Now, I don’t see people so much expressing that they think popular culture is over. But the thing I do see is that everything, every television show, every record, every movie, every book is being perceived through the filter of what it means politically in Trump’s America.
George Saunders, for instance, just had a novel coming out and it’s about Abe Lincoln. I actually saw some people saying, “This is a great book. He’s a great writer. But we really need him to be writing about what’s happening now; not what’s happened with Lincoln.” It is as if somehow Saunders has to build his career over what people want him to comment on about in the news. It’s just crazy to me. And I think this is going to happen. In 10 years from now when the world is different, they’re going to look back at the popular culture from this period and it’s almost like they’re going to experience it all over again in a totally new way because they’ll just experience it as entertainment. There won’t be pushing it through this idea that everything meaningful now must be meaningful because it has something to say, either against or blatantly for the Trump administration. That’s my prediction. The art that we see as important now might not seem so important in 10 years because its impact or it’s reflection of the counterculture will be secondary to how good it actually is. And it might not seem so good if you remove that political context and a lot of other things that might be being ignored right now. Some things will be elevated because they will return to their natural state.
You recently mentioned on Twitter that you’re leaving New York City and moving to Oregon. Are you sick of the city?
Oh no. My wife and I don’t want to give up New York and prefer to stay. But we have two kids now—a three year old and one year old. We just need more space. So we could either move to the outskirts of Brooklyn and pay way too much for still a small house or we can move to Portland, Oregon, where my wife’s parents are, where her sister is, and where we buy a real nice house for far less money. Our life will be less complicated. Because raising kids in New York is real complicated. So it’s purely being done for practical reasons.
But I’ll miss it. The thing about New York—and it’s arrogant to say this and people hate to hear it—but there is some truth in it. Living in New York changes your relationship to every other American city. Because living there is like living in a different country where they speak English. Everything about it is different. The average person in the city tends to be a real smart person. You know, if you’re in New York you—and don’t come from wealth—you can’t be a slacker because it’s so expensive and competitive. So the only people there are really go-for-it people. And that does wear you down after awhile. But it’s also very enriching. In my apartment building, for instance, there are some people that I really don’t know but they are all artists and filmmakers and writers and high-power finance people. It’s just that everyone there seems like they would be one of the more impressive people I would’ve met everywhere else I’ve ever been. That’s going to be hard to give up.
The flip side of that is the argument that NYC is too expensive. Popping into my mind right now is Patti Smith saying that the city is no longer welcoming to creative types—that should instead flock to somewhere cheaper like Detroit.
Still, New York offers what you can’t find in too many other places. And that’s so many different people, different classes of people, will live in very close proximity to each other. And, in part, because New York is such a small place, so many different kinds of people there and so many intermingled personality types, it’s just so hard to imagine that happening in a place like Detroit.