I’m here because of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.
I don’t remember exactly when I read Chuck Klosterman’s second and most successful book, but it was sometime in the year after its 2003 release. I was a senior in college with vague plans to “move to New York” and “be a writer.” The clearest version of this blurry vision involved music journalism, so I religiously read SPIN, where Klosterman was a senior writer. (He got that gig in 2002, shortly after he turned in the Cocoa Puffs manuscript he had written during a 12-week hiatus from his previous job at The Akron Beacon Journal.) I assume I found the book through a mention in the magazine, then bought and read it on the dirty couch my roommates and I had salvaged from somewhere.
Cocoa Puffs’ immediate appeal stemmed from some combination of the looseness of the writing, a proto-blog conversational style that would come to dominate the internet, and the subject material: pop culture framed in a loosely academic tone. He took dumb shit — The Real World, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, semi-incoherent Tom Cruise passion project Vanilla Sky — seriously. Reading it felt cool and provocative, but the material wasn’t beyond my reach. I could write this stuff, I thought as I daydreamed about the future instead of finishing my thesis.
The interest in a weird book of 18 essays about ephemera surprised Klosterman. “It got a lot of attention, considering what a small, specific thing it was," he told me over the phone. “Real polarizing attention. People thinking it was too bad or too good.” Besides myself, many wide-eyed college seniors were enthralled. The actual critics, however, were mixed. The AV Club called Cocoa Puffs “one of the brightest pieces of pop analysis to appear this century.” Kirkus Reviews labeled it “humorous, slick, aggressively forgettable,” while The New York Times went with a “book of muddled essays” that “can also close a deal.”
Scribner, which gave Klosterman a $42,000 advance (“A nothing deal, but it felt like I was really making it,” he said), printed 10,000 hardcover copies, and they sold well enough for the publisher to think that his third book, Killing Yourself to Live, was going to be a massive hit. It wasn’t, but by the time the memoir about a 6,557-mile, 21-day road trip came out in the summer of 2005, Cocoa Puffs was selling “like crazy.” To date, Klosterman said it has sold about 500,000 copies, “almost as much as my other nine books combined” — a success that helped establish the writer and thinker in the upper echelon of the media landscape and ensure he wouldn’t want for various contributing editor gigs.
But why did Cocoa Puffs find such a large audience? The idea of taking low culture seriously wasn’t new. “Jim Goad, Donna Gaines, and Ian Christe have already beaten the ersatz-populism thing to death,” Kirkus noted. Timing was a major factor in the success. Klosterman benefitted from the importance of an influential publication like SPIN that possessed a power to promote his work while also taking advantage of the internet’s growing popularity and ubiquity. “A lot of people looked at that book as something they could translate online to their version of culture writing,” he said. (Like, for example, myself.)
“He spoke for a lot of silenced people in the cultural conversation.”
Klosterman wasn’t the only writer who surfed this rising wave, according to pop culture expert Dr. Rebecca Housel, who pointed out the popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Max Brooks’ World War Z around the same time. While neither 100-year old teenage vampires nor zombies were new ideas, those works found a place where their predecessors hadn’t. “Chuck, Stephanie, and Max wrote things that exploded into mainstream pop culture” Housel said. Quick, fun, smart, digestible content plus an increased ability to disseminate information equalled the potential for huge return. (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is also a perfect clickbait title.)
In places, it was a genuinely smart, ahead-of-its-time book. An essay about The Real World thoughtfully explored how the producers embraced physical diversity but rejected any meaningful intellectual differences among its youthful cast. That might seem like a trite idea now, but 15 years ago it read as a valid, necessary, and novel critique of reality television as it was becoming increasingly mainstream. A reported piece about a Guns and Roses cover band, which originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, is equal parts amusing and insightful, a ride-along that would make Longform.org’s Yearly Best Of list if it appeared today. Klosterman was — and is — at his best when combining his genuine interest in understanding, detailing, and explaining a strange and unusual subculture with his ability to make observations others don’t, can’t, or won’t.
One of the final essays, “All I Know Is What I Read in the Papers,” shredded the media, predicting the rise of bothsidesism and Trump. When discussing Ron Rosenbaum’s book, Explaining Hitler, which makes heroes of journalists working at The Munich Post in the 1920s, Klosterman wrote: “I’m not sure if modern reporters would even be allowed to perform that kind of watchdog function if a new Hitler-esque character emerged in the twenty-first century; he would probably just be referred to as a ‘charismatic, neoconservative upstart.’”
There are conspicuously dated parts of Cocoa Puffs, as you might expect when reading a book that emerged from and excavated cultural norms nearly two decades old. In the first five pages, Klosterman writes that if he ever gets marginally famous and is interviewed, he hopes it will be by Charlie Rose; that if he gets married, he wants his marriage to be as good as Cliff and Clair Huxtable’s; and that “if Woody Allen had never been born, I’m sure I would be doomed to a life of celibacy.”
Reading those names employed so glibly and rapidly in 2018 is disorienting, at best. While it’s unfair to re-litigate past opinions based on what we know now, it’s fair to ask about what Klosterman, as a plugged-in cultural commentator, could have acknowledged then. Should he have held Cosby, who had appeared in The New York Post after an actress filed a police report against him, and Allen, who he dismisses as “an uber-pervy clarinet freak,” in such high regard? “I was living in Akron [when I wrote the book],” Klosterman said. “I wasn’t reading The New York Post. I had no idea about any of the Bill Cosby stuff. The Woody Allen shit, I guess I knew, but when I was saying he was kind of weird it was more to do with him marrying a woman that his ex-girlfriend adopted or whatever. It wasn’t, ‘this is depraved.’ It was, ‘this is weird.’”
This is not an entirely satisfying answer, but it’s also an honest one that gets at why Cocoa Puffs found an audience. The book’s conversational tone assumed a common understanding of the world, as imagined by mostly white, mostly straight, mostly male nerds and dorks who’d thought a lot about Star Wars and alternative rock but not sexual politics. It was edgy, but in an inviting way for these types, people who felt like no one was listening even if they had the root privilege of their skin and their sex. “He spoke for a lot of silenced people in the cultural conversation,” Jeremy Wayne Wallach, a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, said. “People from the Midwest. People who really valued things that didn’t seem valued by the cultural elites.” (It’s obviously not the same, but this observation is not dissimilar from those used to explain Donald Trump’s popularity.)
In 2018, Cocoa Puffs reads as an uneven mix of smart and sexist and offensive. Clearly, it is not a woke book. No work that opens an essay by asking “when exactly did every housewife in America become a whore?” and says of Pamela Anderson “she’s not even a real person, but she’s still more real than any sexual icon we’ve ever had,” could be. That idea didn’t really exist as a mainstream concept 15 years ago; readers who agreed with him were not instinctively checking their privilege. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine coming to this book for the first time, and experiencing it in the same way as that college senior back in 2003. The more time that passes, the more likely a work of cultural criticism is to fall to this fate. The world changes; the book, by definition, cannot.
That’s not to say Cocoa Puffs is without value today. It’s a book that encourages people to examine their world with an open mind, and to look to use low culture to explain their surroundings if that’s what makes the most sense — an attitude now embraced by basically the entire internet, even by people who presumably dislike Klosterman. In the early 20th century, Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci developed a concept called cultural hegemony where the ruling class imposes its values worldwide. The way to break out out this cycle is to find the working-class intellectuals who can alter the status quo. A generous reading of the intent of Cocoa Puffs, if perhaps not all of the subject matter, would be that it wants its readers to do the work to find these people, value their contributions, and make these changes.
Then again, maybe it’s too flawed to pass muster today. As Klosterman writes in the book’s second essay, “everybody is wrong about everything, just about all the time.”