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What Makes You So Smart, Chuck Klosterman?

The writer talks to Pacific Standard about being a dilettante, his brief consideration of graduate school, and why having an intellectual inferiority complex might prevent you from becoming a jerk.
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Chuck Klosterman has made a career out of finding surprising connections between seemingly unrelated strands of pop culture. The critic, essayist, magazine writer, and author of influential books including Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live mines his trove of knowledge about anything and everything in an attempt to find new ways to relate to everyday occurrences. And, oh yeah, he also gets to spend time with celebrities like Taylor Swift, who he recently interviewed for his cover story at GQ. At a diner in Brooklyn, he sat down with Pacific Standard and talked about being a dilettante, his brief consideration of graduate school, and why having an intellectual inferiority complex might prevent you from becoming a jerk.

What was your education like growing up?

Until I moved to New York in 2002, I thought that my educational experience had been somewhere between OK and good. Now I think it was probably bad. I went to a public school in Wyndmere, North Dakota. There were 500 people in town, and 23 kids in my class.

I have come to the realization of how unaggressive my educational experience was. I always felt that my best teacher was my English teacher. She had a phy-ed [physical education] degree. Not to say that if you have a phy-ed degree, you can't be a smart person, but I recall coming back from college and mentioning that we had read Franz Kafka's the Trial in a class. She had never heard of Kakfa. In retrospect, it seems crazy that an English teacher had never heard of Franz Kafka, but that's how it was.

I had a really good math teacher, but he was fundamentally a plumber who also did math. Everything in school was in the middle. It wasn't set up for students who were slower or faster. It was all kind of the same. I don't really remember ever doing homework. I mean, I must have, but now it seems like kids have homework in first grade. It probably wasn't that great of an education.

Did that change when you got to college?

Chuck Klosterman. (Photo: Tema Stauffer)

Chuck Klosterman. (Photo: Tema Stauffer)

I went to the University of North Dakota. I think I learned more from my friends. A lot of times there's a cliché about people from small towns or rural areas who go to college and they are amazed by the diversity and how different people are. I had the opposite experience. I went to college, and I was shocked to find that there were people like me, who had the same interest in music that I did and who were interested in bands for the same reasons. I grew up listening to metal and my friends from home listened to metal, but they never wanted to talk about it. It was interesting to meet people who wanted to talk about Mötley Crüe.

Ultimately, though, any education anyone has is really dependent upon themselves. My wife went to an Ivy League school and I know a lot of people who went to schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, and Brown. One thing I have realized is that, while they did get a much better education [than I did], they tend to have very similar perceptions about what they are supposed to like or dislike about art. It's not that they all have the same taste, but their criteria is almost identical because it's almost built into how they think about the world. I guess the advantage is that I don't have that.

Did you do a lot of reading on the side when you were younger?

I read more when I was a kid than I do now. We didn't have any kid's books. We had little kid's books, like Go Dog Go, but none of the books that you're supposed to read from like third grade until 10th grade. The big thing that I remember reading-wise was that there was a very old set of encyclopedias underneath my bed. Very old; Pluto was not yet discovered. I would read the encyclopedias. I really remember that. They were illustrated with watercolors. I would buy them on the spot if I could find them again.

Did you feel intellectually inferior when you came to New York? Or did you just feel like you thought about things differently?

I came to New York to work at Spin. My assumption was that I would go into this world where people are only interested in music. It would be an immersive thing. I found that people were interested in everything else and were extremely knowledgeable about politics, sports, and the world in general. Music was the shared interest.

I think people who don't have an inferiority complex about their intelligence tend to be jerks. I was a more confident person when I was dumber. I was very intellectually confident in college. But when you meet smart people, you start realizing that there are so many things that you don't know. And not even that you don't know, but that you haven't considered thinking about. There are abstractions that are new to you. Those suddenly shift all the things you knew before. So sure, I would say that I had a bit of an inferiority complex, but I don't think it was debilitating. I think it's a positive quality.

Did you try to catch up?

That kind of happened incrementally. My first job out of college was at a newspaper in Fargo. There was another music writer there who was my age who had more historical knowledge of rock than I did. That was the first time that I realized I needed to go back and learn about bands even though they didn't interest me. When I moved to Akron, I had a similar thing happen to me with a friend who was the librarian, with music but also with film. There was a bunch of film I had to re-investigate. It wasn't as though I thought I needed to learn the stuff to be a normal person. It was an interesting thing. I look forward to scenarios where I need to research a subject that I had previously not even considered as something worth knowing.

One of your strengths seems to be a high level of inquisitiveness. Is that fair?

I think so. I hope so. Certainly, as a journalist, I think that is the single-most important quality. I feel like in general that the art of the interview has been eroded by the rise of the Internet. It's taken away the necessity of [doing them] but it still seems to me like interviews are the central part of the investigation of anything. The key is asking questions that you actually want to know the answer to, as opposed to asking the questions that you think you are supposed to as a reporter. The person you're interviewing can tell if you're actually interested in the question. If the person is asking stupid, predictable questions, you know that the piece is going to be predictably structured. It's almost like you're doing a paint by number.

In one interview, you mentioned that Fargo Rock City was initially a much more academic book. Why did you make that choice?

When I started writing Fargo Rock City, it was 1998. It's almost hard to illustrate the unpopularity of '80s metal at that time. I don't know what would be a comparative now. It didn't seem like there was any possibility that I could write a book about this music unless there was absolutely no commercial pressure. I thought it had to be an academic book, that I'd write a book about the sociology and how any kind of musical subculture informs life in a rural area. The idea was to use my life as an example. The initial places I sent the manuscript to were the Harvard University Press and the Duke University Press.

The thing that changed it was I got a letter back from a woman at the Columbia University Press. She wrote me back a great letter, saying that she'd love to publish it but they couldn't for two reasons. One, it was an academic press and I swore too much. The other was that the most interesting parts were when I described my own life. She said I should make it into a trade book. I didn't know what a trade book was, but I figured out it was just a book, so that's what I did.

That woman changed my life. If she hadn't sent me that letter, I probably would have gone the other direction and made it really academic with a bibliography and footnotes.

Did you think about going back to school?

I got a book about taking the LSAT at one point. When I was a newspaper reporter, it was an extremely common thing that once you had worked about eight years, you get really good at the job and you start thinking about what you're going to do. Are you going to stay with it and become a lifer or are you going to do something else? Very often, going to law school is the obvious choice. I thought about law school when I was a little kid. Lots of people always told me I should. My dad had an ascending level of dreams. His initial dream was that I would become a priest. The next dream up was that I would get into a military academy. The one after that was that I would become a lawyer. The first two, I was not very interested in. The third one seemed plausible. I thought about it. I think I would have been an OK lawyer.

I also thought about going to the Bowling Green popular culture program. It wasn't that far from Akron where I was. But I never actually applied. When I graduated college, actually, I was set up to go to graduate school. But I got a job, and I never went. I was going to go to the University of North Dakota for communications.

You make connections between disparate strands of pop culture very effectively and surprisingly. Does that come naturally?

This is an arrogant thing to say, but it must. I've certainly never worked on it. In some ways, you can do it in a gimmicky style. If you said to me, "Let's talk about hip-hop artists and compare them to presidents." I could do that. But I find that something like that seems gimmicky to people. It has to be natural. I've always been somebody who thought about other things while they were consuming something specific. When I watch a television show, listen to a record, or watch sports or politics, I find myself constantly being reminded of things unrelated to what I'm watching. That's one quality about myself that I do like. I like the idea that I can take things I learned in one idiom and apply them to a different one. I don't think I'm very good about going all the way down the rabbit hole in specific areas. I'm definitely kind of a dilettante. I like to know about everything, but there's only a couple subjects where I feel like I'm an expert in. There are a lot of things where I feel like I can fake my way through.

How do you keep up that breadth of knowledge?

I don't know. Where would it go? Once you know something, you know it. I'm conceptual in this regard. If I understand the concept of something, I don't need to know the specifics. I can always go back and find the specifics. I'm going to interview Tom Brady. I don't need to memorize every detail of his career if I understand and have experienced the arc of it. All those details I can find the day before I do it.

The Internet has really changed this. Even though my career has been intertwined with the Internet, my thinking is still in the modality of the pre-Internet age when memorization was a bigger deal. You had to remember this guy or that movie. The emphasis wasn't on being able to describe every detail but to have a broad idea of what mattered most. That's probably how I work.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.