Monday, March 30, 2009

Chuck Klosterman Is Full Of Shit

Look, I'm not going to say anything bad about Klosterman-the-person. I'm sure Chuck K. is a lovely, if slightly aggravating, person to interact with. His author pictures makes him look like a midwestern lesbian; he is a midwestern neurotic with a distinct habit of alienating pretty women, so the author picture is only one-third right. I'm positive that running into Klosterman at a bus stop or deli counter would be charming. He seems to have decent taste in tee-shirts and probably smells okay.

I'm just not convinced that he's a genius.

Obviously, Klosterman (whose name is both fun to type and pleasurable to say) is a smart guy. He's a fine writer and a clear example of a man who likes to think about things. It seems unfortunate, then, that he uses so much of his brainpower weighing out the culteral relevance of Saved By The Bell, or musing on the difference between Pot People and Coke People, or informing his readers that, in order to survive a trip across America, he'll need a minimum of 600 compact discs to sustain him.

Klosterman (for the record: Pot Person) is the kind of New Generation hipster writer who desperately wants to infuse the ephemera of life with meaning. This is the kind of lofty goal that inspires books about World War II or raising autistic children. Not having these kind of large ideas omnipresent in his life - Klosterman is unattached, and judging by his triad of failing relationships in Killing Yourself To Live, not especially good with women - he instead relies on the symbolic totems of his own creation. To wit: albums, television shows, breakfast cereals, bars, various cities, and cutesy reimaginings of pedestrian things. He calls his bed his "Sleep Machine." I have a feeling that the "Sleep Machine" isn't helping with the "relationships."

It's not his insistence that these things matter; clearly, they do, if only to him. However, he's convinced that these artifacts matter in a certain way (helpfully explained in his books), and that people who disagree with his reading of the pop-culture landscape are stupid. Not ill-informed: actually dumb. His tone - faux-academe punctuated with middle-school-diary shifts like "But ANYWAY" to signify that he's changing the subject - leaves no room for debate: you either live in Klosterman's world, or you are one of the thousands of unenlightened who roam the earth, doomed never to have a drunken, semi-coherent debate about the merits of J Mascis v. Kim Deal. If you can imagine.

Obviously, the people who have had this debate are in the minority. Most people are busy doing other things: going to work, watching TV, popping out kids, fighting with their spouses. Klosterman, aside from an abiding (and, one suspects, self-conscious) TV habit, participates in none of these activities. His work requires him to throw 600 compact discs in the backseat of a silver sedan and drive across the USA. This is not typical.

We all have our signifiers. A love of angel figurines for some; an obsession with Danish furniture for others. Music obsessions create a special conundrum. As a professional writer, Klosterman is well-versed in both writing creatively - that is, saying something new - and the power of symbols. He falls down on the job twice when he uses musical references as a crutch; first, by failing to say something new, and then by substituting an actual experience for its symbol. Instead of talking about love, for example, he'll write about love songs.

Klosterman doesn't do this every time. Still, it happens enough to be noticeable. It happens a lot. In books about music and pop culture, it would be weird if it didn't happen. But Klosterman isn't aiming for a general, all-encompassing experience; he talks about his own experiences. Is this the voice of my generation?

I suspect that people reading Douglas Coupland in the mid-90s felt the same way. Klosterman's written voice is so interesting - his blend of slang and highbrow is actually pretty fun to read - and he clearly has a larger-than-average noggin powering the whole escapade. So it's disappointing to see that fun, intelligent voice being wasted. Not that the Dixie Chicks aren't interesting - just that I don't need to know Chuck Klosterman's opinion on them. It sometimes feels like Klosterman does research by asking himself how he feels about a given topic. If he's feeling ambitious, he'll ask his friends. Because he is Chuck Klosterman , whatever comes out is irrevocably the right opinion. It's narcissistic, it's smug, it's shallow, and it's lame.

Ultimately, until he starts writing about topics that venture beyond pop-culture ephemera, Klosterman is not very interesting. He's very good at seeking meaning in imprints: the site of a musician's death, or a band's oeuvre, or a television show. These imprints aren't experiences, though; they're the second-hand version of what life and death is all about. Klosterman needs to get out of pop-culture bubble, quit mistaking songs for feelings, and start writing about people who aren't him. He's got the skills and the smarts. All he has to do is switch off the TV, climb out of the Sleep Machine, and get his head out of his ass.


  1. Kaitlin, I enjoyed that, thanks. I am currently reading "Eating the Dinosaur" and was moved to Google "Chuck Klosterman crap" to determine if anyone else out there has noticed how shitty his writing is. I think you're too kind. He seems to think that finding a (totally nonexistent) connection between Nirvana the band and the Waco incident makes him frightfully intelligent in a wild edgy way that makes us all admire and be awestruck by him in equal measure.

    It doesn't.

    Another book I felt the same way about was "Freakonomics". That was a book basically written by a University of Chicago economist (Steven Levitt) and a New York Times journalist (Stephen J. Dubner) that was as pathetic an attempt to "Geniusify" an average intellect as any I've ever seen. If you haven't read it please don't; it's SHIT.

  2. Who are you to say his style of writing is a waste of his brainpower... Clearly its based around the way he thinks and sees the world, which to me is the most efficient use of his brainpower. He writes like he thinks.

    If you don't like his opinions (which he never claims to be more than such), then don't read him. He's a rock critic, opinions on pop culture are what he does. I find him self-indulgent as well but at least he's entertaining.