Chuck Klosterman and the problem with voices

I saw Chuck Klosterman speak at the Union Square Barnes and Noble tonight. This post will sort of be about that.

My reader/author relationship with Klosterman is interesting (well, to me at least). I read most things he writes, particularly all the essays he does for Grantland. Sometimes I like him more than I should, other times I don’t like him as much as I should. He’s the author I attribute most to my college years. While certainly not my favorite writer discovered since I’ve been in college (looking at you, DFW), I first introduced myself to him during my first semester of college and have kept up with his writing ever since. He straddles fiction and nonfiction writing the same way I have these past three years. The kind of stuff he writes is the kind of stuff I try – and fail – to write. So seeing him while I intern in Manhattan seemed like a seminal moment.

The first thing I noticed was just how similar everyone in the crowd seemed to be. With NYC offering one hell of a diverse population, apparently the way to homogenize it fast is to stick a sports/music/pop culture writer in a B&N at 7 p.m. on a Monday night.

The second thing I noticed was Chuck Klosterman’s beard. It was a) bigger, bushier, and burlier than I expected and b) grayer than I expected. It aged him. I know Klosterman isn’t young. But I don’t think of him as old, either. It turns out he’s 40. And with that beard, he looks every bit of it. It has patches of gray mixed in with the rorange (red/orange, you know) and you can tell it’s covering up some skin that’s weathered and loose.

photo does not do the beard justice

And then he spoke. And I can’t tell if I think of him differently now than I did at 6:59 p.m. this evening, but I’m definitely thinking.

That’s the problem with voices. They’re so integral to whom a person is, that if we have an idea of someone in our heads (as I did with Klosterman) without ever hearing that person speak, the voice has the potential to radically alter our image.

Klosterman spoke for roughly an hour. He talked a bit about his writing, he read from his new novel The Visible Man, which I have not read and do not know if I intend to (I prefer his essays to his fiction), and then he took questions for about half an hour. People asked a variety of questions, some clever, some stupid. I asked him one about Grantland and he answered. I had a dialogue with Chuck Klosterman about Bill Simmons. Which is pretty cool, but also kind of disappointing.

Maybe it’s just me, but once I have an interaction with a famous person (I’d argue Klosterman is marginally famous, he’s certainly not paparazzi famous but he’s the sort of pseudo-intellectual famous that’ll draw the narcissistic twenty-somethings out on a weeknight), they no longer seem as famous.

There’s also the issue of his voice. Because Klosterman is a writer, his voice is an important part of his persona. Not as important as a singer/songerwriter say, but because my investment in Klosterman is in his writing, when I read his writing, I imagine it in his voice – or, prior to this evening, my best approximation/imagining of his voice.

Has anyone’s voice ever not been disappointing? I can’t remember any occasion where I was surprised/impressed with someone voice who I had been previously unfamiliar with. I don’t know what I expected Klosterman’s voice to sound like, but what came out when he stood behind that podium was not it. Like most writers, his voice is nasally and monotone. If there’s such thing as a “face for radio” then there’s most definitely such a thing as a “voice for writing.”

Voices are interesting because they are, in my opinion, the manifestation of the physiological vs. psychological debate within humans. Maybe I’m out of my element here, straying towards philosophical topics, but think about it: the way a person’s voice sounds is biological, it depends on vocal chords and tongue movement and physical pronunciations. But what a person uses that voice for is inherently psychological and a reflection of their personality – the means to transfer the internal to the external. It’s hard to separate the two – how a person sounds and what, specifically, they’re saying – because you can’t really have one without the other. Except, of course, when what a person is saying is written and not spoken.

And that’s the advantage of writing. 99 percent of Klosterman’s audience doesn’t hear his voice when he communicates with them. His message is not dependent on his voice. But when his audience does hear him speak (as I did tonight), his voice will now permeate anything that audience reads in the future. Every time I go back and read the time travel essay in Eating the Dinosaur, I’m going to read it in the voice I heard tonight. And it’s going to sound less like an authoritative writer and someone to look up to, and more like one of my friends going on long-winded rant during dinner. Not because he sounded immature or vapid or anything, but because now that I know his voice, Klosterman as an individual is more familiar to me. The relationship is fundamentally more intimate because I know one more thing about him. It’s one degree removed from the one-way communication so often characteristic of the reader/author relationship, and one degree closer to Thanksgiving dinner conversation.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. A while back I watched a YouTube video of Maddox (of the Best Page in the Universe), and hearing his voice was more shocking than hearing Klosterman’s tonight. I used to appreciate Maddox’s writing a lot more when I was younger/full of myself/into that kind of stuff, and I still appreciate it a bit but mostly for nostalgia, but hearing his voice completely changed the way I interact with his writing. As I said earlier, a person’s voice can do nothing but humanize them, and because Maddox’s writing relies so much on a position of author-superiority, exposing his voice to his audience cannot help but undercut his message.

I had the opposite happen when it comes to Max Bemis, lead singer of Say Anything. A lot of times with bands, I listen to them without knowing what they look like. That’s for the best, probably. With Max, when I listened to “Admit It!” for the first time, I imagined this swoopy-haired skinny asshole (kind of like the guy from All Time Low, to be honest). But Max, as far as I know, has never had swoopy hair, and he’s always been a bit chubby. And to be honest, once I saw what he actually looked like (not the asshole I imagined), I liked his band a little more. When the voice is the first aspect encountered in a relationship, there’s more to fill in, more to build on. When the voice is last, it exists only to tear down any preconceived notions.

Sitting there tonight listening to Klosterman, part of me was paying attention to what he was saying – and he said some interesting things, I enjoyed the hour, it was more than I thought it’d be – but another part of me was paying attention to simply how he sounded. And that’s the risk of an author reading his work. It isn’t the intended medium. There is more at play when the writing is read aloud. Sometimes, like with poetry, it can be enhanced by a vocal interpretation. But often, particularly with the kind of writing Klosterman does, reading aloud does nothing but distract. It alters the writing in, perhaps, unintentional ways..

I’m not saying Klosterman’s is unpleasant sounding or anything like that with this whole thing. I’m saying there isn’t anyway around it: hearing his voice fundamentally changes my relationship with Chuck Klosterman. If anything, his voice is humanizing. It makes him relatable, sympathetic. I empathize with Klosterman. I don’t know how he feels about his voice, but I bet it’s along the lines of how I feel about mine. I hate my voice, and that’s just the voice I hear. From what I understand, the voice I hear when I speak is much different than the voice other people hear when I speak. I don’t know if it’s because there’s something fucked up with my ears or if everyone is like that. Even when I listen to myself recorded (which I try to avoid at all costs), it sounds different than what other people probably hear. If I knew what I actually sounded like, I’d probably talk a whole lot less.

Over/under for the number of blog posts written tonight by people who were at the Union Square Barnes and Noble with me tonight listening to Chuck Klosterman? I’m going to say 20.

-Ben Cosman