“I would never refer to myself as a renaissance man, although I suppose that’s precisely what I am.”
Klosterman wouldn’t, and didn’t, actually say that, of course, but it’s tempting to ascribe this particular quote from a character in his latest novel to the author himself. Over the past few years, the prolific writer has become something of a literary shape-shifter—one who defies easy categorization, or just about any at all.
For a long time, Chuck was pigeonholed as America’s pre-eminent pop culture scholar–the go-to guy for a Guns ‘n Roses review. Last year, however, he pulled a double-crossover, becoming a full-time sports columnist at Grantland, and making a credible bid as a serious novelist with his ambitious sophomore fiction effort, The Visible Man (his seventh book overall, out on paperback this month.) It’s only fitting, though, that someone who’s written extensively about identity has made his own writing persona utterly inscrutable.
“People do not respond well to a creative person telling them what they hope their perception of them will be, because that means they’re consciously thinking, with every action, that they’re building this idea–which is actually just marketing,” the author says. “I never really liked artists who were like that, so I guess I never wanted to be like that myself.”
Chuck Klosterman isn’t quite like any author; most of the other writers who work across fiction and cultural commentary had established themselves as novelists first. It may seem natural for someone to go from writing about the real world to creating a new world from whole cloth, but successfully transitioning into this second mode from the first is a rare feat.
Publishing fiction became a possibility for Klosterman after his second book, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, somehow ended up becoming one of those generation-defining tomes that are practically issued to incoming freshmen on their first day of college. “Because that book was really successful,” he says, “I knew that at some point I’d be allowed to write a novel.”
Originally, the book that ended up being Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was going to be a novel about suicide culture, an expansion of the unpublished short story, “You Tell Me.” The team at Scribner wanted Klosterman to continue with essays, however, and since he was more comfortable writing them anyway, the author took a three-month leave of absence from the Akron Beacon-Journal, and cranked out the book that would go on to become more popular than all his others combined.
After the success of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, it took two more books before Klosterman would write his first novel, Downtown Owl. The journalism collection, IV, provided a hint at what was to come, though, by including the short story, “You Tell Me.” It was meant as sort of a “bonus track” in a book full of previously published material, but the author now considers the addition a mistake. “That story just wasn’t very good and it shouldn’t have been there,” he says. “It’s not awful—just not good enough to be in a book.”
When Klosterman eventually set out to write book-worthy fiction, he merely hoped it would fulfill the necessary criteria of a novel, and not embarrass him. But even with those modest goals, it was harder work than he’d anticipated. The author soon found himself chafing against guidelines not required by his previous books. “In fiction there can’t be any coincidences,” Klosterman says, “but in nonfiction, that’s what makes stories interesting—when something weird happens. People reading nonfiction don’t need you to prove to them an idea is interesting. It’s interesting because it happened.”
The author’s own background played a big part in his early books, and even figured heavily into his first novel. Klosterman grew up on a farm in Wyndmere, North Dakota (population: 498), consuming hazardous amounts of hair metal. His first book, Fargo Rock City, served as both a memoir of small town life and a fan’s-eye tour through rock & roll history, Mötley Crüe division. (The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn recently adapted the book into a screenplay.) With Downtown Owl, however, Klosterman mined his early-’80s, rural North Dakota childhood memories in order to diagram their cultural impact, and thrust it onto fictional characters.
While many of Downtown Owl’s reviewers praised the novel’s pure distillation of 1983 Middle America, some seized on its relative slightness of story, or the fact that it reads almost exactly like one might expect a novel written by Chuck Klosterman would.
These are not complaints that could reasonably be lodged against the new novel.
Visible is a very timely novel about privacy, technology, and identity. It is also about invisibility. When it came to doing research, however, the author found he didn’t have to go too far down the research rabbit hole to get his ideas across. “In a novel, there’s less of a penalty for being wrong. People will simply accept that you’re creating this. I wanted the conversation about invisibility to be just good enough that somebody would be like, ‘Okay, it’s not crazy, let’s move on and see why he did this.’”
Although sales have been modest, the new novel garnered positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, NPR, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. It’s also received unbidden praise from authors like Douglas Coupland, the man who coined the phrase “Generation X.” If there is such a thing as literary street cred, this is it.
Despite the sure-footed execution of The Visible Man, though, essays are still Klosterman’s preferred mode of writing. In these, he often contrasts disparate topics to get to deeper ideas, resulting in pieces like “Oh, The Guilt,” which mashes up Kurt Cobain and David Koresh until readers can’t tell who’s who. “A lot of times, two things feel similar to me, and then the writing process involves figuring out how I am intellectually making that relationship,” the author says.
This tendency to juxtapose not only informs Klosterman’s writing style, but also, apparently, his career path. The author frequently mixes media, platforms, and subject matter, as he did most recently by becoming a full-time columnist for Bill Simmons’ ESPN-backed online venture Grantland, which is primarily focused on sports.
Simmons and Klosterman barely knew each other before the 2004 Olympics, which they jointly covered for ESPN, emailing back and forth about the U.S. basketball team. For years afterward, they had a very curious friendship: the only time they communicated was in public emails for ESPN, or on a series of podcasts, yet fans of these transmissions assumed the two were best friends.
In the summer of 2010, they attended a Lakers-Celtics title game in Boston, where Simmons talked about the then-unnamed site, and asked if Klosterman wanted to play a big role in launching it. He was interested, but not sold right away. “I’d kind of gotten to a point where I didn’t know if I wanted a full-time job ever again,” Klosterman says. “I’d worked up to this position where I could control my schedule and my life, but it seemed like too good of a deal to pass up, so I agreed to do it.”
Klosterman became involved in putting the staff together and defining the tone of the site, but even though his name was initially associated with the site, along with Simmons’, he has no financial stake. “I guess I do have an emotional stake,” he clarifies. “Whether the site succeeds or fails is now, to a degree, a reflection on me.”
Grantland’s success mostly hinges on the whim of the sports audience, who can be notoriously hard to please. There’s no subject more Americans have expert-level, sophisticated knowledge of than sports, and because of this emotional investment, serious fans are hypercritical of people writing about their team. Klosterman makes no concessions for these folks, though.
“I really try to write about every topic in the same way,” he says. “I try to write about sports the way I write about music, or the way I write about politics or anything else. Even though it’s different, I try to ignore that difference.”
The more significant difference for the former newspaper and magazine journalist has been adjusting to the insta-punditry of the online audience in general, not just the sports readers. Before Grantland, there was little indicator of what people thought about his writing outside of book sales, the odd email, and what fans said at readings. Now, it’s the complete opposite; everything Klosterman writes provokes an immediate social media tsunami he’d have to actively tune out to ignore.
“I’m not fully used to existing as an internet writer,” he says. “The degree of response, both positively and negatively is uncomfortable, and I worry that it affects how I write things later.”
On the positive side, Klosterman has enjoyed the most freedom he’s had outside of his books while writing for Grantland. Along with the freedom that comes with writing for the internet, however, comes a noticeable dip in standards and perception. “If you write for Esquire, you’re going to also get lumped in with GQ,” he says. “But if you write for anywhere on the internet, you get lumped in with the rest of the internet.”
Some people now think of Chuck Klosterman as just a sportswriter, a trend that will continue if he writes a book about sports (he says he probably will.) Way more people consider him strictly a rock critic. Lots of readers know him exclusively as an author of essay collections, and a slight minority know him only as a novelist.
None of these people are correct exactly, but as long as their expectations persist, Klosterman will no doubt continue to confound them.