During his three-year stint as The New York Times Magazine’s “Ethicist” columnist, the author Chuck Klosterman was often asked to defend himself. Readers argued that with no formal background in ethics, Klosterman—best known for canny, offbeat books on music and technology—wasn’t qualified to make important moral judgments.
In a post for the Times public editor’s blog in 2015, Klosterman disputed this line of thinking. “The wonderful thing about the Ethicist position is that no one is truly qualified and everyone is partly qualified,” he wrote. “The experience of living, the experience of considering life’s problems, the ongoing experience of trying to place an objective reality into an inherently subjective world—these are as close to ‘credentials’ as I possess.” Being a formally trained specialist, in other words, doesn’t necessarily make one a better judge of human character.
In a conversation for this series, Klosterman applied that logic to arts criticism, arguing that the professional opinions of famous critics tend to be overrated, and that their entire genre is somewhat futile. He explained how a passage by the essayist Dave Hickey helped form the basis of his critical attitude, which relies on an ability to tune out received wisdom about what makes things “good” or “bad,” and on a desire to engage and entertain more than to arbitrate and edify.
The works of philosophical fiction in Klosterman’s new book, Raised in Captivity—his first collection of short stories—explore questions about the nature of narrative and truth-telling, the ways people seek connection and disconnection, and the effect of modern American life on the human spirit. Chuck Klosterman’s writing appears in such venues as The Washington Post, GQ, and Esquire; he is the author of 10 other books, including the nonfiction works Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; Eating the Dinosaur; and But What If We’re Wrong? He spoke to me by phone.
Chuck Klosterman: Years ago, I was touring for Fargo Rock City, my first book. It was a book about hair metal and the experience of growing up in the Midwest listening to what is now considered classic rock. So I was always being asked these questions about my aesthetic sensibility, or what had prompted me to write about this kind of art. It always took me a long time to answer these questions—my responses were long and wandering, and it seemed like I needed 5,000 words to explain myself.
I was in Los Angeles on that tour, and I went to Book Soup, a bookstore off Sunset. That was where I discovered Dave Hickey’s book, Air Guitar. I think I’d heard his name—I was familiar with a piece he’d written about the heresy of zone defense in basketball. But otherwise he was completely unknown to me. The book had a guitar on the front and looked interesting, so I bought it and brought it back to my hotel room. The whole thing is great, and as I read I came across a passage that seemed to completely encapsulate what I’d been trying to tell audiences and reporters on the tour. It’s a line that is still the best summation of what I find interesting about criticism:
Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.
I tend to think about the nature of criticism a lot, and I’d never seen anyone describe that reality so succinctly. Part of me worries I’m actually misinterpreting this sentence, and that it means the exact opposite of what he seems to say on the surface. But I take it at face value: It’s the idea that when someone loves art that’s considered to be in bad taste, particularly as a critic, that love is a reflection of what they are most authentically moved by. Because they have no other motive for lionizing the art, outside of their own desire to express their worldview. Whereas the idea of good taste, which is such an important quality for the professional critic, is an example of people using other people’s ideas to adopt a persona they assume gives them authority and depth. That instinct is a very real thing, and it’s very detrimental.
Dave Hickey writes this line in his essay about Liberace [“A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz”]. He realizes that Liberace is something that somebody with good taste is supposed to be repelled by. Yet there is this overwhelming mass of humanity who doesn’t feel this way, including him. He finds the fakeness beautiful. It’s almost as if his emotional response to Liberace is at war with his intellectual understanding of how a critic is supposed to consume piano-driven music.
The challenge of writing criticism is not allowing other people’s ideas to inform your experience with the subject in question. That’s very hard to do. If you look at the highest-profile TV writers, the most memorable film writers, the longest-tenured music writers, you’ll see a strange, unifying quality about their taste. When they say something is good, it probably is good. When they say something is mediocre, it probably is mediocre. But when they say something is amazing, fantastic, transcendent—what that usually means is that the thing they’re talking about coincidentally embodies their established aesthetic, and their expressed adoration is actually a form of professional branding.
At the same time, if they say something is awful, it generally means that the thing in question contradicts their central aesthetic— and it contradicts it so effectively that classifying it as okay would undermine their authority and their established criteria for what makes anything good or bad. Which tends to mean that the things a critic hates are considerably more interesting than the things they marginally like. I’ve thought about that a lot, and to me it suggests that the poles of the critical spectrum have very little to do with the art itself.
For me, a big part of being a critic has been about trying to experience the work in a way that’s detached from all those received ideas. And if I’ve had any success, it’s probably because I had a totally self-driven education, where I learned to appreciate things on my own autodidactic terms. Growing up, I went to a school in rural North Dakota with 23 kids in my class. There were 80 kids in the entire high school. My English teacher had a phys-ed degree. My math teacher was a plumber. And those were the two best teachers in the school. I went to the University of North Dakota, and I don’t remember learning much in those classes. Everything I learned that I cared about, I just learned on my own. As a consequence, my ideas about art and music are extremely personal. But at least they’re vaguely original.
When I first got into rock music, in fifth grade, I didn’t think about “good” art and “bad” art. There was just stuff I liked. Music, TV, film—these were things people enjoyed for entertainment. I see criticism as a form of intellectual entertainment, and that informs the way I want it to be consumed: The value always comes down to how interesting the reading experience is.
I think most critics would disagree with me, but I don’t see criticism as something with much inherent value. Yes, critics can rediscover past work and present it in a new context. But I think the idea that critics are able to champion a work, and make it more than it actually is, is just untrue. Any piece of work that is loved by critics usually has as much chance of lasting as work that’s critically ignored but hugely popular. And any response people have in the present tense is going to be pretty ephemeral.
Sometimes I wonder: Does anyone’s opinion really matter? Can any one person’s subjective view of a piece of music really shape the experience of listening to it? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not what I strive for. For me, it’s more about the pleasure of the act of writing—the fun of thinking about things and writing about things. I really don’t think much about how the things I write will legitimately shape someone else’s experience. I just hope they enjoy the thing I wrote. If it takes 40 minutes to read an essay, I want to provide an interesting 40 minutes.
That’s probably even more true when it comes to writing fiction. The worst thing you can say about a piece of nonfiction is that the information is untrue, that the information is false. But the worst thing that you can say about a piece of fiction is that it’s boring. It doesn’t matter if the prose is structured brilliantly or the ideas in the text are arguably profound. If the book is dull, it does not succeed as a piece of fiction. So when I write novels and stories, I’m interested in being interesting, being entertaining, and being clear. That’s it.
[Even so] being reviewed and criticized can be painful. If you care at all, you’re putting yourself into the work. So when someone says “This is unsophisticated,” or “This is self-indulgent,” whatever it may be, you’re going to feel as though that is an analysis of your entire being. It doesn’t matter how well or deeply you understand that the way someone receives your art is not the same as the art itself, and that the art is certainly not the same as you.
It should be no problem for me to separate those things. I’ve been a critic for 25 years. I have no idea how many records, movies, and television shows I’ve reviewed. I remember once, when I was working in Akron, Ohio, I gave an exceedingly negative review of [the Dave Matthews Band] and, to a degree, the people who went to the concert. At the time, like many people who do criticism, my thinking was, He’s not going to care about this. He’s rich and successful and super talented, regardless of how I might personally feel about his music. It’s easy to think that a bad review is just something you’re doing for the benefit of the people who read your work. But now I realize that there are probably only two people in the world who remember that review: me and him.
That’s the thing. I remember every review ever written about me. And yet, you can’t let that kind of thing affect you too much. While I certainly feel comfortable saying certain things are good and certain things are bad, I don’t believe that those opinions are remotely irrefutable. Art can always be rediscovered, recontextualized, reevaluated. We can say things are bad and good, and we can mean it, but it doesn’t matter if we say it or not. The shelf life of opinions isn’t long, and it wouldn’t matter at all if those things went unsaid.