Book Review - Chuck Klosterman's unusual place in the literary world

Pop culture philosopher visits SCAD Oct. 7

Monday October 4, 2010 08:00 am EDT

Chuck Klosterman occupies an unusual place in the literary world. His popular essays are neither purely journalistic nor academic nor critical. He's not someone you'd necessarily call a novelist or a memoirist even though he's written both. Reading his work, you occasionally have the feeling you've run into an overeducated but underemployed friend who spends most of the day lying on the couch while pondering the "staggering unreality" of "Saved by the Bell" and dearly needs to tell you about it. Strangely, Klosterman fits that old-school literary figure the "Man of Letters," who can write about the concerns of his generation in myriad forms, so long as you accept that the concerns of his generation are road movies, soda advertising, reality television, and the relationship between rock 'n' roll and death.

Though his prose might sound like it, Klosterman does not spend his days lying around on the couch pondering "Saved by the Bell." Answering the phone on an early weekday morning, he explains that he's in the middle of working on a Jonathan Franzen profile for GQ, has just finished a novel that will be published next year, and is busy fielding questions about Simon & Schuster's recent decision to start offering digital downloads of his essays at 99 cents a piece, the same price as a song on iTunes. "I don't want to say that it wasn't my idea, but I can't say that it was my idea," he says. "It came up at a meeting awhile ago and then I forgot about it."

Klosterman wrote about the record industry's disappearing revenues due to digital downloading for Esquire in the article "Anyone Seen My $4.2 Billion?" that could make anyone feel ambivalent about selling cheap downloads. The iTunes analogy to electronic books doesn't exactly fit, though, he says. "People buy a song because they know they're going to listen to it a hundred times. People buy essays for different reasons. The book industry and the music industry have a lot less in common than you would think."

Earlier this year, Klosterman published a deck of cards titled Hypertheticals, a collection of hypothetical questions that were drawn in part of from his second book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The questions are especially good examples of Klosterman's couch-pondering abilities, beginning with premises such as "For reasons that cannot be explained, cats can suddenly read at a twelfth-grade level" only to arrive at the question, "Do you think the average cat would enjoy Garfield, or would cats find this cartoon to be an insulting caricature?"

"There isn't a right answer to those," Klosterman says. "I wrote those because I'm interested in how people go about answering the question. What sort of criteria they use to answer it."

When Klosterman speaks at SCAD this week, that no-right-answer attitude and versatility, that anachronous "Man of Letters" quality, is exactly what he'll bring with him. "I don't know what I'll talk about yet. Sometimes with these college things, it'll just be a few writing students and they'll want to talk about the craft and the practice of writing. Sometimes at a state school, I'll get people who'll want me to tell stories about partying. I guess I'll be speaking at a design school this time, so maybe I'll talk about Helvetica?"


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