Author Klosterman brings 'low culture' up a notch

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Chuck Klosterman has been called a newer version of Hunter S. Thompson.

But anyone who has read both authors immediately questions that People magazine comparison. Thompson spent a year traveling with the Hells Angels to write a book, while Klosterman spent a day watching VH1 programming to write a story for SPIN, a publication for which he no longer writes.

The comparison flatters Klosterman, 35, but he knows it isn't true.

"No one believes it," he said. "The guys who wrote that don't really believe it. They're just writing a story about me, and they're like, 'Well, he's a journalist, he does drugs, his writing is kind of crazy, and he has a really strong voice.' So they say something they don't really believe.

"People read it and their assumption is always, 'That doesn't really make sense. Thompson was about the counterculture. This person seems to be more about the mass culture.' "

Klosterman's take on pop culture appears in "Fargo Rock City," "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" and his most recent book, "Chuck Klosterman IV," which includes stories about Bono, Robert Plant and Steve Nash. He will discuss the book at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on the South Side at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Klosterman, a native of Minnesota who resides in New York, is part of the creative nonfiction movement, in which storytelling is just as important as reporting news. It's a movement that's been gaining popularity but has encountered resistance among traditional journalists, said Lee Gutkind, author, University of Pittsburgh English professor and editor of the journal of Creative Nonfiction.

"The whole world is living in story. Every commercial you see is a little story. You are expected to do it in a story-oriented way."

When reading "Chuck Klosterman IV," you come away thinking the author is just as important as those he writes about. His opinions often follow quotes from his subjects.

"My writing and my criticism is mostly autobiography. It's basically the way I view the world," he said.

He has caused some entertainment writers to reevaluate their professional philosophy. Some have even sought his advice to become better writers, he said.

"I think it's funny when people ask me a question like, 'What is your writing ritual?' Like that's going to help them. Should I say, 'I smoked three cigarettes and wore my hat backwards when I wrote'? Certainly, no one would think that if I did that then I would write a book like this."

Asking writers what has influenced them often elicits unexpected responses. Charles Bukowski wrote that his writing was largely shaped by Cary Grant and Clark Gable. He thought they had style.

"I don't know what really influences me," Klosterman said before he let out a breath of delay. "When I was in eighth grade, I was into Motley Crue, David Letterman, Monty Python, and I was reading a lot of black literature. I was reading 'Black Boy' by Richard Wright. I don't know what that means, though."

He is serious about what he does, and as Ernest Hemingway once said, "Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent."

Klosterman exhibits both. Take, for instance, his story about a boat cruise where older people went to see Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon -- bands that typically draw jokes.

"There is something else about these bands that makes them relevant to the people who love them; there is a quality within the musicians that prompts people to spend $3,000 to see them on a cruise ship," he wrote in his new book. "The quality is normalcy. There was probably a time when the fans on the boat liked these bands because they were cool; now, part of what the fans appreciate is the fact that these bands aren't cool."

Some critics and academicians show disdain for mass culture, applying labels such as "low culture" to, say, MTV shows. "Chuck Klosterman IV" and "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" put forth a well-reasoned defense of low culture's significance.

"It's always easy to criticize the stupid elements of any culture," he said. "Sometimes, I think, it's more important to criticize the more intellectual elements of culture, which very often have idealistic flaws."

It's the manner in which he writes and reports that separates him from other cultural critics. He thinks he's a good reporter because he doesn't get star-struck -- even if he is a fan.

"I don't know anyone I interview. Whenever journalists tell me, 'I've met Madonna' or 'I know Marilyn Manson,' I know immediately they're bad journalists, because they're getting it all wrong.

Yet, his books give the impression that the celebrity is just a regular person, nothing more and nothing less. He treats famous people the same way he treats their fans.

But now, some people see him as a celebrity, which he finds strange.

"I've said the same things in interviews dozens of times," he said. "It's a strange problem. Let's say you ask me a question that I've been asked at a whole bunch of other places. Well, I have two options. I can make up a new answer every time and be more creative and make a better story for you. But that kind of proves it's inauthentic. Or I can say the exact same thing I've always said, which makes me boring but more honest.

"I definitely like interviewing people more than being interviewed. I'm definitely better at it. The only thing that I like better about doing an interview is that I don't have to transcribe."

Klosterman lives a life most journalists only dream about. It's a life of freedom -- removed from obligations to bosses or strict deadlines, although he still meets a few for magazines like Esquire or ESPN. But he makes most of his money writing books about modernity.

"Sometimes, it's a ridiculous way to live," he admitted. "I find myself conceited over how I earn my living. It's strange what I do. I think of other people, and then I think of how much control I have over how I live. You're kind of struck by how fortunate you are to have such a creative life."


Cody McDevitt can be reached at cmcdevitt@post-gazette.com .


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