Oliver Lee Bateman reviews Chuck Klosterman’s new book I Wear The Black Hat, which isn’t any good but is almost great.
I finished Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, in just under five hours. I took copious notes while reading this book, because that’s how obsessive-compulsive types like myself and former Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (who apparently recorded every conversation he had, book he read, meal he ate, and bowl movement he enjoyed for 50+ years) transform our leisure time into unbearable torment. My final two remarks:
- Chuck Klosterman is America’s preeminent pop culture critic. We know this because his first collection of essays was apparently required reading material for Seth Cohen of The O.C. fame.
- Oh dear.
There’s this delightful Mr. Show sketch, the premise of which consists of destroying the moon to boost national morale. During the course of the sketch, cast member Tom Kenny, playing an astronaut who once walked on the moon, says the following:
“I’ve been saying we should do this for years. I walked on the moon, I did a push-up on it, I ate an egg on it. What else can you do with it?”
And as I came to the conclusion of I Wear the Black Hat–an abrupt one, given that the electronic copy I had indicated that there was 25% more content left to read (the index counted against the remaining space)–I thought to myself, “Chuck Klosterman. I’ve read Fargo Rock City, assigned his essay on The Real World to my students, skimmed his later and crappier works (but not his novel, no way no how)…what else can you do with him?”
Because here’s the thing about Chuck Klosterman: he’s capable, at a moment’s notice, of sharing a brilliant and unsourced thought that he will almost assuredly never follow through to any sort of logical endpoint. He’s the perfect middlebrow literary figure for our time: a genius whose talents are only skin deep, a writer who can occasionally make the superficial sublime but can’t ever make it interesting. He’s got breadth but no depth.
That’s a shame, because this book, arguably his best since Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, contains numerous worthwhile insights. But because this is Internet writing and the two of you who are actually reading the piece line-by-line (suckers!) are probably already impatient with me, let’s cut right to the single most important point he makes:
Because so many mercantile intellectuals now write about television for a living, it’s become pretty much impossible for any TV critic to express views that make straightforward sense. The volume of deep television writing is (suddenly) much too large; everything except the most unorthodox perspectives is instantly ignored. The expectation for those who cover modern television is that they will consistently interpret the experience of TV in radical, personal ways.
Mind you, there’s some fine material in here about O.J. Simpson (Klosterman’s content analysis of Simpson’s how-I-did-it manifesto is the closest thing to a close reading I’ve ever seen from him), the N.W.A. rap collective and “villainy,” politically incorrect humor, and Perez Hilton. But these are “great Internet writing”-type moments, the sort of penny-ante revelations where you find yourself going, “huh, I never thought about it that way” and five seconds later never think about it that way, or any other, again. This bit about TV writing, though, is utterly unforgettable because it’s indisputably correct. And it’ss kinda sorta tragic, come to think.
Allow me to elaborate: uninformed opinion-offering is what most lazy, talented millenials are best qualified to do. They can write for Pitchfork; hell, maybe they can even code for Pitchfork. To prep for such important work, they watch and listen to whatever new media is important, and when time permits, they watch and listen to the classic stuff, too. Good for them. They’re undoubtedly interesting and urbane people. But most will add nothing to this subfield of the already dying-because-it’s-exploding Internet writing trade. When they do decide to try their hands at some armchair philosophizing, it’s almost always this sort of sloppy, silly Girls-is-racist critique (there are exceptions, of course: read Wesley Morris’ review of Fruitvale Station, which is destined for republication in whatever volume of the Best American… of 2014 series is most apposite).
Never has there been so much carefully constructed pop culture to criticize and never has there been so much space (infinite space, really) in which to write about it. Yet nearly all of these wonderful against-the-grain essays to which Klosterman adverts are total rush jobs. There’s no research, no theoretical grounding…just ideas aimed at other ideas. For a turbulent world in desperate need of ballast, it’s so much weightless filler. Klosterman’s own half-assed discussion of Hitler in I Wear the Black Hat, which consists of some paraphrases of what a few scholarly “big names” wrote juxtaposed with one or two pieces of original thought, is a textbook example of this problem.
There are, I suppose, brainy types who can do this sort of stuff well. Joyce Carol Oates can occasionally be dragged down off her high horse and made to write an essay about the sweet science. The late Susan Sontag rattled off a handful of powerhouse pieces before shuffling off this mortal coil. Jill Lepore , Thomas Frank, and Camille Paglia have been toiling at academic-as-accessible-essayist/popularizer gigs for a long time, but none possesses Klosterman’s encyclopedic knowledge of insipid bullshit. More obscure, more abstruse intellectuals, such as sociologist-cum-pugilist Loïc Wacquant, might occasionally write the finest book since Foucault walked the earth, but if you assign Body & Soul to truculent, Floyd Mayweather or (never and) Manny Pacquaio-loving undergrads they’ll spit in your face.
What infuriates me about Chuck Klosterman, first, is that he could be the Best Critic Since Ever (or at least since Edmund Wilson, who wasn’t good at all, and H.L. Mencken, who was but who was also a horrible human). I enjoy his work not because it’s any good, but because it’s almost great (and, at least in the case of “When People Stop Being Polite,” it is). He has the platform, he has the Bill Simmons-sized readership, and he can turn a phrase. But he is either unwilling or unable to dig any deeper.
What infuriates me about Chuck Klosterman, second, is that I can’t be him. As an academic, I can only dig deeper. I suppose I’m a “fox” in Isaiah Berlin’s sense of the term, given that I’m content with examining a half-dozen disparate and utterly quite trivial topics instead of carefully preparing to defend one grand, “hedgehog”-like statement. Nevertheless, I’m not content with writing about, say, Planned Parenthood v. Casey without reading the full text of every opinion in that muddled decision, skimming every brief filed with the Court, and listening to the oral argument in its entirety. So it stands to reason that I’ll probably never get around to writing anything about the case, because, jeez, why would I subject myself to that?
On any given day, however, Chuck Klosterman could conceivably write a series of essays about the shallow end of the American pop culture pool that somehow vindicates all of the wasted time and thought many of us have invested in such garbage. He could make this subject matter in a way that it never has before, to an audience of significant size, and in so doing leave behind something that doesn’t merely win the applause of the moment, but is instead a possession for all time.
He won’t, alas, but isn’t it pretty to think so?
Photo–Flickr/Pop Culture Geek