We’re all gonzo now

Hunter S Thompson's penchant for putting himself in the story is today what passes for mainstream journalism.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Books

Imagine a Ralph Steadman illustration. There’s a web of biographies with the late Hunter S Thompson as the spider at its centre. A splash of paint spreads out to loaded founder James Brown. Writing as Jimmy Bzag, Brown would plug Thompson’s books in his fanzine Attack on Bzag. Attack was caked in Steadman-style illustrations too. These days Brown plies his trade on TV’s Extreme Celebrity Detox. Having beaten his coke and booze addictions, it’s time to cut out junk food by drinking urine. Critics have sniffed at his ‘celebrity’ credentials. Yet former Attack on Bzag readers can see that Brown is back on a journalistic beat his hero Thompson would approve of, albeit relentlessly investigating his own intestines.

Another gout of colour takes you from Thompson to Jon Ronson, the less prissy version of Louis Theroux. ‘It is the morning after Hunter S Thompson’s suicide, and I am reading loaded magazine’s recent interview with Iggy Pop’, says Ronson. An unnamed loaded reporter is riffing off Thompson. He was coked up and endangering an interview, and now he’s writing about it.

In turn, Ronson links himself to the patron saint of gonzo journalism by using his personal experience of reading someone else’s gonzo pretensions. Dodgy technique aside, Ronson correctly assesses his idol as ‘the first journalist to really spot that a story becomes truer when the reporter honestly chronicles his or her own idiosyncrasies, and admits that those foibles act as a prism between real life and the page. This realisation of his has changed the face of journalism, giving generations of writers licence to put themselves into their stories.’ (1) As if to confirm his point, Ronson ends his article with a weak hallucinatory gag. Memo to self: sometimes journalists aren’t that interesting.

My turn. More strands of the chaotic web, more personal narrative. I was 14 when I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). I’d already devoured Hell’s Angels (1967), where Hunter gets stomped for his troubles. He also inspired me to do a fanzine. Or maybe I was just saying that at the time, in the style of so many other post-punk fanzine editors. Whatever. A decade later, a girlfriend was also inspired by Thompson. She read him as a staging post between Steinbeck and Kerouac and Irvine Welsh. She later flew to Thompson territory to get a hole drilled in her skull, pursued by the FBI (2). Kind of appropriate. Oh, and I’m off to Vegas on a stag weekend soon. It coincides with a ventriloquists’ convention and a meeting of peanut memorabilia collectors. Maybe I’ll get mashed up and gatecrash.

If all this is getting a bit personal, it’s probably what the drug-fuelled anti-hero of modern journalism would have wanted. His recent suicide adds a thick layer of gore to the grotesque expressionist artwork described above. Rather than being seen as a family tragedy, Thompson’s demise invites hacks like me to put ourselves at the centre of his story. Everyone wants a piece of him, and now there are plenty to go round. So much for journalistic objectivity.

Journalistic objectivity and its decline is one starting point for Thompson’s story. The other is his stable upbringing, which fell apart with the death of a salesman, when a fatal heart attack struck down 15-year-old Thompson’s father. This precipitated a sudden shift to petty crime and a wrongful arrest, netting him 30 days of juvenile detention and a failure to graduate high school. Jobbing journalism ensued, involving some colourful language in a bid to become a San Juan Star contributor (3). Throughout the 1960s Thompson’s distinctive prose style was evolving, mainly expressed in off-beat profile writing. According to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, without the drugs Thompson would have been an accountant (4), but this seems a bit harsh, based on the quirky style that ‘Raoul Duke’ was developing in a piecemeal way.

Thompson’s undoubted originality doesn’t hide the fact that changes in US journalism provided a window of opportunity for him. Since the 1920s, US journalists had treated objective reporting as a benchmark of their profession. This suggested that what went into newspapers was more or less an unfiltered version of reality. Needless to say, countless examples of bias call this into question. As historians like Michael Schudson demonstrate, continual protestations about the objective character of news were also, at least partly, an attempt to reposition journalists as a profession like medics or scientists, rather than a collection of semi-skilled hacks (5). Claiming objectivity played an instrumental role in shoring up the reputation of US reporters. To this day, critics of the ideology of objectivity allege that it produces bland writing that concentrates on surface appearances, at the expense of explaining the broader dynamics of a situation.

A skim-reading of Theodore H White’s worthy ‘Making of the President’ series indicates the limitations of old school journalism in the early 1960s. But during the same period an alternative approach appeared on the scene. From its inception, the New Journalism promised to shake editors and readers out of their complacency. Attempting to overcome the binary divide between reporters and novelists, New Journalists had little interest in conventional notions of objectivity. The important thing was to be there and to be a participant in your own story. The sociological version of participant observation kept the observer from influencing events, but New Journalists were encouraged to get stuck in.

Pivotal 1965 texts launching the new movement were Tom Wolfe’s collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and, expressing its participant aspect less directly, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Both extended unorthodox magazine journalism into book-length works. According to one cultural historian of 1960s America, what ‘these different strands of writing shared was the range of things traditional journalism left out: atmosphere, personal feeling, interpretation, advocacy and opinion, novelistic characterisation and description, touches of obscenity, concern with fashion and cultural change, and political savvy.’ (6)

Hunter S Thompson took this approach a stage further. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first appeared as a series of articles in Rolling Stone. It transformed joyful, stream of consciousness New Journalism into a torrent of first-person paranoia that became known as gonzo journalism. According to Morris Dickstein, Thompson ‘learned to approximate the effects of mind-blasting drugs in his prose style…[and] affronted the taboos of political writing, and recorded the nuts and bolts of a presidential campaign with all the contempt and incredulity that other reporters must feel but censor out. The result was the kind of straightforward, uninhibited intelligence that showed up the timidities and clichés that dominated the field. But in high gear Thompson paraded one of the few original prose styles of recent years, a style dependent almost deliriously on insult, vituperation, and stream of invective.’ (7)

It was a fitting response to the end of the 1960s and the dawning of a new and dangerous decade. If life under the Nixon administration was a grimly surreal experience, then it made sense to report it as such. (Not so revolutionary these days, however, when the unelected Jeremy Paxman gets to vent his spleen at elected officials as a matter of course: gonzo journalism as industry standard.)

More in keeping with the 1980s was the paramilitary cynicism of Uncle Duke, a character in the broadsheet cartoon Doonesbury, which was modeled on Thompson. Indeed, Garry Trudeau’s relatively gentle satire proved a more effective way of critiquing Reaganomics, as Thompson retreated into his Aspen hideaway and became more like a heavily armed caricature of his former self. The ‘RIP’ below his name in The Great Shark Hunt, an anthology of his best work, suggested he was losing his links with the zeitgeist. A 1995 volume, Better Than Sex, proved he could still sell books, but in the Clinton era political absurdity became explicit without the help of iconoclastic journalists. Such writers as James Ellroy, himself no stranger to epic drug consumption but with the sense to clean up before reaching middle age, merged Hunter and Hammett with spectacular results.

A movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) left audiences cold and confused, as if coming down from the substances imbibed by the characters. As we blast his ashes from a mortar in accordance with his wishes (8), it is clear that Thompson’s ethos is not confined to comic strips or Johnny Depp projects. The method of placing oneself in a situation and writing up the consequences has influenced many a media prankster, for whom objectivity is impossible in journalism. Thompson’s method and assumptions have gone mainstream. A highly emotional emphasis, fearful of a loathsome world, means that much ‘straight’ newspaper reporting is conducted in Thompson’s shadow. What else is Martin Bell’s ‘journalism of attachment’, but eschewing objectivity in pursuit of personal experience? Obituaries for Hunter S Thompson are a timely reminder that we’ve all gone gonzo now.

Graham Barnfield lectures in non-gonzo journalism at the University of East London.

(1) ‘I’ve gotta get my elephant tusks back’, Jon Ronson, Guardian, 22 February 2005

(2) Doctors warn of the dangers of trepanning, BMJ, 4 March 2000

(3) ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ in A. Calcutt and R. Shephard, Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion, 1998, pp. 272-273

(4) Eric Homberger, Obituary, Guardian, 22 February 2005

(5) See Michael Schudson (1990), Origins of the History of Objectivity in the Professions: Studies in the History of American Journalism and American Law, 1830-1940, New York & London: Garland

(6) Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 1960s, 1977; Harvard University Press, 1997 edition, pp.132-133

(7) Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 1960s, 1977; Harvard University Press, 1997 edition, p133

(8) ‘Depraved and decadent’, Ralph Steadman, Guardian, 22 February 2005

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