How do you go about writing a book on an era that is, for many, recent history? When Chuck Klosterman set out to write his new book, The Nineties, he wasn’t interested in representing it as a misremembered era or forcing a retrospective view into modern ideology. Rather than finding overlooked signposts that signaled events to come, he says, he wanted to capture what it actually felt like to experience that time — the anxiety and excitement around scientific and technological progress, what it was like to be limited to a few cassette tapes or CDs at a time, the physical media and musical subcultures that would later evaporate with the advent of the internet. Though easier to research than more ancient history, complications arose when he pondered the bifurcation of his audience between those for whom the release of Nevermind is a personal memory and those for whom it’s as distant as the moon landing. Would he have to explain to readers what a compact disc is?
Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Chuck Klosterman. Chuck I would describe as a person who basically has done everything, but most notably, from our point of view, he has a new book out called The Nineties. Chuck, welcome.
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN: Hey, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
COWEN: I have some questions about the ’90s. What was our biggest cultural fear or worry from back then that never came to fruition?
KLOSTERMAN: What was the one that never came to fruition?
COWEN: Yes, never happened.
KLOSTERMAN: The easy answer would be Y2K. That was, of course, at the very end, and whether or not that didn’t come to fruition, I suppose, depends on if you’re the kind of person who thinks, “Well, this is an example of them seeing a problem, diagnosing it correctly, taking all the steps of stopping it from happening, and then having a nonevent.”
Or, if you’re someone who’s like, “Well, some countries barely did anything, had the same result we did. How come our microchips didn’t stop working in our dishwashers? It was never going to happen, and so it was the event that didn’t occur.” Either way, it wasn’t a tragedy, but it was certainly something we talked about for an entire year and thought about constantly and perceived as the possible end to the way we understood civilization.
If you go to the very early part of the ’90s, I suppose it was the idea that the Cold War was still in its death throes. I think the fear was, “Oh, what if a suitcase bomb gets out of Russia, someone blows up Chicago or something?” That was something that never came to fruition. Was there a specific thing that you had in mind when you asked that question?
COWEN: Well, I had the fear that Russia might invade the Ukraine, which now is Ukraine. That’s come back. The notion that Japan would buy up the entire world. This idea that you had crack babies who would become these super-predators. There were a lot of fears that, in retrospect, seem relatively slight compared to what we now face.
KLOSTERMAN: Although that is common, I think, to amplify fears in the moment, and then retroactively look at anything that didn’t happen and perceive it as, “Well, I guess maybe we were amplifying that too much at the time.” If 9/11 doesn’t happen, we look at the attacking of the USS Cole very differently. We look at the first attempt on the World Trade Center very differently. Now that seems like a precursor to a plan that had been in existence for this long stretch of time, and this was always the goal. But if 9/11 doesn’t occur, it’s almost a forgotten event.
It’s really difficult when writing about history, but particularly history that people have lived through. The hardest thing about writing a book about the ’90s, I found, was the bifurcation between people who remember the ’90s almost like they just happened. That these things — the release of Nevermind or these Quentin Tarantino films and all these things — that this is still the history they’re living in. Then for other people, it’s no different than the moon landing. It’s just exposition about an event that they didn’t experience.
How do you write a book with the idea that maybe half the audience is going to be in category A, and half the audience is going to be in category B? It was a complicated problem. Did I need to literally explain what a compact disc is? I asked myself that at one point. Then I would be like, “Well, when I was growing up, I fully understood what a reel-to-reel was and what an 8-track was, even though I didn’t necessarily purchase them.”
But something has changed about the way time is perceived. I sense that you’ve recognized this too — 10 years is different now than the way it used to be, and it’s —
COWEN: Yeah, I think there’s a break point. Maybe it comes at 9/11, but since then, everything has felt weird, and a lot of aesthetics hasn’t changed very much. Music doesn’t go through phases the way it used to. Movies intensify, maybe, in terms of special effects or number of superheroes, but they don’t evolve the way they used to. The ’90s, to me, was the last part of earlier history.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, I think it’s possible — very easy in fact — to argue that the ’90s were the last decade of the 20th century, but also the last decade that was this immutable framing of time.
One thing I talk about a little bit in the book — maybe I should have talked about more, but I wanted to get away from seeing the past through the prism of the present — but this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.
An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.
But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.
This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture. This idea that everything, to a degree now, is somewhat retro, and certain natural evolutions that happened because culture was lost or forgotten or just moved beyond, doesn’t really happen now. It’s so easy to access the recent past that it all becomes pushed into the same gumbo or whatever.
The ’90s, to me, signal the end of when you are able to look at certain things or certain qualities or a certain vague sense and identify it as from that period. I fear that that may be over, although I’m not sure why I fear it.
COWEN: Why did it change? What happened? When did we sense the flip there? What drove that difference?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, the easy answer or the predictable answer or the answer anyone would give — they would say it’s the internet. That the internet emerges in the ’90s. It makes a big jump in ’95, but when you think of the internet in the ’90s, it’s really more of a mechanical discussion than a cultural discussion. But then, when you move beyond about 2001, beyond 9/11, you see the introduction of social media and all these things, and that it is so easy for anyone to instantly access something, anything, something or anything.
I use this example a lot. When I worked in newspapers in the ’90s, there would always be a person at that newspaper — maybe they had once been a reporter, now they’re on the night desk or something. You would go up to a person like that, and you’d be like, “Hey, I’m trying to think of this movie. I don’t know, it was about cars, and I think there’s a beach boy in it, and I feel like the film burns up.” And they’d go, “Oh, that’s Two–Lane Blacktop.” Their job was to remember cultural minutiae.
That is gone now because now everyone has the machine that does that, which is maybe personally disappointing because it seemed like that was what my life was going to become, [laughs] the person who remembered all these insignificant things. But that seems to be over now. Now that it’s all so available, instead of culture having depth, it’s more like a real shallow ocean that’s very easy to wade into and scoop up whatever you need. It’s vast, but it doesn’t go deep.
COWEN: Is Seinfeld still funny? Here I have in mind two points of view. One is the view that now it’s just rude. The girlfriend named Mulva — you couldn’t get away with that [now]. The other view is it’s not rude enough. Now we have Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that’s really rude, and it makes Seinfeld and Jason Alexander just not necessary. What’s your take? Is Seinfeld still good and funny?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, I still find it funny, although I will admit it might be difficult for someone who experienced it first to have a real accurate understanding of that. One thing that I have found when I talk to young people is that they tend to like Friends more than Seinfeld. They see Friends almost as this timeless situation dealing with problems that everyone goes through, where Seinfeld seems more rooted in this worldview that doesn’t exist as much anymore. I might be a hard person to gauge that. It does still seem funny to me.
I think the thing that matters, though, is that the tone of Seinfeld was both unlike the culture of today, but also massively popular. That is the thing that just kept coming up over and over again whenever I’d write about television. This idea that we have these events now like, oh, the finale of Game of Thrones, the finale of Mad Men, or whatever, that seem like these points in the zeitgeist that everyone is discussing simultaneously. Yet, any episode of Seinfeld was seen and experienced by more people, which meant that experience was just kind of normative entertainment.
It’s always so tempting, when you look back at any period of time, to look for these strange apex moments. The outlier that seemed incongruous with everything else that was happening and maybe seems closer to what’s happening in the culture of the present, and you go, “Well, this is what really mattered.”
I always sense that the thing that really mattered was the thing that we did not even view as having that ancillary secondary meaning. They were just what was being consumed, and the ideas and the morals and the values within that.
What was important about Seinfeld wasn’t that it was more rude and brusque and adversarial with the classic idea of a sitcom, where everything is happy and everything works out. That was important, but the bigger thing was that those ideas were just on, and people watched them because there they were. That sets the texture of an era more than, say, Twin Peaks or something that doesn’t seem like it fits in the time that it came.
COWEN: Did the golden age of American TV end after the ’90s? And if so, what happened to it? Because you have The Sopranos, The Wire. The years differ, but it’s around that time, right?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, I would say that there’s the first golden era of television, which everybody understands is its seminal period, back when television was still a new concept.
I would say the second golden age of television actually probably comes post ’90s, if we’re looking at the value of the content. When you look at that early part of the 21st century, where you still have The Sopranos, you have The Wire. Mad Men is there. Breaking Bad is part . . . There are these shows that probably were, for that period of time, generally superior to what was happening in cinema, which seemed like an unthinkable thing at the beginning of the ’90s, to even assert that somehow television could be better than movies. From a critical perspective it was just unthinkable.
Seinfeld was a great show, but I wouldn’t say the ’90s were a golden age of television. They were probably closer to the ’80s in a lot of ways. The real jump came when shows either moved away from the network concept, or even within the network concept, you could make a show like Lost, which wasn’t really like something that you would’ve seen in the past.
COWEN: What’s our biggest misconception about the ’90s?
KLOSTERMAN: I would say that one of the things that I found interesting was, I am not certain it is a misremembered period. I think that there’s a caricature and an idea of the ’90s — I think in this book I described it as a low-stakes grunge cartoon, kind of. And that’s not perfect, but it’s not radically incorrect. The ’90s are still close enough that a lot of the things that we project upon that period aren’t so far from the truth.
When you look at David Halberstam’s The Fifties, or books written about the ’60s, or books written about the ’70s, typically, the author is pushed or maybe feels obligated to contradict the widespread perception of the period. “We thought the ’70s were boring. Actually, there was all this tumult going on.” It’s always “We thought this, and we were wrong.”
Someone could do that with a book about the ’90s, but I felt that that would be a misshapen view of how it was. My goal in this was to write a book that was not looking at the ’90s the way we think about the culture now, and jamming that retrospective view into a modern ideology, but to go back and try to capture what it actually felt like to experience that time.
In some ways, it’s easy to seem smart by looking back and finding little signposts that signal a future, but it’s also not difficult to do that. What’s much harder is to describe what it felt like to hang around that signpost with no understanding that it had any future symbolic value.
COWEN: Now, the 1960s — you have the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, you have Spock on Star Trek. How does the popular culture of the ’90s portray science?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, I think with a pretty palpable degree of fear, which is not uncommon. You look back at a Godzilla movie, and it’s like atomic testing is going to cause these calamities. Frankenstein is founded on this. In the ’90s, of course, we have this cloning of Dolly the sheep, and that’s a hinge point for the way the idea of genetic engineering was seen.
There was this immediate fear that genetics was going to be used very often to reanimate things from the past, a little bit like Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park is the biggest mainstream example. That’s not really an anti-science book or an anti-science movie, but it is that the scientists have gone too far.
I did find it very intriguing to realize that after Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland, Bill Clinton was trying to introduce legislation that would stop the cloning of a human being. There was like, “We’ve got to get ahead of this.” That’s odd when you look back. When you think about it in retrospect, that’s an odd fear that we had, that somebody would clone humans immediately because the technology existed, but that fear was around.
It was like many things in the ’90s. It was this strange combination of anxiety and excitement. It was thrilling that this was occurring, and yet also seemed like the recipe for disaster. It was like you had to embrace the idea while also stopping it.
COWEN: Was the ’90s the last era of musical subcultures? If so, why did they go away?
KLOSTERMAN: I think there are still musical subcultures, but they’re exclusively online now. The idea of the physical mass subculture is probably gone. And of course, these are easy things to be wrong about, but part of that had to do with the fact of scarcity — not that the records didn’t exist, but that you had to pay for them, and people in teen culture had a limited amount of funds.
If you went and you bought it, you had enough money to buy one CD, so you bought The Cure, and you listened to that real intensely because it’s the only one you got that week. When you go back in two weeks, maybe you buy Sisters of Mercy or Nine Inch Nails or something that vaguely tied to it. Then you realize that the people who like The Cure seem to shop at this place called Hot Topic, so maybe you start shopping there.
The next thing you know, you’re part of this subculture because you had a real limitation. You were limited in your choice, and you were limited in the number of directions you could go. After Napster and with file sharing in general, and then moving into things like Spotify and Apple Music, there is no pressure to go down the same path over time.
Music is now a buffet, and its tangible value is less, so people just pick and choose, and everyone creates a playlist or a mixtape that suits their personality in specific, and that fights against the idea of creating a subculture. Because what that subculture — what you need are the people who have shared values by default. In other words, what they decide is cool or uncool is not totally just based on what they think, but what their peers seem to think and what the artists that these peers are listening to seem to think.
What other subcultures tend to . . . If you considered yourself a goth kid or a metalhead or any of these things that happened at that time, the way your group was perceived calcified, galvanized the meaning of those signifiers. That’s not really how it is now. That’s gone.
Now, there, again, it’s something I kind of miss. I’m not sure why I miss it. Is it just because I was familiar with it? I don’t know. To ascribe actual value to it is complicated.
COWEN: Maybe back then, you were more likely to use music to signal your personality type. You’re an indie girl who’s going to go to Brown, you listen to REM, right? You could be a Deadhead, you could listen to metal. Whereas now, your Instagram page tells everyone what you’re like, so you just go off and consume the buffet.
COWEN: Can you still be shocked today by music you hear? When I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, I was shocked. I’m never shocked today. Are you shocked?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, no. I guess the short answer is no. But what you’re describing in some ways, though, really is this slow cancellation of the future. That music from, say, 1991, ’92, ’93 — Nirvana’s Nevermind came out the same day as Blood Sugar Sex Magik came out. There was a whole bunch of records that came out that day. Had you played them to someone from 1971, it would not have seemed even like music.
I think that somebody who was into rock in 1971, who was listening to Led Zeppelin and the early Beatles solo records and all that, and you played them this music, they would be like, “Well, it seems dissident. It doesn’t seem songful. It doesn’t seem like music at all. I don’t like the way it’s recorded.” It would be really troubling.
It is very unlikely that someone would have that experience from hearing music now who had really been into music at the turn of the 21st century. It would not seem that different. It’s very difficult now to create something that isn’t at least partially retro. In fact, it almost seems to be gone entirely.
COWEN: You grew up in North Dakota. You loved metal. You documented it for Spin and other media sources. If you were coming of age today, what would be your passion in music? What would be your thing? What would be your at least partial subculture?
KLOSTERMAN: That’s an almost impossible question, but a great one. It’s fun to think about that, but the answer I give is going to be completely worthless because if I’m coming up in rural North Dakota now . . .
Okay, so my hometown had 500 people, and I lived outside of that town. In my hometown, there was essentially two kinds of music. There was metal, and there was country. AC/DC was kind of the crossover act. That’s all there was.
There was Top 40 music that no one seemed to care about, and even as high school students, we seemed to view it as shallow and superficial, while we were listening to bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe, so there are lots of contradictions here. It doesn’t always make sense, but I fell into that music. My brother came back from the army. He had a Mötley Crüe cassette. He had an Ozzy Osbourne cassette. I had been listening to Huey Lewis and Eddie Grant and Madness and Prince. Got this — I just loved it immediately, and it became my whole identity for a while.
How would that experience possibly happen now? I would be on the internet. I assume that instead of just sitting in my bedroom listening to an Ozzy Osbourne cassette and just reading the liner notes over and over again, I would be on a computer. And the experience of having my brother drop something off and then leave would be replaced by someone online that I find interesting, leading me in some direction.
I don’t think that I would have the same experience with music that I had growing up in a situation where my options were limited, where there were long stretches of time when I had six cassettes. That was all I had, and I would play them over and over and over again and think about them and see things in that music that probably didn’t exist.
It seems odd to say this now, and it seems almost crazy, but I think part of the reason I was able to succeed as a critic was because I came from a place where I was so limited in the art I was consuming that I had to think about it differently. I didn’t have MTV. Even if I’d grown up in Minneapolis — because the people that I became friends with later in life, most of which came from bigger towns, the people who seemed to like me as an adult — they were the people who listened to The Smiths and who thought Guns N’ Roses was terrible or whatever, but Guns N’ Roses was the most interesting thing I had.
I would look at Axl Rose the way somebody else might think of David Byrne or something. I had to get all this meaning from him. That really worked to my advantage, I think, as I matured and was able to experience these other kinds of art but still working from the way it was when I had nothing. I guess I don’t know what I would be like now. I don’t even like reading my early books because I can’t relate to the person who wrote them. The idea of me thinking about what I was like at 13 — no idea.
COWEN: Why did Spin magazine fail? Even I subscribed.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, the first thing I would say is, it started, I think, in 1988 and was still going pretty well till 2006. It didn’t really fail. It had a long life. Why is it still not a factor in the way the music industry operates? Well, lots of reasons. One, magazines in general matter less. More significant, though, is the idea that when I was reading Spin as a college student, you would read about a band like Pavement, or you would read about a band like Teenage Fan Club, and those records weren’t even out yet.
You would be reading this review of someone trying to describe what the music was, and if you would like it, and if it applied to you or whatever. Then you’d wait for the record and finally hear it, and you would’ve had this whole built-in superstructure in your mind over what this music was, and now you’re finally hearing it — whereas now it would be, you would hear about the band at the same time you heard it for the first time, and that kind of takes away the significance of a magazine like Spin.
I read Spin because I thought it had the best writers about music, but I wouldn’t need people to write about music if I could instantly hear the song itself. So I think that’s part of it.
COWEN: What made Grantland so wonderful?
KLOSTERMAN: I appreciate you saying that. I think it was that they just went out and got the best writers they could find, and paid them enough to do projects that other places probably wouldn’t see a real demand for, and let them do it.
The first story I wrote for Grantland was about going to a junior college basketball game when I was like a sophomore in high school. It was a Native American team who was playing, and they only had six guys on the roster, and three of them fouled out, and they won the game three on five. But this was a small junior college game in Wahpeton, North Dakota, from the ’80s. There’s no place to present that story to, but at Grantland, it was like, go ahead, the weirder the better.
From the perspective of being a writer, Grantland is almost an unrealistic scenario. “We want you to be you.” As a consequence, I suppose, if we really went back and we read everything that was on Grantland, we would find a lot of junk that seems ridiculous now. But at the same time, the things that people remember were the best parts.
COWEN: What is it in non-American culture that you’re most interested in? Canada not counting — no Neil Young, no Joni Mitchell.
KLOSTERMAN: Non-American culture. Boy, I am a pretty American person in a lot of ways. I’m sure a criticism of this book is that instead of being called The Nineties, it should be called The American Nineties.
I have a somewhat myopic view about how culture works, but in 2008, I was a guest professor at the University of Leipzig, and I taught American studies there for a semester. It was in East Germany, so it was very interesting. German’s the main language. The second most popular language was Russian. I could teach a class at this university, but I couldn’t mail a letter because I’d go to the post office and no one knew what I wanted.
Being in East Germany, the thing that fascinated me was talking to Germans, especially German students, about their perception of America. I think that the most valuable thing about traveling is the greater understanding you have of the place you’re from, from the way it is perceived, and your natural inclination is to almost argue with these people.
I was teaching a class called 20th-Century Pop Culture, and it’s the first day, and I’m walking to class, and a graduate student starts walking alongside of me. He seems like a nice guy, and he asked me what I’m doing, and I tell him, “I’m teaching this class on 20th-Century Pop Culture.” He’s like, “Well, that should take 10 minutes.” Because they perceive America as having no culture, but it was crazy because they all loved hip-hop. I would be like, “Well, hip-hop is American culture.” And they’d be like, “Oh, no, that’s an immigrant culture.” I’m like, “Well, not really. That’s a weird way to perceive it.”
I know what you’re really asking more about is, what are things that come from —
COWEN: Well, like Asian cinema in the ’90s was a big deal for me. I discovered —
KLOSTERMAN: It was, oh, sure.
COWEN: — Hong Kong movies, changed my whole worldview of movies.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes. To be honest, I was pretty unsophisticated in that way, in that I thought that I was getting deeper into culture by pursuing what I was already into. I would see a movie like Run Lola Run, and I would think, “Oh, now I’m understanding this thing.” But I was just seeing one part of it. There’s a bunch of stuff I could make up, but I think, in reality, my interests are domestic. They really are.
There are tons of bands I like from Britain, but that somehow didn’t seem in any way separate from US culture. Like the Beatles seem like part of American culture. Led Zeppelin seems like part of American culture. In fact, Led Zeppelin seems more like it’s part of American culture than UK culture.
KLOSTERMAN: I was really into groups like Pizzicato Five, Japanese pop music. I really like Swedish pop music, but there again, that’s something that’s been so integrated into our world here, it’s almost like saying, “I love food from other countries. General Tso’s chicken — that’s what I love.” It’s a form of the other, or whatever, that is actually a form of us.
COWEN: Are you up for a lightning round of overrated versus underrated?
COWEN: Feel free to pass on any of these. George Harrison — overrated or underrated?
KLOSTERMAN: Wow. Well, I would say as a —
COWEN: You’ve seen Get Back, right?
KLOSTERMAN: Of course.
COWEN: He’s a whiner, and he walks offstage.
KLOSTERMAN: That’s true.
COWEN: He’s not transparent. Who would hire him?
KLOSTERMAN: But I don’t know if any of those qualities factor into someone being overrated or underrated. I would say this: It is almost impossible to say a member of the Beatles is underrated, not because they are overrated, but because we look at their work in such a way that there’s nobody out there saying that All Things Must Pass isn’t good.
I suppose if you had to make an assessment, you could say that George’s music was a little more same-y than John or Paul, that fundamentally his songs follow a similar chord structure and a similar delivery pattern, that All Things Must Pass is many versions of three good songs. I suppose that makes him slightly overrated, but I love George Harrison, so I hate to say that. But I guess if I had to pick one or two, that’s what I pick.
COWEN: Okay. Here’s a softball. Eric Clapton — over- or underrated?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, overrated forever, and now underrated because of his political position in the sense that people now have decided that not only do they not like him, but that somehow Cream was bad and that Derek and the Dominos was bad.
He was overrated my whole life. There was a long period where if you would’ve said, “Who are the most overrated figures in rock history?” I would be like, “That’s easy. Jim Morrison and Eric Clapton.” But it changed so dramatically and so radically that now it’s almost as though we can’t think of him as probably the most significant white blues guitar player of all time. I would say now he’s slightly underrated, but it’s his own fault.
COWEN: Okay. Here’s a guy on the injured list — Anthony Davis.
KLOSTERMAN: Let’s see. Is he overrated or underrated? I would say he is probably somewhat overrated because he is often injured. He is really more of an elite defender than an elite scorer, even though he’s a good shooter. He’s a great player. He’s an all-star, but I would say that if I’m listing, in order, the best players in the league, I guess I would place him further down on the list than a lot of my peers. I would say slightly overrated.
COWEN: My local guy, Bradley Beal — over- or underrated?
KLOSTERMAN: I would say slightly underrated, but only by the casual consumer. I think people who follow the NBA pretty closely have a relatively accurate view of Bradley Beal. He might be properly rated, I guess, among people who understand basketball and follow basketball closely, and certainly people who live in Washington. But I would say there are a lot of people who might classify themselves as basketball fans — if you ask them about Bradley Beal, they might not know who he is or where he plays, so slightly —
COWEN: To me, he lacks ambition, and that’s a big no-no. Even though I think insiders know that about him, I still put him as a bit overrated.
KLOSTERMAN: When you say he lacks ambition — ambition to be great, ambition to win, to become a different player?
KLOSTERMAN: Really? Okay.
COWEN: Yes, to be the best, to be on the best team. He doesn’t seem to care, which is fine. He might be a happier guy than a lot of his peers, but nonetheless.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, that’s a hard thing to measure because in sports, we actually reward people emotionally if they are obnoxious. I remember when Justin Herbert came out of college, people didn’t want to draft him because they were like, “He’s not an emotional leader. He’ll never succeed because he’s just quiet. He keeps to himself.” Somehow, someone like Baker Mayfield who tries to draw attention is perceived as being more dedicated and more intense. It’s confusing.
It’s always so interesting. I grew up — my favorite player was Larry Bird. And I remember being very surprised when I found out that Larry Bird was constantly talking and trash-talking his opponents because, as somebody who was just watching at home as a kid, for some reason I thought of him almost as a stoic person. That’s how I viewed it because he was talking to other players. He wasn’t talking to the media.
COWEN: Of the great NBA players — take something like the top 100, whatever you’d like — who’s the most underrated of that lot? Who’s still underappreciated?
KLOSTERMAN: This is a strange answer because he’s very famous, but to a degree, Wilt Chamberlain has become underrated in the fact that people discount his statistics as a vestige of a previous time. But even within that previous time, the statistics he compiled are really unthinkable. The fact that you will sometimes see lists of the greatest players of all time and he will be outside the top five — I think that’s very weird.
I don’t know if he would be in the top 100, but there were guys like Sydney Moncrief who were good for years and good in every way, but we would never include them in this top tier because pro basketball has also adopted this — maybe predictable but also curious — perception that winning a championship matters almost too much now. If you have not won a title, you can’t be classified as a great player.
It’s strange — you’ll watch the TNT Show, and Kenny Smith will still hold this over Charles Barkley, somehow, that they are equal as veterans, as former players because Kenny Smith won two titles and Barkley won none, and Barkley’s aware of it. They’ve made this decision almost collectively.
This decision has been made, that in basketball — because there are only five guys on the floor, and we can credit the best player as being the reason a team succeeds or fails — winning a title has become everything. It skews the way we understand this. It’s why you see guys trying to get titles late in their career — ring chasing or whatever. I think they believe if they can just do that, that will somehow recontextualize everything else about them.
COWEN: I might say Kareem — just high total value, high peaks, and high total. For me, he’s clearly top three. I’m not sure he’s viewed that way necessarily.
KLOSTERMAN: I think that there is a camp that places him third that goes now —
COWEN: But it’s a camp. It should be a nation. It should be a universe, right?
KLOSTERMAN: [laughs] I guess so.
COWEN: Van Morrison — was he any good? Is he any good? Is he an Eric Clapton figure who’s now hated because he opposed lockdowns? Or was he brilliant for decades or just had an early peak?
KLOSTERMAN: He did have an early peak. He’s a strange figure in the sense that he was a guy who was . . . He’s 22 years old, and he sings nostalgically about this lost past. People who are fans of Van Morrison — they see him as an interesting songwriter with a very distinctive voice.
Compared to Eric Clapton — now, of course, they’re tied together because they share this vaccination platform or whatever — he doesn’t seem to me a fraction as significant in the history of music as Clapton is. I would still say a little bit overrated, but that’s taste too.
COWEN: Why aren’t the current Portland Trail Blazers better than they are? As we’re speaking, they’re eight games below 500. On paper, they looked pretty good. No one thought they would win a title, but they were maybe the fifth-best team in the West. Now they stink. What’s your meta model of the Trail Blazers?
KLOSTERMAN: I think they were a team that overachieved for a period, that people didn’t really think of them as a premier franchise. We get into the playoffs, and there was this realization that Lillard was this incredible scoring machine and that CJ McCollum is good and they had all these various pieces.
Then it was like they hit some abstract ceiling where there was almost an understanding — within the team itself, but also, oddly, with the fan base — that they could never win a title. They could probably never even get out of the West.
Once that belief became the foundational idea of the team, it just collapsed. Now you might as well blow the whole thing up. It was almost as though they convinced themselves that they were just limited. There was a limit to the success they could have. As so often is the case, self-awareness is what destroys you. Their self-awareness of their limitation was the problem.
COWEN: As you’ve written, in the 1980s you have the Celtics versus the Lakers. It’s one of the great sports rivalries of all time. Can we still have sports rivalries at all? If not, why not? Where did they go?
KLOSTERMAN: You can have them at the collegiate level, for sure. Part of the reason I find myself drawn to college sports more than pro sports, very often, is that even though the kind of person who goes to a school to play football or basketball is different than the student body, in a sense, if Stanford is playing Arizona or if Texas is playing Georgia, we have an understanding of what kind of person tends to go to those schools. And we can sort of apply it to the players, and even though the players might be outside of that world, they adopt those characteristics. The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State, and Auburn and Alabama — those aren’t going to go away.
At the pro level, though, it will be difficult to see two teams that dynastic at the same time, where the Lakers and the Celtics were clearly the two best teams in the league throughout that period. Yes, the 76ers were good in there. The Bucks were good in there. The Rockets had success. But the 76ers had to get Moses Malone in order to get over the hump to beat the Celtics, and when the Rockets beat the Lakers, it was an anomaly.
So you had these two dynastic teams that were also completely different, even to the most casual viewer. Race was part of it, but also playing style. Also, this understanding that they were on different coasts, and that there was something diametrically different about what it would be like to be a Celtic fan and what it would be like to be a Laker fan. It’s hard to imagine that now.
If you look at the NFL, the Patriots have had this dynasty over a long period of time, and teams have come and gone. What would’ve needed to happen would’ve been like if the Packers or the Cowboys had had the same kind of success as the Patriots over that same period of time. That’s almost impossible now.
It defies logic that the Patriots have been able to succeed the way they have for 20 years. It doesn’t really make sense, especially in the NFL, which is designed to allow every franchise to eventually get good and to create almost an inorganic degree of parity.
COWEN: In college basketball, if so many of the good players are one and done, the coach doesn’t get to imprint an identity on the franchise. Players just want to signal they have upside potential to become lottery picks. How is it that college basketball is even still worth watching?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, the first thing I will say is that when I think about sports experiences in my life — and I’m discounting “Oh, this team I wanted to win lost,” or “This team I hated succeeded,” and I discount terrible injuries to people or the death of Len Bias or whatever — when I think about things in sports that have disappointed me over the course of my life, the decline in college basketball is probably at the top of the list. I would say that and the introduction of instant replay are the two things that disappoint me most about the way sports has changed over time.
College basketball now is solely the March Madness tournament. That seems to be the only thing even relatively serious college basketball fans care about. Because the best players play the shortest amount of time, it is real difficult to get a sense of what these guys are like and what the coach is trying to do beyond succeed. I guess that is part of it.
When you think of college basketball in the ’70s and the ’80s, and you think of John Wooden and Bobby Knight and Dean Smith and John Thompson and all these guys, you think about these coaches who had consistently strong teams and teams that had a real clear identity. You could look at these teams, and you would almost see when a kid graduates and a new kid is recruited, he’s the replacement for that guy, both as a position on the floor but also as what they would bring to the team. That is gone now.
The fact that Duke does this, especially . . . People thought they might be the last holdout of this, but they are not. When Calipari succeeded at Kentucky, it proved that this is the best way to build a great team. You get the best collection of kids coming out of high school, put them together, and accept that college basketball now is more an extension of AAU basketball than high school basketball.
If you’re asking me, “Why is it worth watching?” It’s like, “Well, I still watch it.” But I will say this: There was a long stretch of my life where, if there was a pro game on and a college game on, I would always watch the college game. Now that’s never the case. Now I will always watch the pro game.
COWEN: Is there too much gambling money in sports today?
KLOSTERMAN: Too much? What do you mean by too much?
COWEN: Asking for scandal. The flow of betting on professional sports is much higher than the revenue of the sports themselves. There’s room for conflicting incentives. People selling inside information about player injuries. Referees not quite being deliberately dishonest, but just not always looking too hard at the fouls of one team, and so on. Relative to the flow of betting money, why should we have great faith in the process?
KLOSTERMAN: I think that officiating is the issue where this does become a little dangerous and fragile. One thing that came out of the whole Tim Donaghy situation, when there was a scandal, the NBA did a pretty good job of sweeping it away, and everyone’s forgot about it. One of the things that came out of that was a realization that a referee can dictate the outcome of a game, simply by calling the game straight in the sense that they don’t have to create fouls or even try to look for situations where they can dictate the outcome.
They can just occasionally call traveling, the way traveling actually is, or they can call lane violations on free throws which they normally completely ignore. It becomes almost this invisible way of manipulating the spread because they’re not doing anything. They’re not wrong about anything. They’re actually just being correct in a way that is usually forgotten. There is some risk with that.
The fact of the matter is, pro athletes are now compensated to a degree where it would be difficult to convince them to throw a game or manipulate a spread with the risk that is there, with the amount of money they’re already making. There was a controversy about Len Dawson when he played for the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV. Before that Super Bowl, there was this idea that maybe he had some relationship with gamblers.
The fact of the matter is, in the early 1970s, what a guy was making — you could definitely see how giving a guy $10,000 or whatever could be a legitimate amount of money. At the pro level now, the amount of money you’d have to pay these guys to make it worth the risk is huge. At college, harder to say. Here in Oregon now, I could gamble if I wanted to on the Oregon State Lottery, but you can’t gamble on college games. I suppose that they would see that that’s still an area of danger, that you could convince a . . . particularly since you can gamble on anything now.
I think if somebody wanted to do this, what they would do is, they would probably get involved with the mid-majors in very small college teams, where it wouldn’t be that difficult, not only to get to a player but to give him something that would be worth his time.
I think, though, that there was this fear that sports might become so splintered that it could recede from the culture, and they had to find a way to keep it as popular as it ever was. And gambling was the answer because gambling makes people who don’t care, care a lot.
COWEN: Why are so many people so interested in eSports? Have regular sports failed us? What’s going on there?
KLOSTERMAN: I think the fact that, for a lot of people, their relationship to gaming starts so early that they perceive it as really no different than an athletic sport, except they were never comfortable playing athletic sports, and this is a way to do it. Seeing people do it at the highest level — to them it’s not any different than watching LeBron James. It is strange. My son is eight. He will watch YouTube clips of people playing video games. It seems bizarre to me. It doesn’t seem remotely strange to him.
COWEN: When you teach writing, how is it that you teach that’s different from how other people teach writing?
KLOSTERMAN: I’m probably worse.
COWEN: Okay, but how are you worse? What is it you fail to succeed at?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, the most important quality of writing, in my view at least, is the unteachable element, which is voice. If writing has voice, the content — I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant, but voice can compensate for a lot. A lot of times, when you’re teaching kids about writing, they ask questions like, “How do you find your voice?” Or “How did you find your voice?” is something they often want to know.
The reality is, your voice exists inside of you. You just have to pull it out. You’re not finding it. You’re not going to find it from reading other people. My take on this is, I think of my life, and there was this variety of writers. When I was in high school, I really liked Dave Barry. Then I went to college and I was into Douglas Coupland. Then, I was into Raymond Carver for a while, and so I’d want to read all of this, and then it was like, “Oh, Michael Lanier.” I thought that was really great. Then David Foster Wallace — I was obsessed with that, but he was the last one.
I think that you don’t become a writer until you no longer want to be like other writers. That’s sort of the key. The key is getting beyond the idea that there is some idea of what you think writing is that you can somehow match or find or replicate. And you just go off and do your own thing that only you can do. I feel pretty strongly about that, but there again, I’m going by my experience.
You can teach mechanical aspects of writing to someone, and you can make one little jump. You can make somebody who’s very mediocre into okay, and you can turn somebody who’s okay into pretty good, and somebody who’s pretty good, maybe you can make very good. But to really change the experience for people consuming that work, to take someone and say, “If you do these things, you’ll be able to become the writer you want.” It doesn’t seem like that’s how it works to me. I taught a writing class, and I think it was kind of useless.
In the same way, when I was in college, I was an editor at the school paper. I found that I was a real bad editor because I had two natural inclinations that were dissident. Either I would be like, “I’m going to rewrite everything in this because this is terrible.” Or I would be like, “That’s him, it’s her, she gets to do what she wants, just put it through.” It’s hard for me to be that middle person because anytime I read anything, any book I read, as I’m reading it, I’m changing the sentences in my mind That’s how I’ve always been.
COWEN: Now, you’ve put out a deck of cards called HYPERtheticals. I’ll ask you one of your own questions. Here I’m quoting you: “Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the caterers. After the meal, you’re asked to give a 15-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?”
KLOSTERMAN: Well, the thing I always think about with this question is, what is the likelihood that the people at this banquet are going to recognize why they are there? That’s never said in the question. Some people hear that question, and they assume they have been asked to this event for this reason, and they’re coming because they are part of this weird sorority or whatever.
Then some people imagine the people are just there. They don’t know why they’ve been asked. They don’t know what the relationship is to each other. That’s usually how I think of it, that the people in this room — they don’t know why they’re there. If they know each other, it’s by chance, and they happen to know each other in life. So, I would probably give a speech where I would go over the trajectory of my life and discuss all of the things about the past that I regret. I feel, by doing that, it would somehow connect with every person there.
COWEN: You’re with your parents in the honesty room. You can ask them any question. They’ll give you an honest answer. What do you ask them?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, my dad is dead now. My mom is very old. What’s interesting about that is, at one point, I interviewed my parents. I thought, I’m just going to ask them about their life. I put a tape recorder on, and I asked my parents questions. My dad loved this. My dad talked about every detail of his life. My mom was like interviewing Thom Yorke. She didn’t want to say anything. She did not want to give me a response to anything, even the simplest questions.
I guess what I would ask them is sort of a narcissistic question. I would ask them, “Are you proud of me? Are you happy with the person I turned out to be?” Because that’s very important to me, and I know they would never give me a real answer on that, but somehow if they’re in this hypothetical question, I could. I’ll always wonder that.
COWEN: Did they think you were cooler than Billy Joel?
KLOSTERMAN: Well, my parents wouldn’t know who Billy Joel is. [laughs]
COWEN: Probably yes?
KLOSTERMAN: I don’t really care if my parents think I was cool. My fear always was that . . . The difference between my life and my parents’ life and their experience — I can’t prove this, but I think it’s probably greater than most writers. Due to the age of my parents, the level of poverty they grew up in, the fact that we were in such a rural place — they’ve never totally understood anything about my career.
I hope they haven’t read my books, but even if they have, I don’t think it would make any sense to them. Maybe the novel Downtown Owl might, but none of the other ones. Yet they can also see how other people react to me. They have a sense that somehow I did okay or whatever. I would like to know if they feel I made them proud, or if it’s embarrassing that I ended up becoming the person I am. That’s probably what I would ask them.
COWEN: I know which answer I would bet on.
Crypto — does it represent the final break with the 1990s?
KLOSTERMAN: Shouldn’t that be something I should be asking you about? Because to me, cryptocurrency — I didn’t know anything about it, so I was like, “Well, I should look into this, just to understand it.”
It’s very difficult to understand, as far as I can tell. I came across something, an idea that I’m wondering what you will say, as an economist. My assumption always was that cryptocurrency, in some ways, was like we’re breaking away from the way money used to be, and there’s a real opportunity to make a lot of money in this kind of Wild West scenario.
I came across some information that seemed to suggest that for someone like me, it might be smart to look at cryptocurrency as a safety net in fear that the US economy collapses or the world economy collapses. Is there any value in looking at cryptocurrency, not as this radical change, but as a backup?
COWEN: Early crypto prices are very countercyclical. They’re like gold once had been. In more recent times, crypto prices have become highly cyclical, that is, they move with everything else. Now, what would happen if a big part of the world collapsed? I would say, we don’t know. I suspect some small percentage of your portfolio should, in fact, be in crypto, just because it helps you diversify.
I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.
You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.
KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.
COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.
KLOSTERMAN: The ’90s — there was not the sense that culture was unraveling, which I think is a common feeling now. That crisis is not unmanageable.
I have a financial adviser, and he always wants me to take more risks. But I always have this fear that at some point, the way the economy of the United States works — it could just collapse. He always tells me, “Well, if that’s your concern, it’s a concern for everybody. You can’t build that into your portfolio, the idea of what happens if there’s a catastrophic end to capitalism.”
As an economist, what is the likelihood of — the way our economy is built — just completely hemorrhaging and falling apart? Would you say there’s a 2 percent chance of that? A 20 percent chance of that? Is it always 50–50?
COWEN: I don’t think economists are especially able to judge that. I am mostly optimistic, and the biggest risks I worry about are at the level of international peace: China, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, right? Big problems that I’m sure I don’t understand, but I’m not sure they’re going to work out well.
I used to think the countercyclical asset was to have a second residence or savings in some other country. But increasingly, I’m wondering if the countercyclical asset isn’t the United States, and you’re already, in a sense, overinvested in it. Maybe it’s parts of Florida are the countercyclical asset. Wouldn’t that be weird? How about North Dakota, even? Not impossible, right?
KLOSTERMAN: Like buying land, you’re saying?
COWEN: There’s fracking, climate change — it could become warmer — all the better for agriculture. I know there are nuclear silos there, but I don’t really think anyone’s going to attack. You can have cheap hobbies, watch basketball, enjoy the internet, listen to your music till you die. My guess is you’re more invested in the countercyclical assets than your adviser thinks and than you think, which does mean you can take more risk.
It’s the person who lives, say, in Singapore, where if China becomes a truly dominant Pacific power, might start feeling they’re screwed. They’re the ones that have a hard time truly diversifying. You don’t.
KLOSTERMAN: It might be, though, just what your personality is like. There’s a certain personality whose goal seems to be to make more money, and my personality is, “Don’t lose the money you’ve made.” I seem so lucky to have had things work out the way they have. My fear always is that, in the end, I’m going to have nothing again. Somehow, I’m going to have put all this time in, and done all of these things to accumulate this wealth that seemed absolutely unfathomable to me for most of my life, but somehow, I’m going to end up exactly the way I started.
COWEN: It’s not going to happen unless you blow it through some weird addiction. I would say high-quality real estate and cheap hobbies — I’m sure you have at least one of those right now, probably both — are the best hedges. You’ve got them. Take more risk.
COWEN: You are human capital, right? No one can touch that, short of you destroying yourself or just dying. The more money you spend . . . like spending money is insuring against an early death, because if I hit 96 years old and I’m broke, I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I made it to 96. I can at least read Wikipedia every day. This is still pretty awesome.”
KLOSTERMAN: Do you have kids? Oh, you did, you said that.
COWEN: Yes. She’s a huge fan of yours. She just had a daughter, a baby girl — beautiful. I can enjoy her for free. I’m hedged. The real risk is premature death, in my view. You want to do things that are fun now, so if you die when you’re 63, you still will feel, “I got my stuff in,” whatever that’s going to be, and I bet you do that.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, that’s an interesting way to look at it, I guess. I don’t know if I look at it that way; 63 — I’m 14 years away from that. Do I even look 14 years ahead? I don’t think I do. I feel like I’m almost trapped in this perpetual now, where it’s hard for me to think about my life in the future but very easy to fixate on my life in the past.
COWEN: It probably means you should take more risk. If you just hold safe assets, and we have above-average inflation, you get hammered, right? You lose compound returns every year, that cumulates. Real estate, equities — you at least have a chance of outrunning the demon, so to speak. You can always earn more. That’s another great thing about being in your position.
COWEN: Until you’re senile, you can supply more labor, earn more, give talks, write more books, consult, teach — whatever you want to do. You’re golden.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see.
COWEN: We will see. That brings me to my final question, but first, I’d like to plug Chuck’s book, The Nineties. On the cover, it’s called The Nineties: A Book. I promise you, it is a book. You turn to the inside — it’s just The Nineties. This is an excellent, fascinating book about the ’90s, a decade which also I will recommend.
But final question: what is it you will do next?
KLOSTERMAN: Oh, like what writing project I have next?
COWEN: Doesn’t have to be writing. It could just be “I’m going to spend a year watching high school basketball.” Or “I’m going to listen to all my heavy metal records again.” Anything. Your true project, the one you haven’t told anyone about.
KLOSTERMAN: That I haven’t told anyone about. Well, I am just trying to appreciate the high likelihood that in some distant future, I will look back at this period of my life as the best period I had. I’m trying to stay conscious of that as it’s happening. My daughter is six, and she still likes me to lay in bed with her and hold her hand before she falls asleep. Sometimes that’s a drag. Last night, for example, I wanted to see what was going on in the football game, and I was, “Well, you know . . .”
But then, another part of me is like, when I am dying, and I’m thinking about the moments in my life that mattered, it’s probably going to be things like lying in bed with my daughter and holding her hand in this extraordinarily intimate situation. We’re so close to each other, both physically and intellectually, that if I could build a time machine on my deathbed, that’s probably where I’d go back to.
What I’m really trying to do now is try to be cognizant of the fact that all of the things that I wanted in life — I’ve got them, but it’s way beyond it. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when your actual life has completely usurped any dreams you had, but that’s totally how it is.
Like I said, I used to read Spin magazine in college. When I worked there in the early 2000s, all my friends from college were like, “Ah, your dream, you’ve realized your dream.” I was like, “I never dreamt that when I was reading that magazine. I knew somebody wrote it, but I didn’t think I could get that job.” I never imagined. I was always thinking if I wrote one book in my life, that would be amazing, but now I’ve written 12.
Why doesn’t that make me completely happy? Why am I not completely satisfied by the fact that everything that I was hoping for has not only happened but happened many times over? Because it doesn’t. In some fundamental way, you stay the same. In some ways, I feel the same as I did 30 years ago, even though my life then — I would never want to really revisit except maybe on a vacation, but I wouldn’t want to re-experience it.
That’s not really an answer to the question, but I guess the answer is that I’m almost not thinking about what’s next. I’m trying to think about what I’m doing now and failing.
COWEN: There’s an old 17th-century French saying I’m quite fond of, and it goes something like, “Things are never as good or as bad as they seem.”
KLOSTERMAN: It’s true. Hey, I wanted to ask you something, though.
COWEN: Yeah, sure.
KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.
COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.
KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?
COWEN: I met him at that event. I had a breakfast with him, like the day before the talk. He and I hit it off very well and just spent three, four hours going crazy, talking at each other. We became friendly but hadn’t met before.
There’s only one mode of engaging with him. And for me, it was fun because he’s one of the few people I’ve met — you can ask him a question about anything, and whether or not you agree — and often I don’t — he has an intelligent, informed answer immediately on tap, full of detail, and he can run with it. A lot of times, it’s interesting.
KLOSTERMAN: Oh, it’s always interesting. Although one thing that, over time, I have come to realize is that a lot of his responses to things are always driving back to some of these things he likes to think about.
COWEN: Of course.
KLOSTERMAN: You probably saw this. He recently reviewed the new Matrix movie. It was this really good review, and then at the end, he’s like, “Also, I have not seen Matrix, and that proves my point.” I was like, “Well, in a way it does.” In a strange way, it was like the epitome that you could look at something and have it only mean things outside of itself, so much so, you don’t even have to look at the thing itself, but yeah. [laughs]
COWEN: I think he’s underrated. He has his cult followers, and presumably a lot of them overrate him, but a lot of serious people don’t think of him as a force. He is, as a person, truly a force, in a way not actually that many thinkers are. So I’m a big fan, even though I really don’t agree that much with him.
KLOSTERMAN: Oh, so am I, but the underrated-overrated thing — it’s hard to place on him because, in a sense, his notoriety for what he does completely goes beyond the vast majority of people who are philosophers or whatever. In that sense, if you go from an individual’s importance to their field relative to their notoriety in that field, I think he might be at the top of that. It is just not many people — I think Cornel West maybe, or whatever. You find a few people who are philosophers who are famous.
But in terms of his ideas themselves, they could be underrated because I think that his notoriety is very often used against him. The fact that he’ll talk about Titanic or whatever in this very commercial way builds in this assumption that these ideas must not be really meaningful as much as they are attention-grabbing.
In some weird way, he’s a little bit like Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, where Evan Dando of the Lemonheads was making records that people made fun of and didn’t take seriously because he was so overtly handsome. He was good-looking in an obvious way. There was this assumption, particularly at that time in the ’90s, that if you were conventionally good-looking, or banal good looks or whatever, that made people look at his songwriting as, “Oh, meaningless.”
Now we go back and listen to him as a songwriter — it’s like, “Oh, well, he is real good.” He was better than most. We thought he was bad because he was handsome. I think sometimes people think that Žižek is full of shit because he’s famous, but that’s not necessarily true.
COWEN: His best side, I think, is his Hegelian side, when he insists the truth is to be found in the reconciliation of diametrically opposing ideas, and then he’s quite good. If he gets too wrapped up in Marx or some of the heavier continental stuff, sometimes I just think he is drifting.
It’s also amazing when you’re with him, how he uses his body. It’s such an integral part of how he thinks and talks, and a lot of us aren’t used to that. He is hurling his whole body at you all the time, and how he moves is part of his thought, and that’s a funny notion, but you need to meet him to grasp him.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, physicality is part of charisma.
COWEN: Of course.
KLOSTERMAN: Charisma is a real thing, and in a way, I think sometimes we put charisma into a category like grit or like authenticity. It’s like, “Well, it’s a thing that we throw at people when we write about them, and it’s just this imaginary construct.” But I have found, over and over again, that charisma is one of the realest things in the experience of being alive.
There are people who are different when you’re around them than they are when you see them on a screen or you read them, and it changes everything. Then there are some people who can transmit that charisma through the screen or through the page. In some ways, it’s just the most attractive quality a performer can have, and the most desirable. I said voice is the most important part of writing. There’s also a voice to his identity, just his being.
COWEN: He’s an athlete in a funny way.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes, but what’s weird is, even the things that we’re saying about him could be used as evidence for the criticisms of him. Here I am talking about how I like this philosopher, and I’m bogged down on the fact that he has charisma that can break through a TV screen or whatever. That’s not philosophy.
I always think when I write stuff, my goal is to be as accessible as possible. My self-editing is constantly making sentences straighter and more simple and more clear, but then you can become accessible to a fault, where it looks easy to some people. And it also seems obvious to people because it hits someone so directly that they assume that they thought that themselves, which in some ways, the weird goal is to make the person feel like they’re writing the book as they read it. But if you succeed at that goal, they’re going to think you’re a bad writer. It’s strange.
COWEN: You might like the book less years from now, also.
COWEN: Are you writing for your current self, your future self? Even your past self, you might write for, and you’ve written about this issue yourself, as you well know.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes. True.
COWEN: Anyway, it’s been great chatting with you. Again, Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties: A Book.
KLOSTERMAN: I should probably tell you, my name is actually pronounced kl-OH-ster-man.
COWEN: Oh, apologies, Chuck kl-OH-ster-man.
KLOSTERMAN: I hate telling people that because there’s no umlaut over it. I don’t care. My dad used to always say, “Well, you should tell people to pronounce your name right.” My son — he now goes by Klosterman. It’s really funny. He’s eight, but he’s made the decision. You know what? He’s totally right.
I spent all this time telling people like radio hosts, “Just so you know, I don’t really care, but my name is klOHsterman.” Well, if I don’t care, why am I telling people? I feel this obligation to do it. I felt obligated to tell you, even though, if anybody now realizes you mispronounced my name, they’ve listened to an hour and a half of a podcast. What do they care now? [laughs]
COWEN: I face the COH-wen/COW-en issue, and it’s COW-wen. People think it’s COH-wen.
KLOSTERMAN: That’s what I thought, good thing I didn’t —
COWEN: It’s Irish, COW-wen, but I let people say COH-wen. Eh, whatever, you know.
KLOSTERMAN: I guess it’s the strange thing about names. It’s the most and least important thing about you. It really is. You have a baby, and you’re coming up with its name, and any name can work. Yet, the thing you do name it is going to be the one thing that’s going to follow that person for the totality of their life. It means nothing. It’s just a collection . . . You could name your kid Stick, and it would be fine. If my name was Stick Klosterman, nothing about me would probably be different.
And then part of me is like, “Or would it?” If I had went by Charles Klosterman instead of Chuck Klosterman —
COWEN: That would be different.
KLOSTERMAN: — would I be taken more seriously? I don’t know. Would I be seen differently? Chuck makes it seem like I just came off the football field. I don’t know. I have no idea if my life would be different if I had gone by Charles. Or if I had gone by Charlie, would I be more playful?
COWEN: It’s often the combination of names that matters. Like in my case, Tyler and Cowen — they’re not rare, but together, you just don’t find them much. If someone combines the two, I figure they’re close enough. They could even call me Tyrone Cowen, and it’s, well, you know, someone will think it’s me.
KLOSTERMAN: Tyler seems like a more modern name. If I only knew your name, I’d assume you were younger.
COWEN: I was the only Tyler in my day, like the only one. Henry Kissinger’s dog was named Tyler. There was no other kid named Tyler. Now it’s one of the more common names.
KLOSTERMAN: [laughs] Was that the reason you were named Tyler — because of Kissinger’s dog?
COWEN: My father really wanted to name me Tyrone because of Tyrone Power, the movie star, whom he liked. My mother thought that was crazy, and she insisted on it being knocked down to Tyler, and they compromised on Tyler. That’s the story.
KLOSTERMAN: It worked out.
COWEN: It worked out, yes.
KLOSTERMAN: My parents wanted to name me Fred, Frederick, but my sister, who was three years older, couldn’t say “Fred.” She said “Fwed.” Even though she was only three, for some reason, my parents were like, “Well, that will be a problem.” So then they named me Charles. I always think if I had been named Freddy, if I had been Freddy Klosterman, somehow that makes me seem like I would have had a career as a con artist or something, where I was trickier, you know?
COWEN: Freddy is a horror movie name. I think you don’t want to be a Freddy.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, now, only if it’s a y. Now, if somebody has a y at the end, but if it’s F‑R‑E‑D‑D‑I‑E, that doesn’t really seem like a horror movie thing.
COWEN: On YouTube, it’s all Freddy, right?
KLOSTERMAN: Yes, I don’t know. When did it become more common to have to spell the word “Jon” J‑O‑N, than J‑O‑H‑N? Sure seems like that. I realize there are J‑O‑N Jons throughout time, but when I was a kid, every John was J‑O‑H‑N. Now, is that because I came from a place where everybody was Catholic and Lutheran? Is J‑O‑N often used — seems like a lot of Jewish guys named Jon often have J‑O‑N, but just younger people . . . Now it seems like J‑O‑N is more common than J‑O‑H‑N. I don’t know when that happened.
COWEN: I think a key thing for your kid — you want your kid to be Googleable if you have any faith in them at all, right? You don’t think they’ll be a convicted criminal, in which case you want them not to be Googleable, but if your kid’s John Smith, who can find them? Say you want to hire John Smith, you want to get a date with John Smith. You Google “John Smith,” you’re screwed.
KLOSTERMAN: Wouldn’t it always be an advantage to be unGoogleable, to have the inability for someone to find you easily? Once they meet you, they’ll be able to find you. They’ll know other things about you. If all they know is your name, I think it would be better if you were unfindable, if that’s all they know.
COWEN: Look, it’s clearly better for you that you’re findable. Someone types your name into Amazon search, right?
COWEN: Your actual books come up.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes, that’s true.
COWEN: Same for me. More and more areas are becoming like what we do. You don’t have to be a writer, but someone hears about you, and they might want to offer you something. If you want to cooperate with people, on average, more than you want to run away from them, you want your kid’s name to be Googleable.
KLOSTERMAN: That’s a good argument, I guess. That’s a good argument against anonymity. That could be a book title, Against Anonymity. That seems like it would sell now, you know what I’m saying?
COWEN: David Brin wrote a book like that, called The Transparent Society. I think he overlooked some of the costs to that. But yes, at least for your kid, you want to assume, on average, your kid will be successful like you’ve been, and on average, that’s a pretty good guess.
KLOSTERMAN: Well, I hope you’re right about that, you know. I hope you are. I hope people are Googling him in a positive way.
COWEN: Your kids will have your talents, on average, and the talents of other parents, and that’s good.
KLOSTERMAN: But it really is “on average.” There are seven kids in my family, and there are strong similarities visually, or our use of our hands when we talk and maybe our fundamental ideas about, oh, money and safety and spirituality and stuff. But skills-wise, it’s pretty disconnected.
I think that, on average, of course, what you’re saying is true, but I wonder how much. I have two kids, and I’m shocked by how different they are. It seems like they should be more similar than they are. They have the same parents, they’re having the exact same experience, so I don’t know. It’s interesting.
COWEN: But you compare them to other kids — then they look a lot more similar.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes, but the way they interact with other kids is really the key difference. That is how they seem different to me — the way they view how they operate in society, and what they want from other people, and what they want from friendships, and what they want from themselves. What I’m saying is that it’s not like they’re so diametrically different I can’t believe they’re brother and sister, but —
COWEN: They’re also playing niche strategies within the family, and they’ll become more similar as they age.
KLOSTERMAN: Yes, absolutely.
COWEN: Genes will matter more. The niche strategies will matter less.
KLOSTERMAN: Definitely, having kids does seemingly solve the nature versus nurture thing.
COWEN: [laughs] It does.
KLOSTERMAN: It seems like nature. It really seems obvious, but you can’t tell that to somebody because now, to say that somehow seems like, I don’t know, they think you’re a eugenicist or something. You’re somehow claiming that the experience of society doesn’t matter, but I think the experience of society generally makes people more similar. It’s their nature that makes them different.
COWEN: Their peers may matter more than the direct environment of their parents, especially over time. Not at age 6, but at age 14, for sure.
KLOSTERMAN: I think even now, to some degree, more than I would have liked.
COWEN: [laughs] Anyway, it’s been wonderful.
KLOSTERMAN: Oh yes, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. It was an interesting conversation.
Thumbnail photo credit: Joanna Ceciliani