For a certain kind of young man in his 20s (and less young men in their 40s, like me) Chuck Klosterman functions as the closest thing we have to a literary oracle. He came out of nowhere — North Dakota, if you want to be precise — and turned his experiences as a Midwestern metal obsessive into his debut memoir Fargo Rock City. After moving to New York in 2002 at the height of the city’s rock revival, Klosterman established himself as a hyperverbal, endlessly inventive critic slash music celebrity profilist. His story on a slightly depressed Billy Joel, bumming around his mansion in the Hamptons, is very good. Klosterman is probably the only music critic to get his own Onion story — “Chuck Klosterman Corners Guy at Party Wearing Dio Shirt” — that parodies his tendency to apply inexhaustible intellectual firepower to the musical doings of long-haired men in spandex.
Along the way, though, Klosterman has evolved. He moved to Portland and is now married with two young children. He has written novels and books of essays on pop culture, helped launch the dearly departed website Grantland, penned the Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine, and has gotten very into college football. Now he’s published his first collection of short stories, the trippy, mind-bending Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction. Dozens of quick pieces — rarely longer than a few pages — revolve around startling premises. A man flying first-class for the first time discovers what appears to be a live puma in the bathroom; a rising pop band wrestles with the fact that their hit single is beloved — for reasons no one can understand — by white supremacists; a father pushing his young child on the swing (and trying not to look at his phone while doing so) becomes embroiled in a sudden tragedy. These are stories that capture our mad world, turned up to 11.
I spoke to Klosterman from his home in Portland about his new book, the disappearing art of daydreaming, and why social media has turned him off journalism.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GEN: I have to say, my first feeling after reading your book was guilt for how often I check my phone when I’m pushing my 2-year-old on a swing.
Chuck Klosterman: Well, I guess that was ripped from real life. And we blew it.
Raised in Captivity plays with the form of a short story collection, containing dozens of pieces that max out at six to seven pages. What made you want to write the book this way, versus more conventional longer short stories?
Okay, this is a strange answer. I initially had a really dumb idea to write 100 stories that were all exactly 1,000 words long. I’m not sure why I was so into this idea — I just really was. And I’d been collecting these ideas for stories for five years or so. On my phone, in the notes section, I just have hundreds and hundreds of ideas for possible stories, or lines of dialogue, or even sometimes just titles.
I’ve always been interested in formalist obstructions as a writer. But as I’m working on this, every story seems like it is being stretched up to get to 1,000 or cut down to get to 1,000. And then it also occurs to me that this book is going to get edited, and then sometimes the editor is going to remove a sentence, or he’s going to add a sentence, and then I’m going to have to go back in and do all kinds of ridiculous imaginations just to get it back to this formalist idea that no one is interested in. No one is going to read a book because all the stories are the same length.
I kind of think of these more like Twilight Zone episodes, or Black Mirror, where the idea is the story.
Then I was like, “That’s dumb. I’m just going to do these stories the length that they should be.” Most of which then curled up to about 1,500 or 1,700 words. I wrote about 50 of them, and I picked the 36 I thought were good enough to put in a book. I removed three because I thought they were too tied to the moment we were in. They were too dependent on it being right now. And then I wrote one more at the very end. But that’s the reason they’re that length.
Typically, short stories are about character, minor character development, and the plot mechanics that hinge on one event. For me, it’s more like the idea. I kind of think of these more like Twilight Zone episodes, or Black Mirror, where the idea is the story. The characters don’t really change and they’re more character types.
You mentioned that you took a few stories out because they felt too dependent on what’s happening now. I’m recalling your last book, But What If We’re Wrong?, where you take on these kinds of questions, about what books or movies or art will actually still be around in a hundred years. Do you think about how your work is going to be read in the future?
It’s impossible not to think that way a little bit, particularly if you’ve been a critic for 25 years. And yet, my experience in the world consistently reminds me that that’s an idiotic aspiration. You just can’t do it. Sometimes I think about it in the same way that I think about lot of things that can never fucking happen.
There’s a strong element of the surreal in these stories, like in the title piece, when a man apparently encounters a puma lurking in an airplane’s bathroom. Do you feel as if, in an age where the entire world seems more and more surreal, that register is harder to hit?
I don’t know. The world is crazy now, but the world’s not really surreal.
What’s the difference?
When you look at the way politics are now, and who is the president, and what has become the normal discourse in America, it’s crazy. But my car is not going to turn into [a] jaguar. Trees aren’t melting.
Not yet, anyway.
Surreal to me means it could never happen. Does the craziness of the world make it hard to write a crazy story? No. Because I think that you can now write a crazy story that still has real heavy elements of verisimilitude. I think, too, a lot of people now are almost more psychologically and emotionally open to insanity. It’s like we’ve been desensitized to it. You know? And I think that if I would have written this book 20 years ago, some of the response to it would have been, “Why did that happen though? Why would that have happened?” I don’t feel like people ask that question anymore.
You’re someone who has worked in multiple forms: criticism, nonfiction, journalism. Short stories are commercially challenging even for very well-known writers. So why spend your time doing that?
I could only do what I had the desire to do. There are some people who would argue that I should have written ten more versions of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. That book sold better than all my other books combined. I certainly could have done that. But this is my life, and I didn’t want my life to be an attempt to do something that I’m not driven to do just because it would make sense to somebody whose mentality was more suited to working in finance.
I’m not saying I don’t care about money. I want to make as much money as possible. But it’s impossible for me to build my writing life around that. Also, I think that people figure that out. I think they can tell in a way. I think that there are certain things that readers are just oddly sophisticated about. One of those things they have a real sense [about] is when people are doing something solely in the hope that it will appeal to a mass audience.
Is that specifically true for writing, or is that true for most art forms, for an album, for a movie, for a TV show?
Yeah. I think it is. It’s more present in some things than others. And the way the world has changed has complicated that too. In music, it’s harder to sell out as a musician now, even if you wanted to. Partially that’s because it’s not perceived as a problem anymore. But it’s also because the audiences for everything are smaller, outside of probably eight to 12 mega pop stars whose audience actually wants them to pander to them.
In television, because the stakes are different now, it’s almost like you see the opposite, and you see when a television show is very consciously going after critical appeal. Because in the past if a TV show was loved by critics and unwatched [by the general public] it just disappeared. Now the audiences are all so small that [critical acclaim is] enough. In movies, there’s not much middle class anymore. It’s like everything is big or tiny.
I’m a weird person to ask about this because I think that my natural inclination as a writer tends to be pretty accessible. Clarity is the main thing I work on. When I’m editing a story, the main thing I’m doing is trying to make it clearer because I just think of writing as a communicative art and if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to communicate ideas. It’s a failure if you can’t.
Do you feel that combining that matter-of-fact, clear prose structure makes the surreal elements pop?
I think so. But, I don’t know if it’s true. If somebody wants to write a book that is well received by book critics, there are techniques to do that. You basically write an incredibly dense, incredibly long book that demands constant cognitive dissonance. And if you do that, you’re going to get mostly good reviews because the person reviewing it may feel as though a negative review somehow suggests they didn’t understand it.
They’ll kind of concede, even if they don’t like it, that it’s successful or whatever. But if somebody says, “How do you make a book if you don’t give a shit about critics, but you want the book to be big?” I don’t know what I would advise them. I would have no advice. It’s odd. It would probably be more satisfying in some ways to have a book that is really perceived as genius, but yet in some ways is easier to create the illusion of critical quality than the other thing, because the other thing has no illusion. You can’t create the illusion of selling books if you’re not.
Sure, though in many other art forms — like TV — there is great effort that goes into figuring out what is going to be commercially successful.
Oh, sure. The money is so much greater that it might make sense to focus group. No one is going to focus group a book. Obviously, for many reasons, I am not like Beyoncé. And, one of those reasons is that I don’t need 2 million people to like my work for it to be a success. I mean, if this book sells 50,000 copies, it would be a huge deal. And honestly, it wouldn’t shock me if this book comes out and doesn’t sell at all.
I know lots of writers, and I have tons of friends in the media. And for a lot of them, I recall, buying books was almost an addiction. If they went to a bookstore they would buy the book they wanted — and four others. And, now I don’t know anyone who buys books. It’s bizarre, because we read all day now. We’re on our phone, and on the computer, we literally read all day long.
Or, at least we consume text.
Yeah, we mechanically read. You know, the big bookstore here in Portland is Powell Books. I’m in there last week and there are people in the store walking around, making conversation, sitting in chairs reading. I went up by the counter and I just watched people getting checked out. And it’s like, there’s someone buying greeting cards. Here’s somebody buying a bunch of kids’ books. Here’s somebody that bought a mug.
It didn’t seem like anyone was buying the books. It’s like the bookstore exists to sell the other things in it. Now, granted, this is an extremely small sample size, but it does make me worried.
When I lived in New York, you’d go on the train. I feel like there was one time around 2002 when I got on the subway — I think it was the 6 train — and I looked down the train and I think I saw five people reading The Tipping Point. It almost seemed like something that would be in a satirical movie. Now, when you get on the train, the last time I was there at least, I did not see one person reading a book. I saw people looking at their phones. Now, they may have been reading books on their phones, but they also may have been playing Candy Crush.
I would guess that there’s probably someone older than me who might have said, “When I moved to New York, I would get on the train sometimes and I would see people reading Wuthering Heights. And now I get on the train and I see five people reading The Tipping Point.” To that person, this may have been an erosion in the seriousness of literature. And there will be a time in the future, I know it, when someone will bemoan the fact that no one looks at their phone anymore because there will be an implant, in a contact lens, or something maybe in your inner ear or something, where you’ll be able to just sit there and stare straight ahead and people will miss the fact that we used to look at phones.
You’ve mentioned that you’ve got scores of ideas for stories, which means they must be occurring to you a lot. One thing I find as a person walking around the world today is that I don’t have a lot of free brain time. Or at least I don’t give it to myself. I’m looking at my phone when I’m pushing my kid on the swing, or taking advantage of whatever digital distraction on offer. So do you consciously block out time for ideas to happen? Or are you just invulnerable to these distractions?
When I was a little kid they said that my daydreaming was a distraction. When I was in first and second grade they would tell my parents, “Well, you know he’s a good kid but he kind of fidgets a lot and can kind of be a daydreamer.”
Now, I guess, the fact that I constantly daydream is seen as surprising to people. People have told me that it doesn’t even happen to them. But it does to me. After I get off the phone with you I’m going to mow my lawn. That’s going to take me about an hour and a half, and I will just sort of daydream for an hour and a half. I don’t know if I’ll come up with anything interesting, but that will happen.
When I was 23, I did not really care what 47-year-old people thought. Well, now that I’m 47, the inverse is true.
One of your stories deals directly with generational conflict, featuring a pair of professors who can’t understand their students. As an iconic Generation X member yourself, how do you look at people younger than you, at millennials and Generation Z and whatever comes after them?
Do I understand them? I would say no. But I would also say I barely understand the mentality of my own generation. The sort of wide brushstrokes we use to understand generations inevitably break down the first time you use a real person. I would say in 1994 I was probably about as archetypical a Gen X person as one could imagine. And yet, it still doesn’t work out perfectly if we apply every characteristic [of Gen X] to who I was. So I’m a little hesitant to say I understand young people because I think it’s hard enough to understand a young person.
But the other thing is that when I was 23, I did not really care what 47-year-old people thought. Well, now that I’m 47, the inverse is true.
I like being the age that I am. I think that it’s confusing to my publisher because the first three books I wrote, I wrote when I was 27 or 28, 29, 32 or whatever. And, as a consequence, those were really popular among people in their 20s. And, when you do something like that, the assumption is that for my whole life I’m supposed to do that.
You’re always writing books for a slightly younger version of yourself, because you can’t write a book that teaches you something you don’t know. I can’t surprise myself by something I write that’s coming from my own mind. What I’m really doing is kind of writing the book for the version of myself that came up with the original idea a few years ago. I feel like if somebody read all of my books straight through they would see my maturation, and I think that’s what I want.
If you look back to that writer 20 years ago, what does he look like? I can see similarities in style, but is it the same person?
It seems like a totally different person to me. When I think of my early or late 20s, what I’m really picturing is myself now, but I’m thinner and I don’t have a beard. I project my current self into the past. But when I read two pages of those books, it’s not like that at fucking all, man. It almost seems like a stranger, who is trying to do a caricature of who I am now, or was, or something. I don’t hate those books or whatever. They paid for my whole life. It just doesn’t feel like me.
Looking at your life and your career now, writing and media has changed hugely over those 20 years, and it’s going to continue to evolve. How do you see yourself going forward as a writer? Do you still see the mix of journalism, criticism, fiction? Do you see the support for that shifting as well?
You know, first I was a journalist, then I was a journalist who wrote a book, then I was a journalist and a magazine writer who also wrote books. Then I was a book writer who also worked for magazines. And now I’m just kind of a book writer. I’ll certainly do journalism, but my kids are 5 and 3. I don’t like being away from them for that long, so I don’t want to do a lot of reporting.
Some things I’m less interested in, like the idea of celebrity journalism, which was a big chunk of the middle part of my career. I have almost no interest in that. And there’s something that has changed about the media, which I don’t like. I got into a field where you had an idea, you did the work, you did the reporting, you did the writing, you did the editing, and then you published, and that was the end. And now it’s the middle. Now when you publish it’s kind of the middle of the experience.
If you’re lucky it’s the middle.
Yeah. I don’t like the second part now. It’s not that I have some big ethical issue. I just don’t enjoy it. I find it to be disheartening and it creates anxiety. Also the biggest bummer is when you write something and by putting it out into the world, the meaning of the thing changes.
I did a piece for Billboard a while back about Eddie Van Halen, and I thought there [were] a lot of things in there that were interesting. But one of the things was that he criticized the bass player [Michael Anthony]. People think what they remember is that I wrote an article about how Eddie Van Halen doesn’t like Michael Anthony. That became the totality of that story. You know? And that seems to happen a lot now, that you write something and what other people perceive to be the most interesting thing becomes the only thing they remember, and then as a consequence they project what they assume your intention for writing the story was.
You’re supposed to just say, “I don’t care.” But I do care because my intention with the story is meaningful, and I don’t like the fact that our culture has moved in this direction where the perceived meaning matters more than the intended meaning.
Are books somewhat more exempt from that?
It’s very easy for people to have incredibly strong opinions about magazine articles they have not read. It’s very easy. In fact, I think it’s become common to read the headline of the story, the beginning of the story, the last paragraph, and then all the comments. The things that are going to be most present in the culture will be reflected in the beginning of the story, the end of the story, and people’s response to it.
But, with a book, this is probably not going to happen. There is always going to be the kind of person who pretends to have read books they haven’t.
Fewer than there used to be, I’m going to guess.
Fewer, and also the idea of having ideas about books is slightly less valuable. People won’t do that as much. There was a period where it would have been weird to live in New York and not have an opinion about The Corrections. The likelihood of that happening is less now. It’s less likely that someone is going to fake a perception of a book that they have not consumed and didn’t have real thoughts on. But with stories in a magazine or a website, they’re going to do that constantly, just constantly. And everyone knows this. Everyone knows that it is very possible to go to a bar with five people and read up on the news and slowly realize no one has read any of the stories you’re talking about.
When you look back at your career, some of those jobs you listed have all but disappeared along the way. Do you think the path that you took could be taken today?
Of course it feels weird, it seems crazy, and yet at the same time, when I look at other industries, it’s true in those things too. My brother is a farmer, and he just retired this year. The way farming was when he entered the field in the 1970s, and the way it is now, has almost no relationship.
I feel incredibly fortunate that I entered journalism when there was essentially no internet and I will leave when the internet is all there is. I completely saw this evolution and experienced it in totality. I think if there’s ever a point in my life when I want to write about it, I’ll be in a good position to do so. So, I’m glad. Is it weird? Of course it’s weird, but I’m glad that I was there for all the weirdness.