Chuck Klosterman betrayed me. The scene of the crime was a book reading on July 8, 2013, in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
The transgression: an offhanded comment Klosterman made about no longer caring much for his second book, the 2003 essay compendium Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs — something about it having too many “run-on sentences.”
I left that reading feeling like a dolt and, quite frankly, a little hurt. Perhaps this seems like an overreaction, but Klosterman was doing more than casually dismissing a book that he himself wrote — he was (albeit in an unintentional, indirect and minor way) insulting my intelligence and taste. Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was my favorite book for many years and it quite literally altered my life’s trajectory — prior to reading it, I had never considered pursuing writing as a profession. And here was that book’s very author saying it was a foolish piece of work, and I felt foolish for having been so attached to it.
Perturbed and confused, I confronted Klosterman during the Q&A portion of another reading, months later. He replied that he found his earlier work a tad embarrassing and juvenile, and was much prouder of his more recent, more refined books.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Nearly every artist grows to resent their earlier work, especially if that earlier work is more beloved by fans and more commercially successful than anything they’ve made since.
Depending on your age, Bret Easton Ellis is either “the guy who wrote Less Than Zero” or “Have you seen American Psycho? Yeah, well he wrote the book.” But Ellis’ favorite novel of his own is his fourth, Glamorama, a book considered bloated and repetitive among critics and fans alike. Axl Rose considers Chinese Democracy to be Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece, and thanks to a severely drawn out hype cycle, only the most ardent GNR fans actually listened to it. For years, Rivers Cuomo resented the cult that formed around Weezer’s second album, Pinkteron. Quentin Tarantino suspects The Hateful Eight might be his greatest film even though it’ll never receive as much acclaim as Pulp Fiction or Resevoir Dogs (his first two films). To this day, Radiohead refuses to perform “Creep” from their debut album, Pablo Honey, despite it having vaulted them to rock superstardom. Expressionist painter Gerhard Richter sent a shockwave through the art world last summer when he disowned all the work he created while living in West Germany. And Kanye West believes every new album of his to be greater than his last.
“In a way, this process is kind of the opposite of how nostalgia works,” Klosterman wrote me in an email after I asked him why he thinks this happens. “Artists who dislike their initial work tend to hear and see things in that early work that remind them of a time where they had less control over what they were doing and less appreciation for what was happening.”
The best example of this, Klosterman says, is The Beatles.
“[John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney were writing those early songs very fast and without much thought. They would make jokes like, ‘Let’s write a swimming pool today’ and just knock out a track like ‘Help’ in three hours. It came so easily that it couldn’t seem retrospectively great to them — it simply seemed like everybody else in the world loved whatever they did, regardless of how hard they tried.
“So when McCartney makes Flaming Pie in 1997 and claims it’s better than anything he did with The Beatles, people think he sounds like a fucking nutcase. But to him, it does seem better. He had to work harder to make it, and it didn’t come easy. He thought about Flaming Pie way more than he ever thought about ‘Please Please Me.’”
Klosterman didn’t specifically reference his own work in emails to me, but his comments did offer some insight into why he feels distant from the books that launched his literary career.
“When you’re young, you have limited skill and unlimited emotion,” Klosterman writes. “You just pour yourself into the work, without really considering the context. As you grow older, you become more and more technically proficient, but less willing to share your emotions (and maybe a little embarrassed by how freely you used to throw your emotions around). The problem is that most audiences — and especially casual audiences — prefer raw emotion.”
Learning to resent your younger artistic self would then seem a natural part of the maturation process. And that’s probably a good thing — anyone who doesn’t wince a little when thinking about their younger self is probably emotionally stunted. There’s also an economic imperative at play; you’d be unlikely to check out Chiraq if Spike Lee admitted it’s half the movie Do The Right Thing is.
But I still love Cocoa Puffs, run-on sentences and all, and for many of the reasons Klosterman listed. That “limited skill” and “unlimited emotion” is why I so identified with it. I was a 16-year-old kid who spent all his free time pirating music, watching SportsCenter and concocting schemes to make my crushes fall in love with me. So Klosterman writing about his unrequited loves and the world through the lens of Saved by the Bell, The Sims and Celtics-Lakers rivalry resonated with me in a way his later books never really could.
Besides, it’s not necessarily a good thing when an artist regards his earlier work more highly. Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant has continued to make music as he ages—including Raising Sand, his collaboration with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss that won the 2007 Grammy for Album of the Year. His former bandmate Jimmy Page, meanwhile, has spent much of his time since Zeppelin remastering and rereleasing the band’s back catalog.
One has grown; the other lives in the past. Who’s to say where their best work lies?
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He last wrote about how the children’s film Zootopia explains Trump political ascendence.