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Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

March 10, 2019

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It’s probably safe to say that you either like Chuck Klosterman’s writing or you don’t. The specific subject of any given essay is likely more incidental, since the subject is usually just an onramp for him to loosely explore some bigger topic. In this case, the unifying theme of this collection of essays is pop culture, a topic so broad and well-trod that it’s unlikely you’d pick up this book because you’re a fan of “pop culture.”  You’d read this because you’re a fan of Chuck Klosterman.

In the opening, Klosterman posits a tautology (not unlike my opening sentence of this review), that you can see life in one of two ways—that everything is connected, or that everything is not connected. This is a not super helpful framework, perhaps, but he uses it to set up a loose definition of culture—which is that ideas influence us, whether they are born of low culture or high culture.  His preference, in this book, is to examine low culture.

The Sims video game makes us realize how our modern lives are confined by our daily habits. Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape changed sex for millions of Americans. The Real World changed not only television and the concept of celebrity, but the dynamics of our relationships (specifically those of co-habitation) and the very nature of personality.

Other subjects include: Billy Joel’s1980 album Glass Houses, a Guns ‘n’ Roses cover band, the Lakers vs Celtics rivalry, Saved By the Bell, the Dixie Chicks and Van Halen, the Left Behind book series, the Zodiac killer, soccer and the bias of the news media.

This is a 2003 collection of essays, which means they are dated. Delightfully dated, perhaps, if you were born in the late 60s or 70s. I have said this in my other reviews of Klosterman—maybe it’s my age, level of nerdiness or sense of humor (likely all three), but I feel right in the strike zone. Someone who is, say, a generation and a half older, might dismiss him as some hipster, post-modern essayist who writes irrelevant things about irrelevant topics in a snarky, sarcastic, too-clever-for-its-own-good style. But I think he’s provocative, often insightful, usually funny.

Like his observation that Real World celebrity is the worst kind of celebrity—you will be “the kind of person who gets recognized at places like Burger King, but you will still be the kind of person who eats at places like Burger King.” Or his quip that Billy Joel’s best songs all sound like “unsuccessful suicide attempts.” Or his response to the rapture-like event at the beginning of Left Behind, where all the best Christians disappear from the planet: “Sounds good to me.”

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

March 7, 2019

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“If he’s comfortable living on the near edge of nonsense, why shouldn’t we be?” This is James Parker in his New York Times review of I Wear the Black Hat, Klosterman’s 2013 book of musings on villainry. He says it’s Klosterman’s fifth best book. This was only the second I’ve read of his, on the heels of But What If We’re Wrong? And then after this, I went right into his Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. So I guess on the scale of “Never want to read another book by this author” to “Give me more, now,” I’d give this a 5.

But I was trying to figure out how to sum up this book, and I couldn’t do much better than the subtitle itself. It’s about villains, ostensibly. But it kind of meanders all over the place, which it’s fair to say is a key part of Klosterman’s style. Over-intellectualizing things that aren’t generally intellectual, seeking consequence in the generally inconsequential, and making random connections that are intriguing, if often tenuous. Which all may sound like a knock, but I read more after this one.

This book is a puree of pop culture, autobiography, history and something resembling philosophy. Not quite random enough to make one’s head spin, but you might often stop and ask, “Wait, what point are you making?”

In a book about villains, there are some subjects one might expect—what if Batman was real? How should we think about Hitler? Joe Paterno and N.W.A. make appearances—as coach turned villain, and rap group who craved villain status, respectively. Bruce Springsteen, Ted Nugent, Taylor Swift, 2 Live Crew. DB Cooper vs Muhammad Atta.

So what’s the point? Don’t really know. Don’t really care. There are enough provocative thoughts and funny lines to be candy for the nerdy, semi-pop-culture-literate person of my generation. And plus, this book includes this sentence: “I saw the Big Lebowski and decided the main character should become the model for all human thought.” Which is as right as right can be.

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Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need by Todd Henry

February 10, 2019

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I thought Henry’s The Accidental Creative was one of the best, most practical books I’d ever read on the creative process. This one takes it up a level, literally, to managing creative teams. I’ve been managing creatives for about a decade, so a lot of the content in this book rang true. Some of it was new to me, but most of it was a sharp articulation of something I have been doing or have experienced. And some of the advice was just reassuring validation of the way I like to work.

The most helpful section of the book is on the shifts one has to make when moving from a creative doer to a creative manager. I wish I’d had this advice ten years ago. Henry hammers home the detrimental effects of continuing to do the same job—actually making the creative—instead of empowering others to do the creative and giving them ownership of the projects.

This is by far the greatest challenge of any creative manager, because the doing and the managing are completely different skillsets. And often creatives are elevated to a leadership role because of their creative product—which does nothing to prepare them for running a team.

The managers on my team are constantly working through the tricky balance of giving creatives the freedom to fail and learn without damaging the team’s reputation in the process. The tendency, especially for new managers, is to swoop in and try to save the day early and often, which is just a form of micromanagement. It’s a habit that demotivates the team, erodes trust and stifles the growth of everyone on it. It also makes the manager’s job much more difficult.

Henry gives tactics for thinking about and dealing with all kinds of dynamics common to a creative environment: protecting the resources of the team, creating a safe space for exploration, managing up to stakeholders who may not understand the creative process, navigating conflict and understanding individual motivations.

This is a very helpful book. I’d say it’s a must-read for any manager of a creative team. It’s also timely, as I’m kicking off a training series on creative management next week. I plan to borrow at least a handful of points from this book.

But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman

February 9, 2019

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How do we know what we know is right?

This is a book about a meta concept—the knowledge of our knowledge. When we look back on now from twenty, fifty, one hundred years in the future, what will we see as our biggest misunderstandings, miscalculations and mistakes? What will be the thing that we are so sure of today that makes us look foolish to future generations? What is today’s equivalent of the geo-centric model of the universe before Galileo?

It’s hard for us to think about the future this way, because we generally assume that we know what’s going on (in the same way we generally assume humans are the peak of evolution—first there were monkeys, then apes, then homo erectus, etc. and then, ta da! Here we are!). “We constantly pretend our perceptions of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn’t appear to be any other option.”

It’s easy to look back at history and see plenty examples of human fallibility in our most certain beliefs, from some of our best thinkers. Aristotle was right about many things, but he also believed that a rock sits on the ground because it wants to be on the ground. It seems dumb. It kind of is dumb. But it also probably made a lot of sense at the time. This book isn’t about outliers like the few (but, really, alarmingly many) dim-witted modern flat-Earthers. It’s about our accepted knowledge, stuff that most of us—even the experts—generally believe, and its rightness and potential future wrongness.

Klosterman comes at the topic from a number of angles, some of them a little incongruous (if still entertaining). He examines scientific knowledge in a section that questions if the fundamental shift that happened with the Scientific Revolution has made our science more future-proof. Does the way we use the Scientific Method to interrogate our knowledge make it unlikely that we’ll have another flub as big as geocentricism or flat-earth? He interviews a handful of experts and the consensus is…maybe.

He also looks at artistic “knowledge,” specifically our perception of what is good. Shakespeare is arguably the greatest playwright ever, but how did that become accepted belief? Why did he stand out against the playwrights of his day, let alone the rest of history? And how did Moby-Dick come to be considered one of the greatest novels ever after being a commercial failure during Melville’s life? (Klosterman includes a funny aside about a 2014 Amazon reviewer who describes Moby-Dick as “Pompous, overbearing, self-indulgent, and insufferable,” noting that anyone can publish his opinion as if they have authority these days, despite the fact that this particular person’s only other review was for an HP printer—two stars.)

Moby-Dick isn’t the only example of an overlooked great. Van Gogh went unappreciated during his lifetime, another in a long list of unfortunate artists. Which is all to say, people were wrong about Van Gogh and Moby-Dick. So how do we know we’re right? When the future looks back, who will be our great artists? Klosterman guesses that Elvis or Dylan will most likely represent our time in music, but he also weighs the possibility of someone coming out of nowhere, especially with today’s technology and viral media culture.

But, again, who decides? With Elvis and Dylan, there’s the traditional pop vs critical divide, but there’s also the fact that those elevating certain works (e.g. any “Best Of” list, greatest novels/movies/shows of all time) are either myopic (too Western, too male, too elite) or over-engineering for inclusivity. Throw on top of that the unpredictable way ideas spread in our modern world, and who knows what the future will see when it looks back on today? As Klosterman says, “History is a creative process.”

There is a thread throughout that feels uber-relevant now—the dangerous and mistaken notion that because some knowledge will prove incorrect, any knowledge can be disputed. Facts are reduced to opinions, driven by political convenience or other lazy biases. We aren’t able to address problems when we can’t even agree on the simple facts. We’ll likely look back on today and discover not that we were wrong about something major (e.g. climate change), but that we didn’t couldn’t overcome the willful ignorance of a good portion of the population.

This is a wonderfully thought-provoking book. It offers more questions than answers, and I often found myself setting the book down to think about some of the questions. It ranges from the relatively insignificant question of taste and art criticism some existential questions, like are we living in a simulation created by a future world?*

But the other thing I love about this book—and probably Klosterman in general (I’ve only read this and I Wear the Black Hat)—is that I feel like we’re on the same wave length. Klosterman’s definitely smarter than I am, but his language, his reference points, his sense of humor and his general style speak to me. He interviews people I love—like the writer George Saunders and the filmmaker Richard Linklater and the podcaster Dan Carlin (though he has a factual error in his description of Carlin’s podcast), uses references I understand—like when he refers to Ray Kurzweil and Chinese Democracy in the same sentence (Kurzweil is a futurist and great prophet of The Singularity; Chinese Democracy is the Guns ‘n’ Roses much-lampooned, 11-years-in-the-making 2008 album), and says they eat “weird food” in Cincinnati (I assume he’s referring to Skyline Chili).

Anyway, I don’t know that this book is for everyone.  It’s a little abstract, a little inconclusive, a little non-linear in its exploration. But I found it provocative, entertaining and very well-written.

* This idea, from philosopher Nick Bostrom, is that we’re headed toward a world in which people will create hyper-real computer simulations populated by AI beings that believe they’re real. And maybe we’re not there yet, or maybe the future people will decide not to create these simulations. But the third possibility is that this has already happened, that we exist in a world where these simulations do exist, and we’re in one of them, believing we’re real. The reasoning is that if a simulation has been created, eventually the “people” within that simulation will advance to the point where they create simulations, and within those the “people” will create simulations, etc., creating a reality of infinite nested simulations. In that case, the mathematical odds of us being the real, original world, are essentially zero. If we’re in this nested-simulation reality, we are almost certainly living one of the simulations. [smoke from ears]

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

February 2, 2019

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A co-worker who leads our tech team gave me this book. He’d given it to his whole team and said he thought I’d find a lot of it spot on. He was right.

This is an eminently quotable book about the hardest part of the creative process. It’s not about the inspiration, the craft or the selling of your work. It’s about overcoming the forces that keep you from actually doing the work. “There’s a secret that real writers know that fake writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Any successful novelist (or any artist, really) will confirm this. So much of what makes the greats great is that they show up every day and put in the time.

Pressfield names Resistance as the evil force that stands in the way of you and creative output—he speaks in these terms, using religious terminology to describe the battle that happens. Resistance is anything and everything that conspires to separate the life you live from the life you could live. Doubt, sloth, distraction, procrastination. “The more important a call to action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

In the second section, Pressfield introduces the notion of those who overcome Resistance and those who don’t—Pros and Amateurs. Amateurs stall out for any number of reasons. They have a long list of excuses. They get caught up in the trappings of the artist—talk about being an artist, act like an artist, wear the image of an artist—everything except actually dedicating themselves to doing the work. “The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.”

This isn’t magic. This isn’t rocket science. But it is simple and true and important.

If God Allows by Robert P. Cohen

January 27, 2019

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I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of this audacious modern-day Mad Men. It’s a novel of an American advertising creative director who takes a top position at an agency in Jarkarta, Indonesia. But it’s unlikely that even Don Draper could keep up with Paul, our protagonist.

Early in the novel, Paul reveals that he’s in Jakarta for the story. After finding international success with his “Get Juiced” ad campaign, he could have had his pick of any of the big global agencies. But he wants something more. Paul wants to write the Great American Novel—or something like it—and so he needs a place where he can live a story worthy of a novel. It’s an advertising cliché that every copywriter has an unfinished novel in their drawer, but in the context of a novel, it does a strange thing—it gives Paul a kind of meta-awareness of his own plot. It both gives him motivation and calls into question his motivations. How do you live when your motivation is to be a good story? And is that any different than just living?

Paul definitely makes a good go at living a novel-worthy life. The book is filled with sex, drugs, danger, crime, love, comedy and general insanity. It’s sometimes a little fratty, sometimes a little gonzo, sometimes over-the-top. When Paul is trying to describe what he imagines his novel to be to one of his clients, he says it’s “Sort of a pseudo-biopic romantic comedy with a heavy dose of international intrigue.”

That about nails it, but doesn’t give credit to some of the weightier themes, which Cohen touches on without being heavy-handed. He shifts between general hilarity and poignant contemplations about poverty, religion, and purpose in life. He captures the feeling of dislocation one experiences in a completely foreign country and the difficulty of running the gauntlet of cultural faux pas.

One of my favorite parts is the man Paul sees daily from his office window—a poor man in a dirt lot behind the building. Paul contemplates this man, how their two existences are so close to each other in space but couldn’t be more different. He is a kind of check on Paul’s perspective, a constant reminder of the “real world.”

The novel is peppered with funny moments and dry one-liners, like when he observes that his glass of 23-year Pappy Van Winkle tastes like “the last drink of a disgraced dictator, right before his public execution.” It moves along at a good clip and is full of enough twists to keep the reader turning pages and on their proverbial toes.

A novel about a man trying to live a novel-worthy life is, as we’d say in the advertising business, a solid concept. I’d contend that the execution is just as strong.

 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

January 19, 2019

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Reading Ward’s phenomenally lyrical Sing, Unburied, Sing in 2018, I wanted to quickly follow up with her 2011 National Book Award-winner, Salvage the Bones. Here, we find ourselves in a familiar setting—poor, contemporary south. 15-year-old Esch lives in a rural Mississippi bayou town with her brothers and alcoholic father. She is pregnant, and the boy who made her so wants nothing to do with her.

The story covers the days leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina (of which Ward is a survivor). Esch tries her best to make her way and hide her secret, leaning on her knowledge of Greek mythology to find comfort and answers, imagining herself to be various ancient mythological characters. But nothing can brace her or the family for the coming storm.

This is a tight, well-written story. It feels a little less refined than Sing, Unburied, Sing, but immersive and disturbing nonetheless. Esch is a sympathetic character, and the realities of her world are daunting and raw.

Ward is the only woman to win two National Book Awards for Fiction. I look forward to reading more of her work.