In his new book, But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman flips everything you’re certain about on its head. From touchstones of popular culture like literature, music, television, and professional sports to more serious subjects like the laws of physics and global warming, this insanely intelligent author takes readers’ brains on a veritable tilt-a-whirl ride. His prognostications are equally unsettling and amusing, and, perhaps, frivolous — but that’s the fun of it. This book is conversation-starter, debate fodder, and intellectual riddle all rolled into one.
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City Pages: What would you say to the people who might read the description of the book and wonder, “Why should we care how we are perceived, or what’s remembered, in 100 years?”
Chuck Klosterman: If the reason someone wants to read a book is to consume the most practical, day-to-day information available, I probably wouldn’t read this book or anything I’ve written. My books are about interesting ideas, and thinking about the world in a way that is entertaining and pleasant. I’m not trying to persuade people to see the world as I do. If you really do need to have some criteria, I think that questioning whether or not you are right about your sense of reality is sort of a humbling experience. It can fill a person with a sense of wonder. Our culture has moved in this direction where people are so certain of their own rightness. I don’t know if it’s a tragedy, but I definitely don’t see it as being socially positive.
CP: This book was written before Prince died. How do you feel he will be remembered — if he will even be remembered — in 100 years?
CK: I think Prince has a better likelihood than most to be remembered because of the degree to which he was prolific and the degree to which he was original. The timing isn’t great for him. The fact that he essentially emerged in ’79 was kind of after the creation of rock music. He’ll never be able to be perceived as a progenitor of that. The fact that he has so much music in his vaults will certainly help. You could release a Prince record every other year for the next 150 years. That would certainly increase his likelihood of being known in the future.
The fact that he died early will probably help his cause, although he wasn’t so young. He wasn’t 27. It will be interesting to see if his music, which is very much appreciated in the present tense, will be appreciated even more in the future or if it will be seen as being of another time. It’s impossible to say. The likelihood of him being remembered and the likelihood of David Bowie being remembered are similar probably, but for different reasons.
CP: I really enjoyed the chapter on literature, because it gives those of us writers — and I’m not including you in this — who are toiling away in obscurity the hope that we could be the next Kafka.
CK: You really have to be obscure to be the next Kafka. I think it’s very likely when literature from this period is re-examined in a distant future, those future people are going to want to sort of create their own meaning about what was important and why it had significance, and that’s very difficult with literature that’s already famous. The meaning of a Franzen novel or a Don DeLillo novel, we are kind of establishing what those books are supposed to mean in the present tense. But if someone is totally unknown, toiling away in obscurity? That’s a clean slate. People can presume it to mean whatever they want. It lends itself to becoming part of the historical record.
CP: You talk in the book about how merit doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with what’s popular. Does that mean one needs to appeal to the lowest common denominator or dumb themselves down to be popular?
CK: No. I think sometimes people who are not particularly successful assume that must be the explanation as to why they’re not successful, because perhaps their writing is too sophisticated or too complicated. But that’s not actually how it is. Obviously, writing commercially successful work is very difficult. If it wasn’t, everybody would do it once, sell a ton of copies, and spend the rest of their career doing whatever they want with the security that they’re already rich. That’s not how it is.
To have something be successful, what it really needs to do — and this is true in music, film, writing, and pretty much everything — is you have to be able to appeal to people who aren’t already invested in what you’re doing. In other words, if your only interest as a filmmaker is to appeal to people obsessed with film, you’re going to have to create something with a specificity and an arcane knowledge that the average person won’t have any experience with. If you want to have a movie that goes outside of that, though, you need to be able to attract someone who doesn’t know a lot about film except that they like what they like.
Dumbing it down seems to suggest that you’re being consciously anti-intellectual and clearly success is not that easy. If that’s all it took, everyone would do it.
CP: Toward the end of the book, you mentioned global warming but you didn’t dedicate an entire chapter to it because you were advised against it. What was behind that decision?
CK: My editor was like, “You should talk more about this conflict.” Some people who read early copies of the book were like, “You should take that out entirely because it’s just going to distract people.” The thing is, I’m writing about ideas that culturally we might be wrong about. Global warming doesn’t really fit into that conversation because both sides of the argument are being made constantly. The scientific community obviously says, “Global warming is happening. This is reality.” The people who are denying climate change have, in many ways, an outsized voice in this debate. They’re in the minority but they’ve created the illusion of an even playing field. This is something that we’re failing to recognize.
What I’m really writing about in this book are things so fundamental, questions so essential to the experience of being alive that we don’t even view them as questions. They feel like givens. That debate is not given. It’s not as though people are not talking about it.
CP: Given how fast technology is developing, do you think there will eventually be an anti-tech movement? We’re already seeing a return to being “makers,” people who sew their own clothes or farm their own food.
CK: I think what is more likely is some future generation — I wouldn’t say it’s the one that’s coming into power now, maybe the next generation after the one we’re currently experiencing — will have a philosophical rejection of technology, that they will see things like social media, and the degree that the culture is connected, as dehumanizing, and as something that older people did as a way to escape actual reality and there may be an ideological movement to not be involved with the internet. I could see that happening.
I’m 44, so I can very clearly remember when there was no internet and then when there was. Young people now are different. They’re native to the internet. There’s never been a time for them when the internet didn’t exist. A lot of things that someone like me grapples with, they don’t grapple with. But another generation might see that and be like, “Well, it seems as though society is run by this machine and we don’t like this machine.”
CP: How do faith and spirituality factor into all of this?
CK: It’s complicated. For the most part, in the intellectual community — I should say “secular” community — religion has been replaced by science. This has some kind of practical utility, right? But you’re replacing one thing with something else that is similar but very different. The idea of faith in practice is sort of being lost. We’re moving in a metric, analytical decision where you’re not supposed to have faith in things, you’re supposed to have proof. Is there a downside to a culture that has very little relationship to believing in what can’t be proven? I think there are probably two ways to argue about that.
IF YOU GO:
Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
Magers & Quinn
7:30 p.m. Monday, June 13
Magers & Quinn Booksellers