Into this glut wanders Mathew Klickstein’s “Selling Nostalgia: A Neurotic Novel,” which both satirizes our obsession with the past and profits from it. Klickstein, 37, is a self-professed pop culture historian who’s spent his career, well, mining nostalgia for cash. A journalist by trade, he became the leading expert on Nickelodeon, writing 2013’s “Slimed!,” an oral history of the network’s early days, and then chronicled the career rebirth of its longtime host Marc Summers.
He’s also ghostwritten memoirs for the likes of “Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss and “Mr. Skin” (Jim McBride), a Howard Stern regular whose website posts clips of naked actresses. In his work, Klickstein strives to create a behind-the-scenes view of beloved entertainment.
“I’m the kind of guy who watches a commentary about a documentary based on a film,” he said.
“Selling Nostalgia,” though fiction, captures that meta feeling. It provides a darkly humorous look at the challenges of spending an inordinate amount of time living and breathing pop culture — and idolizing the dominant personalities. The story follows Milton Siegel, a reformed journalist who turns to documentary-making and ghostwriting.
As the novel opens, Milt is headed to Los Angeles to prepare for the launch of his documentary on 1980s cult hero and former talk-show host Gil Gladly, who’s also a demanding boss — think, Klickstein said, BoJack Horseman meets Miranda Priestly. What follows is chaos, mostly, as Milt coordinates with flaky PR people, fends off attention-seeking child stars and tries to keep some money in his bank account.
With “Selling Nostalgia,” Klickstein set out to give readers a lighthearted romp through his world. At times, the result is an exhausting laundry list of pop cultural references real and fictional.
But Klickstein also delivers a searing critique of geek culture and the trouble with indulging nostalgia at the expense of reckoning with reality. Though he didn’t set out to write a social commentary, it’s on that level that he finds the most success. Gil loves Milt, but the aging star isn’t always kind to his young documentarian. He yells, makes demands at odd hours and has a track record of getting into Twitter fights and going viral for all the wrong reasons.
“I really wanted to show that that guy that you might have looked up to when you were a kid on the TV show — he might be a very different person than you think he is,” Klickstein said.
In the book, he writes: “These kinds of things were part of an element of Gil’s personality that Milt always worked the hardest at ignoring. He didn’t want to think he was doing all of this for a guy who might not have been as good a guy as he seemed.”
The book is set in 2017, just when open secrets about men not unlike Gil were starting to make headlines, exposing Hollywood staples for who they really are. An event on Milt’s movie tour nearly gets canceled after a venue’s communications director gets embroiled in a sexual harassment claim.
“I kind of wanted to say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m going to show you a little bit of how the sausage is made,’ ” Klickstein said.
In real life, too, the business of selling nostalgia can be problematic, when we focus on our idols and their art, flaws and all, at the expense of seeing the big picture — that much of what we may love is marred by the racism and sexism of an earlier time. The novel’s sober message is complicated by Klickstein’s own missteps. In 2014, a venue canceled an event with him after he dismissed the importance of diversity in children’s television in a highly circulated interview with Flavorwire. (“It wasn’t a true representation of who I am and what I do,” Klickstein said of his comments.)
That history renders some of Klickstein’s artistic choices a potential lightning rod — despite the accurate reflection of discrimination that runs rampant in traditionally white, male “geek” circles. In “Selling Nostalgia,” Milt says a black woman tending bar isn’t his “flavor,” and an olive-skinned female stripper is “exotic.”
“I really wanted to make sure that this is a true time capsule, that it’s an accurate depiction of 2017,” Klickstein said. “And that there are all different kinds of people doing all different kinds of things.”
For Klickstein, writing fiction, as full of real-world issues as it may be, was a way to explore geek culture and nostalgia without dipping back into the same, oft-recycled well of 1980s and ’90s programming.
“To mass-merchandise them, to mass-produce them, to have millions of sequels does dilute some of the magic a little bit,” he said of revisiting favorite franchises. If anything, “Selling Nostalgia” shows that the magic isn’t diluted only by mass production; it’s also diluted by the realities of the artists behind it.
Julie Kliegman is a copy editor for the Ringer.