Essays

The villainy of sloppy thinking

 

Chuck Klosterman can’t quite get to the point in his new collection of nonfiction.

Chuck Klosterman’s latest book is based on two interrelated premises: that Chuck Klosterman is an astute cultural critic and that Chuck Klosterman is a great writer.

Neither is proven in I Wear The Black Hat. Yet, in the navel-gazing way of a certain breed of New York author, he seems to acknowledge this and even hint to the reader that that’s what makes him so brilliant.

After criticizing another critic he writes, “I’ve done the same thing at various points in my newspaper career. Sometimes you just need to write something to fill a space that must be filled, and sometimes that filler makes no sense when dissected critically.”

This little admission lands like a thud and makes the reader wonder if that’s exactly what this book represents. It comes after a mind-numbing list of all the music his younger self hated in the 1990s and early aughts — and why. Then we have to read on about how he doesn’t hate any of those artists anymore — and why.

If you can forgive him the music list, you’re going to move on to this admission: “I’ve never had an idea that a hundred other people didn’t have before me.” He probably could have left out something so obvious. A few dozen pages later he asserts that “the postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don’t really ‘need’ anything new, so we only create what we want.”

Well, there’s an idea a lot of people would disagree with. There are those who would argue we could really use a cure for cancer, HIV, malaria, dengue, MRSA, autism and a host of other diseases and genetic conditions. And I’m not sure a clean way to power the planet before we destroy the environment can be lumped in with the latest iPhone app.

Periodically, Klosterman the smart guy surfaces, as when he succinctly describes the economics and culture of the Internet in a passage about Perez Hilton’s popularity.

“Because the Internet is obsessed with its own version of non-monetary capitalism, it rewards the volume of response much more than the merits of whatever people are originally responding to,” he writes.

Think about that for a minute. But not too long, because you’ll have to admit that monetary capitalism does that too, certainly in the realm Klosterman should ostensibly understand, media. The summer blockbusters aren’t necessarily the greatest movies and the bestsellers are often of questionable literary quality. But people respond to them so they make a lot of money.

The silly assertions and tedious self-absorbedness could be forgiven if Klosterman ever made a great point or brought one of his essays around to some interesting conclusion that changes the way the reader views an idea or event. And maybe if he didn’t spend so much time on such subjects as the Monica Lewinsky affair, Batman, Bernard Goetz or Ted Bundy, he could do that. But this is all well-trod territory, and he doesn’t add anything new beyond a glimmer of a theory. It amounts to: Gee whiz, isn’t it interesting how we as a society choose to vilify certain people and not others?

Gee whiz.

Klosterman has a vague idea that as a society, we vilify the people “who know the most and care the least,” but he’s careful to disprove his theory when he tackles Hitler

And it’s that lack of a clear point that is the most frustrating. His conclusions are either obvious or vague and frankly inconclusive. His efforts to get to those conclusions go beyond self-absorbed. They’re often self-referential. Here’s a guy who can call himself a villain and make it sound arrogant. And the book is full of the sort of clichéd writing that marks a certain kind of essayist who has been told he’s smart since he was a pimply adolescent in a (insert rural or Midwestern small town). He probably is smart, but it doesn’t show in I Wear the Black Hat.

Maybe this book is Klosterman’s meta criticism of the publishing industry. By writing an admittedly bad book — he repeatedly and possibly even selflessly points out how weak his own line of thinking is — maybe he’s trying to point out that there is no real standard for criticism beyond brand. His brand isn’t nearly as profitable as Perez Hilton’s, but it’s got similar problems.

Klosterman concludes that his life might be devoid of meaning and that he might be uninteresting. He might try finding something else to write about.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.

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