If you could predict the future, you would be very rich. You could bet on that racehorse with 100:1 odds. You could short that stock everyone else thinks is a winner. You could build that business that serves the needs and desires that consumers don’t even quite realize they have yet.
So you would think, then, that author Chuck Klosterman would try to sell you his new book as a good investment for your business. The book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present as If It Were the Past, is all about the future, one way or another. He asks and attempts to answer questions like: What cultural products of our era are most likely to be remembered? Will our current science someday seem hopelessly antiquated? Whither the NFL? And is it actually the year 1718? (That last one’s complicated, and would entail an ancient, calendar-altering conspiracy he doesn’t really think is likely.)
In its eagerness to take the long view on everything, Klosterman’s book could easily be flagged as essential reading for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists whose jobs are essentially to place bets on what the future holds. But with the same appealing humility that undergirds his book, Klosterman demurs when I ask him if But What If We’re Wrong? is essential business reading.
“This is not the thing you should say in an article to promote a book: But my book is about the idea of being wrong in 300, 1,000, or 3,000 years. In business, though, you probably don’t want to be plotting out your strategy more than . . . five years? Since the entire market you exist in might be different in five years.”
He goes on: “And in the short term, there isn’t that much benefit to conceding that you might be wrong. In the shortest possible term, it might be better to be totally confident, to be all in, and maybe you can make that into reality. Maybe the simple belief in your rightness could be enough to convince other people that you are. If you want to sell widgets, I don’t think it’s helpful to ask, ‘Will widgets matter in 200 years?’ It’s a question for a writer or philosopher, not a for a businessman.”
So, to be clear, we shouldn’t buy his book?
“If you’re looking for business advice, do not.”
In that spirit, if you’re intensely focused on your bottom line today, you might as well skip this article, too. But if you’re in the mood to take the long view on a few topics: publishing, success, and our culture’s obsession with forecasting, you might want to read on. (You might do well to recall, too, that no less a businessman than Jeff Bezos has invested in at least one project designed to last 10,000 years.)
FC: How do you think your book will be remembered?
Chuck Klosterman: I’ll say this: It’s probably the only book I’ve written where, if by chance I am correct about one key detail and am the first person who claims something that does happen, it could be remembered in a distant future. That would be accidental. In reality it’ll be remembered the way most things are remembered. It’ll be remembered as long as I’m alive and people know who I am, and as soon as that ends, it will be forgotten entirely.
One reason I ask is that your book comes out in a particular moment in the history of reading. I used to read many more books than I do and probably mostly buy them as some kind of status symbol at this point.
What you’re describing is a common problem, and a machine did that to you. The biggest influence the Internet has had on reading is on mechanics. When you read a book, you read horizontally, but when you read the Internet, you read vertically. It’s incredibly easy to skip ahead when reading vertically. It makes reading complex thoughts all the more complicated. I think my book probably appeals to the kind of person that recognizes this is happening, and it worries them. A lot of books appeal to people who are sort of worried about modernity, even though they don’t feel they can separate themselves from it.
Amazon now releases data about reading behavior. Would you ever tailor a future book in response to that kind of data?
No. The reality is, you can ask people what they want, but nobody knows what they want until they get it, and any attempt to beat people to the punch of their own desires is going to make things awkward for both you and them. It’s so hard to sell books. You can’t go into it thinking, “What’s the best way to sell a lot of books?” If there was some kind of formula for writing a successful book, everyone would do at least one book like that.
It seems Danielle Steele figured it out. You note she’s on pace to sell a billion books in her lifetime.
The main thing that makes something popular is its preexisting popularity. It’s not the content. Steele is an incredibly copied writer. There are more books that seem like knockoff Danielle Steele books than anyone else, yet they don’t succeed. Stephen King at one point in his career put out books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Part of the reason was to see how much his name alone was selling these things, and I think he was a little bummed out to find out what an impact it had.
You’ve had some success. Do you wrestle with this?
I’m not that successful. This is my ninth book, but in reality, I’ve had one really successful book [his second, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, has sold nearly half a million copies] and then the others were all varying levels of okay. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is probably my least favorite book I’ve written, partially because of its success. It makes any idea in that book much more galvanized in people’s minds than any idea in my other books. If I’d known how many copies that book was gonna sell, I could never have written it.
You spend a lot of time in your book imagining which literary or cultural works will endure, and how. One of your most interesting claims is that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest will be remembered as “the defining 9/11 novel,” despite the fact that it was released five years before the event and has little to do with New York or terrorism.
It doesn’t matter what art from the 1850s you’re looking at. No one would seriously write about it without addressing the likelihood that that work was informed by the Civil War. When people talk about literature from this period, there’s a sense that you have to tie it to 9/11 in some way. The thing I could be wrong about is the degree to which 9/11 will be remembered as a hinge event in history.
I felt a kind of despair reading your book, because I felt like if it was so futile predicting things, why bother trying?
I do feel pretty helpless in the world, in terms of how much I can impact what reality is. I feel like I’m comfortable with the idea that life is happening to me, as opposed to me happening to it. That doesn’t make me sad. Over the last four to five years it’s kind of been hitting me that we can’t control how we think. We think that we do, we believe we have agency over our ideas, but we really don’t. The first step to understanding the reality of things is accepting that we can’t control what we think.
I think many people reading this won’t like that sentiment. They’d like to feel they can forecast the future, and act on it, and build businesses around it.
I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but I sense that as intellectual culture has become more and more secular, it has increased a false level of certitude about life. I do think that this relentless desire for empirical certitude is not good for society. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with sports statistics, and it used to drive me crazy that it seemed like my dad and older people in general seemed to be disregarding statistics in favor of amorphous, nonobjective sorts of criteria like “grit.” Now as an adult, I’ve seen a complete shift. And it seems as though this has made sports less fun than it was. It took something that was an entertaining pastime and made it into a new way to crunch numbers. Why the fuck should I watch a basketball game when it’s a bunch of guys talking about numbers? I might as well go see my financial adviser.
This interview has been condensed and edited.