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Book Review: Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur

December 14, 2009

To say Chuck Klosterman has had an impact on my writing (and probably my entire personality, or at least the way I converse with acquaintances at bars) would be a pretty massive understatement, especially as I pursue writing this book. Most of my other influences are fiction writers or short form specialists. Klosterman is really the only cultural critic whose books I read regularly.

I just finished up his newest, the essay collection Eating the Dinosaur. On the whole, it might be his best. It’s certainly his most mature, fully realized and thematically unified work to date. In the back of my mind, I was parsing for relevance to my own project, insight into how to do it or at least what to talk about. Naturally, the book is rich with such things. The essay about Kurt Cobain gives me some interesting tropes to explore re: enigmatic musicians, and Klosterman’s points about how often Americans unconsciously laugh when conscious of unhumorous situations was fairly sobering, not only because everyone does this all the time but because I do it about a hundred times more often when I’m interviewing people.

The most straightforwardly pertinent essay was the first one, entitled “Something Instead of Nothing.” It’s about interviews and, more specifically, why the interviewee would ever be inclined to answer a question solely because someone asked him. It’s a phenomenon of which I’ve long been conscious but one I’ve never fully understood. Often, I’ll talk to a musicians who are promoting a show or a CD or at the very least their personal brands, so there is a tangible benefit for them to engage. But what if there isn’t?

What if they’re like Elephant 6 people, many of whom aren’t especially active anymore and few of which have ever seemed concerned with “promotion.” Why would they have any interest in talking to me, much less letting me write a book about their lives?

Early in the essay, Klosterman offers a list of six reasons as to why he might grant interviews to others:

“1. I felt like I had something important to say.”
Klosterman immediately concedes that, in his case, this is not true. It’s possible and in fact probable some E6ers feel they have something important to say, but as musicians, they have other media available to them, media with which they are likely more comfortable.

“2. It’s my job.”
Again, not the case for Klosterman, and probably not the case for any E6ers either. That is, none of them would be promoting anything—the media cycle for any CD or tour they might want to discuss would be long expired by time the book would be published. 0 for 2.

“3. I have an unconscious, unresolved craving for attention.”
For Klosterman, this feels inaccurate, and it doesn’t seem right for the E6 crew, either. Many of them, it seems, have actively avoided and in fact fled from attention for most of their careers.

“4. I had nothing better to do.”
In Klosterman’s case, “this is accurate, but not satisfactory.” For most of the Elephant 6 folks, it’s likely less accurate, though I can’t be sure. Though the life of an artist is often a bohemian one, I imagine a lot of these people have more important things to do. I could be wrong on this, but I don’t think I am.

“5. I’m a nice person.”
This is “unlikely” for Klosterman, but it very well could be the case for a lot of the people whose lives and work I’ll be documenting. Still, while this could explain their collective willingness to talk to me, it’ll a bigger deal when they actually talk to me. That is, to say they want to help me is one thing; to actually help me is another altogether.

“6. When asked a direct question, it is human nature to respond.”
Klosterman says this is the most likely explanation, and I tend to agree. He then spends a few thousand words trying to illuminate why.

In a fit of postmodern whimsy (or perhaps because it’s what he knows best), Klosterman attacks this question with a bunch of interviews. One of these interviews is with eminent filmmaker Errol Morris, one of the most important documentarians ever and thus someone uniquely qualified to talk about talking to people. This exchange jumped out at me:

Morris: If people were entirely reasonable, they would avoid all interviews, all the time. But they don’t.
Klosterman: And why don’t they?
Morris: Because perhaps something interesting will transpire. They think, “Maybe this person will present me in a way that will be interesting. Maybe this person will present me in a way that I would like to be seen.”

This is part of my strategy. I’ve long believed one of the most important things I need to do for this book to work is to demonstrate to my subjects that I’m an able biographer. I need to build trust and rapport on an emotional level, but my subjects must also believe I’m capable of writing a good book about them. If they think I’m a hack, they have no reason to talk to me.

A big chunk of Klosterman’s conversation with Morris centers on Morris’s 2003 film The Fog of War, a documentary about former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Though McNamara began talking to Morris because he thought it was part of the promotion of his book, he eventually realized it was not and became apprehensive about being interviewed. Eventually, though, he changed his mind, and Morris interviewed him for over a year, including after the movie was finished, because Morris found him so interesting. That explains why Morris talked to him (and why he made a feature length documentary about him), but why did he talk to Morris?

“He said he enjoyed talking to me,” Morris says.

In a more general sense, Morris talked about how people agree to be interviewed as a self-exploration exercise. Basically, he thinks “we’re engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are,” and talking it out with interviewers (who ask much more direct and insightful questions than do our friends and even ourselves) helps that process along.

With that said, Morris also highlights the disconnect between what people say and how they are presented, which is to say those who make documentaries or publish interviews often distort what their subjects say just a bit. But he also says that their subjects are just as likely to distort what actually happened when they relate their stories, “people who think they are telling the truth, but who really have no idea what the truth is.”

“I think truth always takes a backseat to narrative,” Morris says.

In this arena, I plan on having my cake and eating it, too. The narrative elements should take care of themselves — I’ll be talking to creative people with interesting stories, and I consider myself a capable writer — and I’ll be talking to so many people that any contradictions should work themselves out. Ideally, truth and narrative don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Ira Glass knows something about this. As the host and producer of NPR’s This American Life, he has conducted and edited thousands of interviews. This American Life has become one of NPR’s flagship programs, so much so that Glass has become something of a celebrity himself. As such, he is often the subject of interviews, and having conducted them for so long, he has a keen perspective on how to be interviewed. Ultimately, his approach is simple:

“I want to give a good quote,” he says.

In many ways, being interviewed is a performance, and the interviewee’s goal is to stimulate his audience. Some people are better at this than others.

I’ve interviewed probably about a dozen stand-up comedians. All but one (the exception being Mike Birbiglia, who was natural and engaging) were completely unfunny: they either don’t want to waste any of their jokes on an interview (saving them for their routines) or they force their material into answers to completely unrelated questions.

Musicians tend to be more hit-or-miss. Some are enchanting conversationalists who will turn the most banal of topics into hour-long discussions; others won’t give you more than four words no matter how deep the question. I still haven’t figured out how to predict who will be what, so I won’t even guess who is going to provide me with the best stories and soundbites (though I have some ideas from prior conversations), but I’m playing the odds by talking to so many people.

While Glass has become accustomed to being interviewed, his bread is still buttered on the other side of the exchange. Glass is notable for being able to get great stories out of ordinary people. This is what makes This American Life such a popular program. But getting total strangers to open up like that is no easy task, even in the interview setting (in which Klosterman says, because of the circumstances, “both parties accept an acceleration of intimacy”). So how does Glass dig so deep? He says:

I’m legitimately curious about what those people are saying. I honestly care about the stories they are telling. That’s a force that talks to the deepest part of us.

If Glass is right—and my personal experience compels me to think he is—I’m in good shape. The impetus for this project in the first place was my admiration for these bands; I’ve only since justified it for other reasons. Suffice it to say I care deeply about what these folks have to say.

There are ostensibly two sorts of people one can interview: celebrities and non-celebrities. Most people fall obviously to one side or another. There is no particular threshold across which one is decidedly a celebrity, but it’s usually pretty easy to tell. Glass tends to interview the latter, while Klosterman usually opts for the former.

This is among the most interesting phenomena with the musicians of the Elephant 6. To the large majority of people, they are not even close to being celebrities. They’re no-name musicians, no different than the Bon Jovi cover band who plays their neighborhood bar every Wednesday night. But to a small group of people, these musicians are icons. There isn’t much middle ground here: those that have heard of them at all think extremely highly of them. The Elephant 6 has few casual fans, at least in proportion to its diehards.

So it’s difficult to say if someone like Jeff Mangum or Robert Schneider is a celebrity. The masses have no idea who they are, but their fans revere them like deities.

Klosterman interviewed prominent music journalist Chris Heath for this essay, and in Heath’s explanation of why people like to be interviewed, he drew a distinction between the reasons a celebrity and a non-celebrity might agree to it. On famous people:

Celebrities do so many short, pointless interviews—weeks of talking in which it must be impossible to maintain the delusion that one is being understood or accurately depicted in any way—that when they find themselves in a conversation in which, maybe subconsciously, they feel the possibility of being somewhat understood, and that the reality of their life will be somewhat realistically portrayed, the interview may begin to feel less like wasted time and more like an antidote to all that other wasted time. And so when asked a good question, they’ll answer.

And on everyone else:

We are used to the idea of giving witness to one’s life as an important and noble counterpoint to being unheard, especially when applied to  people in certain disadvantaged, oppressed or unacceptable situations. But in a slightly more pathological way, I’m not sure that we aren’t seeing the emergence of a society in which almost everyone who isn’t famous considers themselves cruelly and unfairly unheard. As though being famous, and the subject of wide attention, is considered to be a fulfilled human being’s natural state—and so, as a corollary, the cruelly unheard millions are perpetually primed and fired up to answer any and all questions in order to redress this awful imbalance.

This is why the Elephant 6 folks are interesting. On one hand, as iconic musicians, at least within a particular niche, they’ve done numerous interviews, and many of them have likely been entirely trite. So the opportunity to have a meaningful interview is enticing. On the other hand, though, despite this esoteric attention, they continue to toil in relative obscurity. It’s unclear whether fame is something any of them truly desire (as I mentioned before, they often seem to intentionally avoid the spotlight), but no one bothers making art if he does not want his voice heard. Heath sums up this notion thus: “If you have any ego at all, or a desire to share your experience and thought process, then you may also imagine your answer will be of interest to other people.” Art is very much about sharing one’s experiences with the world; being interviewed is merely an extension of this. As quiet and unassuming as many of these musicians may be, they want their voices heard. This is why they sing, and this is why they answer questions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. joe permalink
    April 7, 2010 12:21 AM

    this would be a much better read if you didn’t keep getting off topic about E6. i don’t know how i even ended up on this page but the “review” doesn’t sound much like a review at all. good writing when you weren’t talking about your musical group though.


  1. Text comes from text « News and Fish from Adam Clair

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