Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gonzo journalism defined by its fans. Should it be emulated?

Hunter S. Thompson Books

With the decline in popularity of newspapers I believe something should be done to shake up the way news is written. The problem with this is that some (if not a lot) journalists tend to play it safe with their writing for fear their editor will butcher their work. I’m not talking about the usual mundane 100 word articles about a fender-bender in the high street or a local Mayor caught with a mistress. I’m talking about feature articles that require a lengthy, investigative or research process.

This is something HST did best, he investigated to the point of becoming part of the story. He got to the juice of the story, hence the beginning of Gonzo journalism. Should it be emulated? I’m reluctant to give a yes or no answer.

Let me put it like this. Like regular people every journalist is his or her own person. They have their own personality, wit and opinions, although some argue opinions have no place in an journalists’ work. (The opinion factor is one of the prominent features in Hunter Thompson’s work.) Most journalists will only share their opinion if it tends to fall into line with popular opinion. Case in point- Marty Beckerman has no qualms about sharing his opinion be it popular or not, which is why a lot of folks consider him to be of the Gonzo journalist ilk. But he is no HST nor would he claim to be.

I would define a Gonzo journalist as an unpretentious writer who writes as he or she feels, or what he or she sees without thoughts of popularity, or fear of the editor’s delete button.

Looking back on this as I write it maybe I should have used the title Hunter S. Thompson: Should his writing style be emulated? The answer to that would be NO. For my money a Gonzo journalist is just a writer being themselves.

Below are the contributors to this topic. To get to their sites just click their names. Many thanks to all concerned for taking the time to share their thoughts and expertize.

Marty Beckerman. Author of Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots. Generation S.L.U.T. (sexually liberated urban teens): A Brutal Feel-up Session with Today’s Sex-Crazed Adolescent Populace, and Death to All Cheerleaders: One Adolescent Journalist’s Cheerful Diatribe Against Teenage Plasticity. HST called him “a morbid little bastard.” He has written for Playboy, Discover, Reason, and many more. Click on his name above and get the full whack. You can see my review of his book Dumbocracy here. And buy it here.

William McKeen is the man behind my favorite HST biography, Outlaw Journalist. You can see my review of McKeen’s book and an interview I did with him here. McKeen first met Hunter in the 70s and has written two books about him. He’s one of the folks we can learn something from. You can buy his books here.

David S. Wills. Scholar, editor, writer, and publisher is currently writing a book about Hunter S. Thompson the man and his relation to Duke the fiend (David’s words) to see one of his many sites just click on his name.

Simone Corday. Spent time with Hunter during his time at The Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater. She’ll give a unique perspective on the ins and outs of Gonzo Journalism. Always an interesting read from Simone. You can see my review of her book and interview here. You can buy Simone’s book here.

Peter Richardson. Author of A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. He teaches California Culture at San Francisco State University. He also wrote American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams. He is also editorial director at PoliPointPress, which publishes trade books on politics and current affairs. See my Q+A and review of Peter’s book here. You can buy his book here.

Peter W. Knox. Gonzo Beat reporter at Washington College, Peter went to Woody Creek to cover Hunter’s “Blastoff service” for the premier issue of Five magazine . Peter also did his undergraduate thesis on the theme of The American Dream throughout the life and literature of Hunter S. Thompson.

So in no particular order. Enjoy.

“Buying the Ticket” by Simone Corday

Early in the warm, distant October when I started grad school in English, our fledgling pack met, trying to look our hippest. One veteran grad student in his late thirties stood out—he was dressed in nineteenth century working-class looking clothes, loose shirt and vest with a slouchy hat and beard–distinct from a hippie, back to-the-land look that would have blended in more at the time. Cold Mountain comes to mind, although this was long before Charles Frazier wrote it or it became a Hollywood distortion. When I asked why he was dressed that way, someone explained he was doing his dissertation on the poet Walt Whitman, and to get into the spirit, decided to dress like Whitman. Even in a more hang-loose era, this was eccentric, and his intense focus set him apart, too. Talk about emulating your favorite author. . . . I don’t know how his experiment panned out, but he was clearly committed. Did he get closer to the spirit of Whitman by trying on his style?

But who am I to point a finger? Fast-forward some years later, when Hunter Thompson was honorary night manager at the O’Farrell Theater and I was a stripper, I chose even more outlandish costumes: gorilla, shark, fencer, horse/cowboy, prom queen, the mayor of San Francisco. . . . “Your shows are so different from what she’s doing. From what everyone else is,” Hunter said, glancing at the dancer onstage posing in a negligee, “Why?”

I digress. We are talking about whether or not a genre of writing, gonzo journalism, should be emulated. And in looking into this, I was most curious about what Hunter’s own view would be. In Wayne Ewing’s documentary Breakfast with Hunter (2005), P.J. O’Rourke asks Hunter, “There have been a lot of kids out there for the past 25 years, trying to write like you. It’s always struck me that there are certain artists, Jackson Pollock is an example, that are absolute geniuses that it’s fatal to imitate.” Hunter answers, “Particularly if you imitate the style without the reality.”

Like it or not, we are each stuck in our own skin, with our own limitations and promise, as writers and otherwise. It’s impossible to escape our exposure to books we’ve read and techniques we have absorbed–but it’s a principle tested by time that to create original work it’s crucial to rely on our own experiences and perspective.

I am not a student of journalism, so I’ve been reading The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight by Mark Weingarten (2006), that gives a detailed view of how new journalism, and Hunter’s gonzo journalism, developed and were so innovative while the social history of the 60s and 70s evolved. And as I began to read, journalism as a topic expanded, and I came across so many intriguing books and side issues. I also found a cache of Hunter’s thoughts in Conversations with Hunter Thompson edited by Beef Torrey and Kevin Simonson (2008). But after all this exposure, emulating gonzo journalism seems as complex as reading it is fun.

Hunter didn’t identify with new journalism: “Wolfe and Talese go back and recreate stories that have already happened, where I like to get right in the middle of whatever I’m writing about—as personally involved as possible.” In sending Tom Wolfe the first part of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter wrote to him, “What I was trying to get at in [this] was the mind warp/photo technique of instant journalism: One draft, written on the spot and basically unrevised, edited, chopped, larded, etc. for publication.” quoted in William McKeen’s Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (2008).

But the technique sounds deceptively simple: “All you have to do is drink a little whiskey, smoke a joint, eat some acid, and you too can write like this! . . . That’s as stupid as it sounds.” HST quoted in “Man of Action: Hunter S. Thompson Keeps Moving,” by Jesse Jarnow, from Relix (2003), in Conversations with Hunter Thompson.

For those new to Hunter, the Las Vegas book started in March 1971, with his infamous drug-fueled trip with Oscar Acosta to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, and a second trip to cover a convention on drug abuse. Much of the writing took place that summer, when Hunter wrote for 12-hour stints at Owl Farm. After Las Vegas became a hit, and Hunter’s gonzo reputation was secured, he rarely did rewriting.

Originality and talent are great gifts, but Hunter had augmented his with keen instincts, boldness, experience, hard work—by the time he developed gonzo, he had been a working writer for ten years. “It took me about two years of work to be able to bring the drug experience back and put it on paper. . . . to retain that and to do it right. One of the hardest things I ever had to do in writing. That’s what Vegas is about–about the altered perceptions of the characters. It’s the bedrock of the book,” Hunter explained to P.J. O’Rourke in Breakfast with Hunter.

Douglas Brinkley asked Hunter,” Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?” Thompson: “They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. . . . Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?” (quotes from “The Art of Journalism: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson,” by Douglas Brinkley, from The Paris Review (2000), in Conversations with Hunter Thompson.

Although drugs enhanced Hunter’s perceptions and were part of his gonzo reputation, when it came to writing he acknowledged being straighter. In a 1974 Playboy interview, Craig Vetter asks, “When you actually sit down to start writing, can you use drugs like mushrooms or other psychedelics?” “No. It’s impossible to write with anything like that in my head,” Hunter answers. “Wild Turkey and tobacco are the only drugs I use regularly when I write. But, I tend to work at night, so when the wheels slow down, I occasionally indulge in a little speed—which I deplore and do not advocate—but you know, when the car runs out of gas, you have to use something. The only drug I really count on is adrenaline. I’m basically an adrenaline junkie. I’m addicted to the rush of the stuff in my own blood, and of all the drugs I’ve ever used, I think it’s the most powerful.” also in Conversations with Hunter Thompson.

A few years ago, in a long glass case, the San Francisco Public Library exhibited the scroll of the text of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The scroll is 120 feet long, but in the case at least twelve readable feet sprawled before me—this roll of taped sheets the writer fed through a typewriter since the story was spilling from his mind so fast. When I leaned closer, On the Road was there in its magnificence, plus extra material, some different word choices—this stream of consciousness masterpiece had clearly been through some revision, more than one previous draft.

Kerouac scholar Paul Marion said: “Kerouac cultivated this myth that he was this spontaneous prose man, and that everything that he ever put down was never changed, and that’s not true. He was really a supreme craftsman, and devoted to writing and the writing process. . . . In truth, Kerouac heavily reworked On the Road — first in his head, then in his journals between 1947 and 1949, and then again on his typewriter.” Between 1951 and 1957, Kerouac reshaped as many as six drafts, desperate to get his work published. But when television host Steve Allen asked how long it had taken him to write On the Road, Kerouac answered “Three weeks.” (Quotes from “Jack Kerouac’s Famous Scroll, ‘On the Road’ Again,” by Andrea Shea, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” July 5, 2007)

“Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer,“ said Hunter. “. . . Kerouac taught me that you could get away with writing about drugs and get published. It was possible. . . . I wasn’t trying to write like him, but I could see that I could get published like him and make the breakthrough, break through the eastern establishment ice. That’s the same way I felt about Hemingway when I first learned about him and his writing. I thought, Jesus, some people can do this.” (quotes from Douglas Brinkley, in Conversations with Hunter Thompson.)

The world has turned. Now media and journalism are in flux, with social media and “citizen journalists” playing a part. New technology has added an immediacy and a broad range of input, while newspapers struggle and diminish. We have moved beyond even the new new journalism, it seems. Now that there are fewer newspapers and fewer journalists employed to report on corruption, it is expanding into a cesspool. We need journalists who are skilled at investigation, as well as journalists who master narrative and are developing new techniques. Let us hope they also possess respect for the truth and a sense of ethics. Muckraking can be a masterful tool for social reform, while propaganda can cover up evil-doing, usually by the rich and powerful.

How would Hunter want to influence aspiring writers? He was asked:
“If you found yourself teaching a journalism course—Dr. Thompson’s Journalism 101—what would you tell students who were looking to go about covering stories?” HST: “You offering me a job? Shit. Well, I wouldn’t do it, I guess. It’s not important to me that I teach journalism classes.

“But if you did, what would your reading list be?

HST: “Oh, I’d start off with Henry Fielding. I would read writers. You know, I would read Conrad, Hemingway, people who use words. That’s really what it’s about. It’s about using words to achieve an end. And the Book of Revelation. I still read the Book of Revelation when I need to get cranked up about language. I would teach Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times. All the journalists who are known, really, have been that way because they were subjective. . . . I think the trick is that you have to use words well enough so that these nickle-and-dimers who come around bitching about being objective or the advertisers don’t like it are rendered helpless by the fact that it’s good. That’s the way people have triumphed over conventional wisdom in journalism.”
—from “Writing on the Wall: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson,” by Matthew Hahn, in the Atlantic Online (1997), in Conversations with Hunter Thompson.

While becoming part of the story can get you to the heart of some substantial material, drugs and liquor in themselves aren’t inspirational. Hunter’s process and mystique won’t necessarily unlock creativity for other writers. His gonzo journalism can’t be pinned down—it retains mystery and power. The world doesn’t need would-be Hunters posing with cigarette holders and glasses of Chivas, mimicking Hunter’s exterior style. What is truly needed? Originality; talent; timely, well-chosen material; insight; ethics; and a power of expression in synch with our new time of challenges and unpredictability.

I—Copyright 2010 by Simone Corday

Simone Corday is the author of 9 ½ Years Behind the Green Door, A Memoir: A Mitchell Brothers Stripper Remembers Her Lover Artie Mitchell, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Killing That Rocked San Francisco

William McKeen

Gonzo: May it Unrest in Peace

It’s not hard for me to recall my life as a college freshman. When I was a young and impressionable writer, I fell under the spell of Hunter S. Thompson.

It was the early 1970s and after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his presidential campaign coverage in Rolling Stone, I became a committed fan.

I worked for a small daily newspaper in the Midwest then, and we passed around the newsroom a tattered and disintegrating Fear and Loathing paperback and spoke of it as Holy Writ.

I once tried to write like him. I went to Naked City, Indiana, one of the Midwest’s largest nudist colonies, to cover the Mister and Miss Nude America contests.

It was a disturbing and weird day, ripe for the gonzo-journalism treatment, with pantsless grannies and nudist master sergeants weary of the voyeuristic mobs that came to watch strippers strut and body builders romp naked.

But after two long Saturdays struggling with the story, I came to this important conclusion: only one person could write like Hunter S. Thompson. And it wasn’t me.

As I said, I was young (17) and impressionable. I’m glad I figured that out then, rather than wasting a few years of this short life imitating someone else.

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve faced the same problem from the other side of the table. Young people, enamored of Thompson (or Vonnegut or Foster Wallace or Didion . . . fill in the blank) say they want to write like their hero. “You want to write gonzo?” I ask the Thompson fans. “Sure, go right ahead.” When they fail miserably, I tell them, “See, only one person could write like that and he’s dead.” Pause. “But only one person can write like you.”

Hunter S. Thompson may be the best friend a writing teacher can have. He gives us an example of writing with wit, grace and a unique style. And those who try to imitate that style soon learn how much work went into creation of those masterpieces of non-fiction writing. Through trying and failing to write gonzo, students learn how to unmask their own (pardon the redundancy) style.

So don’t write gonzo. Write what you write.

In another context and speaking of another great artist, Johnny Cash once wrote this:

There are those who do not imitate,
Who cannot imitate
But then there are those who emulate
At times, to expand further the light
Of an original glow.
Knowing that to imitate the living
Is mockery
And to imitate the dead
Is robbery
There are those
Who are beings complete unto themselves
Whole, undaunted, — a source
As leaves of grass, as stars
As mountains, alike, alike, alike,
Yet unalike
Each is complete and contained
And as each unalike star shines
Each ray of light is forever gone
To leave way for a new ray

Johnny was writing about Bob Dylan for the liner notes for Nashville Skyline, but these words might just as well have been written about Hunter.

Peter Richardson

Gonzo is usually considered a species of New Journalism, which grafted literary techniques (first-person narration,dialogue, etc.) onto the usual conventions of magazine reporting. The taxonomy is good as far as it goes, but it masks some important distinctions among practitioners. Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe never visited Planet Gonzo, for example, and though Hunter Thompson would probably appreciate the comparison to Norman Mailer, the labels take us only so far.

What distinguishes Thompson’s writing at its best is the tension between the experiences he describes–savage is a favorite adjective–and the extraordinary control and precision of his prose. Those little sentence-level decisions create devastating and sometimes hilarious effects. When combined with the unique persona Thompson created, through which the world reveals its perverse meaning, this style precludes imitation. Only a fool would try to emulate it for any purpose besides satire.

Which isn’t to say that Thompson has no progeny. The first place to look is Thompson’s old stomping ground, Rolling Stone magazine. Having hired Thompson after the decline of Scanlan’s, which first matched Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner is now publishing Matt Taibbi, whose work invites comparison with Thompson’s.

Like Thompson, Taibbi is profane, outlandish, scornful, and funny. He covers politics but also writes about sports, and he makes no pretense of objectivity, at least in the now discredited sense of reflexively seeking out an opposing perspective, no matter how absurd. He also has Thompson’s ability to penetrate and dismiss the bullshit that permeates our political discourse. A major difference is that he hasn’t created a literary character called Matt Taibbi, which is probably wise. This should keep him out of Doonesbury, at least for now, and it allows him to focus more on the scandal at hand. His analysis of Goldman Sachs and the health care debate, for example, can’t be dismissed as the ravings of a celebrity provocateur.
Privately, Thompson complained about writing for a magazine preoccupied with what the Jackson Five had for breakfast. Taibbi could probably say the same thing, perhaps substituting the Jonas Brothers. But you have to hand it to him–and Rolling Stone. They’re doing some of the most interesting and hard-hitting political journalism in the country, and the gonzo parallels are irrefutable. If this is emulation, I say bring it on.

David S. Wills

“Gonzo” is an annoying word. I happen to have it tattooed on my left arm as a tribute to everything I consider as itsdefinition, but that definition varies wildly from person to person. It’s one of those strange words that mean everything and nothing; it even exists in multiple languages, meaning strength, stupidity and drunken courage.

Gonzo Journalism thus logically takes its cue from these meanings. It means something weird and different, and maybe even dangerous. Gonzo Journalism is by some definitions the sum of the parts of its creator, Hunter S. Thompson: integrity, suspicion, talent, madness, intoxication, and much more.

I would argue, however, that Gonzo Journalism is a one man genre. It can be emulated, and it should be emulated, but it will never be repeated. Gonzo Journalism was born with, and died with, Hunter S. Thompson.

The problem is Gonzo Journalism was so unique to Thompson that any piece of writing that incorporates more than one or two its features ends up looking like a parody. Thompson so deftly marked his own literary territory that no writer since has been able to write anything “Gonzo” without looking like a thief.

Marty Beckerman

HST is one of those authors—like Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen King, Dave Barry and Charles Bukowski—whom amateurs cannot resist emulating. (I know because I have emulated all of them.) Fittingly enough Thompson owed much to Hemingway early in his career, a natural part of the process, but nobody loves Thompson’s writing because “it’s just like Hemingway!” With the Kentucky Derby article and especially Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson stopped aspiring to the title of The Next _____ _______ (Faulkner/Fitzgerald/etc.) and instantaneously evolved into The First Hunter Thompson.

People who dream of glory as The Next Hunter Thompson are missing the point, kind of like how right-wingers impose fascism to defend freedom, or how teenage nonconformists all dress exactly the same and slash their wrists with the exact same corporation-manufactured razorblades while listening to the exact same moody songs, those whiny f*****g pussies.

All writers have influences, and you can learn a lot from your heroes. (Thompson evoked Hemingway, Hemingway evoked Twain, Twain evoked Shakespeare, Shakespeare evoked Homer, Homer evoked Ray Charles, etc.) The problem is that readers can tell when you imitate another writer’s voice, even if they have never read the original. They might not know enough to say “this sounds like _____ ______ ,” but they inherently know “this does not sound like you.” When you put 100% of yourself into your work—which requires unique life experiences, most likely unpleasant ones—the readership automatically recognizes the birth of an original voice, and that is why people will love you, not because you copied (excuse me, “gave tribute to”) another guy’s mannerisms and catchphrases and techniques and opinions.

If you covet the crown to the gonzo kingdom, your writing will suffer from an inherent and malignant dishonesty. If you really want to emulate the great writers, then deliver the truth in your own way. The footsteps of giants can lead us to the mountain, but we must reach the pinnacle ourselves. Mahalo.

Peter W. Knox

The photo below by Peter W. Knox. The portraits of eight great writers line the black tent containing HST’s blast-off August 2005 funeral. For more of Peter’s great photos see here.

The son of a librarian, Hunter S. Thompson found himself surrounded by books at a very young age and would keep those influential writers close to him throughout his life, as eventually the portraits of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway would hang along the entrance of the tent to his incredibly gonzo funeral.

Thompson was fond of saying “He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master,” and served as living proof. Long before Thompson successfully developed his own (now infamous) style, he would copy The Great Gatsby word for word (among others) to better integrate Fitzgerald’s rhythms into his own (and to experience, he admitted, just how it would feel to write something that great). Thompson was a well-studied scholar and never stopped reading, admiring, and pondering the greats that paved the way for him to join them.

While Thompson certainly labored over the texts of these literary greats, he harbored no delusions of emulating them. He wanted to write, as they had, the Great American Novel and wanted their fame, but not necessarily to take their style. Instead, like any to-become-great writer, Thompson wrote non-stop for years, taking what he appreciated from each and rolled them into his own style, born of necessity, deadlines, chemicals, and yes, fear and loathing. Look hard enough at any of his work and you will see its inherited literary DNA, but pull back and the piece as a whole becomes its own animal, one the likes of Library of Congress had never seen, and some say, never will again.

I stood outside Owl Farm’s security patrolled wooden fences that hot August day and could see just far enough into the large black tent containing the funeral party to see the start of the black and white portraits eager to welcome Thompson to join their ranks in the great library in the sky. As whiskey bottles got passed around the other outcasts, this very debate was taking place. Among a group of such loyal admirers and gonzo enthusiasts, there was not one of us that wasn’t guilty of several cheap attempts to channel the Good Doctor into our own writing, just as every late 90s guitarist cops to playing a few bars of Nirvana when they first started playing, and the ‘Gonzo Beat’ was currently working out for several Thompson fans present, myself included.

If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, there was more than enough smoke to blow Thompson’s ass out of the cannon that night, as the bottles were drained and the boasting grew louder to challenge the Japanese drummers counting down the fireworks. But as the opening chords of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” began to echo across the Woody Creek valley following the colorful and loud explosions of the blast-off, a quiet reverence, and with that a humble sense of loss and enlightenment, settled in the fields.

The question of whether Thompson’s writing style, ‘Gonzo’ or otherwise, should be reproduced, emulated, copied, or even attempted no longer mattered. He was gone, like the greats before him, and try hard as we might, fan writing won’t come close to replicating that magic. As the ashes mixed with the Aspen dirt, so must those writers influenced by Thompson take from his style what speaks strongest to them and make it their own—tis far better to learn from many masters than just one.

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