Chuck Klosterman Sees the Future, Blurrily

One of the greatest living critics reveals how writing his new book--'But What If We're Wrong?'-- made him feel both less confident and smarter than ever.

Late in his new book, Chuck Klosterman suggests that he has “temporarily rented an apartment inside your skull.” This notion is totally true of real life too, because after hanging out with him for a few hours, I feel like I’m talking to myself. But Klosterman isn’t telepathic, he’s just a regular guy with a super-brain. Or, as he says in his new book, “an uninteresting version of an abnormal person.” Now, after over a decade of being one of the defining voices of cultural criticism, he’s willing to admit that he might have been wrong all along. Or rather, maybe everyone is wrong.

But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If it Were the Past is Klosterman’s ninth book and a kind of culmination of his critical writing up to this point. Its central thesis is deceptively simple: throughout history, humankind has been wrong about all sorts of things from science, to politics, to popular culture. Meaning, maybe it’s time to start incorporating our inherent wrongness into our current beliefs about the future, or as he puts it: “it’s impossible to answer questions we refuse to ask.” What emerges is a stimulating, hilariously enthralling read that doubles as both armchair futurism and an intellectual trip to the gym. Throughout the book, Klosterman attempts to make all sorts of futuristic predictions — from literature, to science, and even football — all with his new reflexive probable wrongness principle in place.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Klosterman for lunch in Brooklyn to discuss his journey as a nonfiction writer, the topsy-turvy mental flips of his latest book, and whether or not he is now a bonafide member of the scientific community.

At the beginning of your new book, you say “My argument requires a successful futurist to anticipate whatever it is that can’t possible be anticipated.” Here, you introduce Klosterman’s Razor: “…the philosophical belief that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.” Help me get inside the mind of a guy who creates a potentially contradictory premise in chapter one. It’s like you’re breaking intellectual promises while you’re making them.

I just think that’s how it is! I mean, I did sort have a real break with criticism in the ‘90s without even recognizing it. I was working at newspapers and there was sort of unspoken set of rules for criticism which were things like: you should never use words like “kind of or “sort of” or “arguably” or “to some degree.” You weren’t supposed to use those qualifiers. The argument being that those words make the writing weaker. But this seemed to overlook a pretty obvious reality that the object [of criticism] is not to trick people into thinking you are right, even if you are unsure. I feel like my goal is to accurately reflect how I actually feel about things. So, there’s going to be tons of contradictions in that! There’s nothing that I’m going to think about seriously that isn’t at times going to collide with its own self.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 21: Moderator Chuck Klosterman attends the 'Mad Men' special screening at The Film Society of Lincoln Center on March 21, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Getty Images / Stephen Lovekin

To me, the aim of this book is similar to the aim of good science fiction. How would you feel about But What If We’re Wrong? being classified as a work of nonfiction that is also science fiction?

Well, if this was the first nonfiction book that was considered science fiction, I’d be fucking ecstatic! But I don’t know if that’s true, because I think a lot of futurism is nonfiction science fiction.

Sure, but I mean the that this reflexive idea of yours — “maybe we’re wrong” — is built into good science fiction. It’s not like Arthur C. Clarke was like “Oh, man, I’m so pissed I got those spaceships wrong.” It’s not like the writers of the ‘60’s Star Trek were disappointed there wasn’t a world war in the ‘90s.

Well, the thing is with futurism and, I guess, in reality, this book, is that it all has a real parachute attached – in the sense that we’re all going to be dead when any of these theories will be proven true or false. You know, it’s [futurism] a different way to look at criticism. Like, take Car Seat Headrest for example. He’s this super young new musician who has like 15 albums on band camp. Super talented. Like the most talented young person I’ve seen in rock in a long time. Now, if I write about him, I’m writing about what his career will be for all of us. But when I write about the idea of [the future of] rock I’m writing about things we’ll never experience. What I like about the second idea is that takes away the… world. It just makes it stay in your mind. Almost everything in this book — if it has any sort of existence outside of the year it comes out or whatever — is still going to be people thinking about a world they’ll never experience.

The primary tenet of the book is that we live in an age of “casual certitude.” Toward the end, you talk about how there’s a ton of internet articles claiming “You’re Doing It Wrong,” and how that’s actually a way of people being able to constantly say that they’re right. Do you think, that for whatever reason, that in the past 10 years or so, its become more popular to be emphatically right about things?

It feels that way. But, you know, sometimes the ways something feels and the way things are can be distant. But that’s definitely how it seems. And I think the most plausible explanation as to why is probably the volume of criticism being written now. There isn’t really sort of authoritative criticism anymore, people don’t take it as seriously as they used to take someone like Pauline Kael. Nothing is as serious anymore and there’s more of it. So, I think the way to succeed in the attention economy seems to be demanding that you’re correct! And almost building in a sentiment that people who disagree with you are not just wrong but ridiculous!

I love how this book could only be a book. In the introduction you make great pains to point out that this is not a collection of essays. In the chapter on literature, you say the way books are written is inherently different than writing for the internet. Why is it so hard to convince people of this difference?

That’s a big question. Because, a couple things have happened. One thing is that the internet has changed the way people read in a general sense. We used to read horizontally and now we mostly read vertically. And that’s a pretty profound change because it’s not as though people can easily switch back between the two. So, even when people read books they’re reading them a little bit like they’re reading the internet. They’re reading down.

Like a lot of people, I felt much smarter when I was dumber.

Plus, everything on the internet just appears in blocks of copy. Because of that, I think it tricks your mind into thinking that every paragraph is an autonomous idea. Therefore you don’t really have to write transitions and transitions are what writing really is. Transitions are connecting unlike ideas. But, if you don’t have to do that, it really simplifies the process. And, I think, to a lot of people, if you try to argue that writing a book is like, in some ways, more difficult that writing on the internet; one, they think you’re being condescending and two, they perceive it like well, I prefer the way the internet is.” Like they prefer reading that way. Nobody would say they prefer to read vertically. But they do.

The Internet is expository. And sometimes it wants to tell you exactly how you will feel. So, for people who might be ten years younger than you, they look at writing maybe the same way teenagers in the late ‘60s in San Francisco looked at relationships. Like they just couldn’t believe that the people who came before them said “you can’t just have sex with whoever you want!” And they were like are you fucking crazy!?” And this seems to create an atmosphere where it’s more acceptable on the internet to just declare that you’re right. It’s like because people take everything a little less seriously, it seems like you can say crazier things.

There’s a lot of subjects covered in the book. The future of pop music. The future of literature. The future of football. But there’s some stuff you don’t cover. And you even have a section in the book where you talk about why you don’t cover climate change.

The thing with writing about not putting climate change stuff in this book was sort of threefold thing. One, which I kind of state, is that it [climate change] is a measurable thing. You can measure the carbon in the air. It’s not really something we have to speculate about. Second, is that it’s not like everyone thinks the same thing about it. I mean, theres already a pretty dynamic argument there. But, the biggest reason for cutting a lot of climate change stuff from the book was because there are certain issues, that because of their political underpinnings, if written about, have a negative effect on apolitical ideas.

So, I didn’t want someone to be so impacted by their entrenched position on an issue that they can’t read about music, television and sports with an open mind. I mean, this has happened to me so many times in my life. There are soccer fans who will hate everything I ever write because of my soccer essay in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs For some people, that alone, is the prism through which they see everything else. And that’s an unavoidable problem, and in some ways you have to be happy about it almost because your work has impacted people. But, it takes away the neutrality of intellectualism.

Book cover for *But What If We're Wrong?* (Yes, it's supposed to be upside-down.)

Blue Rider/Penguin Random House

I live in hope every day that the Fermi Paradox is false and that I will meet aliens in my lifetime. What’s the most improbable, unscientific notion you believe or hope is real?

I kind of do think we’re living in a simulation. But I don’t really hope that’s the case. Though I will say there would be something reassuring about that realization. It removes so many problems about reality. Things that don’t make any sense would suddenly make sense. Ghosts. Coincidences. Most pressingly, there seems to be within the existence of being a person, something telling us that there is force that made this happen. And yet, life seems so unfair and arbitrary. So, when we think of a god, there’s a contradiction. But, if we’re living in a simulation, and it’s just a [regular] person running that simulation, then there’s no contradiction at all.

In the chapter titled “The World That Is Not There,” you talk about the infamous internet dress and then you talk about Homer and the Aegean Sea and how it’s described as “wine-dark.” In the discussion about whether humans can even agree on objective colors you say “it’s either meaningful or meaningless which is probably why no one will ever stop talking about it.” Are all searches for objective truth caught up in the debates we experienced with the internet dress? Does that mean objective truth is DOA?

I don’t know if objective truth is DOA. It exists. There is an objective answer. What may be impossible is the irrefutable understanding and acceptance that this answer is a universal truth. If we have a box in the corner — one we cannot see —and we throw a six-sided die into the box, we could then talk forever about which digit the die landed on. But if we can’t go into the box and look, we’ll never know. And I think that’s most of life.

Can you retroactively apply “Klosterman’s razor” to your early work? Looking at places where you reflexively knew you might have been wrong?

Fargo Rock City was a book about hair metal, so going into it I knew that what I was asserting contradicted the complete universe of music…so I suppose, I thought to myself: “I believe this, but my belief is misguided, but I’m going to do it anyways, because I want to read book like this, so I guess I gotta write this book.” Lets see. What else. In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs there’s stuff in there that’s wrong, but that’s mostly because I was wrong.

A younger (wronger) Klosterman

What do you mean?

When I talk about the media in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs[the chapter titled ‘’All I Know is What I Read in the Papers”], I hadn’t yet experienced media in New York. In places like Akron, the idea of the journalist striving to be objective is real. But New York is different. I dont find a lot of objective journalists in New York, even though I will say there’s some of the best journalists in New York. Their talent is much higher here. But it’s not objective. People look at journalism as advocacy in New York. So, if you read “All I Know is What Read in the Papers,” I think if someone had a lot of experience in New York media, they’d read that and say “that’s not true.” But when I was in Fargo and Akron, and a band was coming to town that I liked, the papers I worked for would see that as a reason to not let me write about that band. In New York, they actually want the fans doing the journalism. Which is okay, because the value of journalism here is placed on expertise over objectivity.

When you interviewed Neil DeGrasse Tyson you described his posture. Like, it seemed as though he was hostile.

I think he thought me interviewing him was a set-up. I think he thought I was some kind of climate change denier. He was unusually defensive. But, when I interviewed Brian Greene, he was immediately like this is crazy, but I love it!

Do you think there’s a little bit of a disconnect between the scientific community and everybody else?

Sure. Anytime you hear about an issue and its said “the scientific community almost unilaterally agrees…” I always wonder who does that extend to? If you’re a high school science teacher does that count? Someone with a vested interest in science? You own a telescope? What’s the cut off? I always used to assume the scientific community was small, but now I wonder if it’s actually too big. I’ve written a book now, with a section on science. Can I say I’m part of the scientific community? Am I a science writer now? I don’t think so, but I’ve written about science! By definition I am! Science has fundamentally replaced religion in society, which is mostly good, but problematic. For me, the difference between science and religion is like saying “we’re going to replace farming with cooking.” They’re kinda related!

Can you make a prediction about anything happening this year that would withstand your own analysis?

I don’t think so. But, I will say, I don’t think it’s mathematically possible for Trump to win the election.

But What If We’re Wrong publishes this week from Blue Rider Press(Penguin Random House)

This interview has been edited for clarity.