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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Revisiting Hunter Thompson in search of the new Gonzo

It's a catchphrase now, "fear and loathing", a convenient resort for many a sub-editor looking for a headline to go with that story about real estate prices or stock market variations. Like the title of that violent and disturbing 1989 Peter Greenaway film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, the titles of two of Hunter Thompson's books, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973) have been serially appropriated by the journosphere and by popular culture, so that they now constitute a normative trope to be bandied about at will, like confetti strewn around at a wedding. How Thompson, who shot himself in the head and died in 2005, might have viewed all this posthumous recognition is probably not very important, but it is important to consider why this man, who is known to every journalist alive in the Anglosphere, is not more emulated in his approach to writing, leave aside his writing style.

Probably most consider Hunter Thompson a one-off and Gonzo a quaint aberration that briefly disturbed the steady forward flow of journalistic objectivity and journalistic craft. But in addition to the little nods in Thompson's direction that subs everywhere make as they go about the business of journalism, Gonzo continues to have a nagging relevance to many, and those writers who deploy parts of its aesthetic in their writing tend to accrue loyal and enthusiastic followers. So it's worth understanding the reason why Thompson developed his signature style, and what it meant to him apart from its importance as a way to develop a public profile sufficient to feed his family. There is a biography of Thompson, which came out in 2008, and so the curious can go away and do their own research, but I want to give my take here.

To go back to the original Gonzo prototype, the 1965 book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs points in the direction Thompson would later develop more fully to reach the style that made him famous, something this first book started to do. In the book, Thompson explicitly condemns the kind of reporting that had appeared in the US press about bikie gangs, and offered his book as a kind of intellectual tonic aimed at curing the popular malaise, one characterised by irrational fear and fed by ignorance. So instead of just quoting local authorities, as the routine journos were doing day in and day out, Thompson decided to ride with a gang, and find out exactly what made them tick.

This immersive method also happened in the Las Vegas book, which was ostensibly about a local car race. But what Thompson did in this famous book is strip away the veneer of objectivity to reveal something more interesting and more profound. Did Thompson think that objectivity was a mere myth, a convenient stylistic construct designed to dupe readers into taking at face value the angles that journalists used in their news stories? Or did he think that political spin and politicians' lies were so absurd that to merely quote them straight-up was to do a disservice to the reader? Party-based polarisation of issues regardless of the real merit of the utterances of public figures, which happens all the time, is one aspect of how spin is performed in journalism, and it's something that Thompson's approach effectively neutralised. Rather than take public utterances at face value, Thompson violently ripped the notion of objectivity to shreds and framed the events he covered as a journalist with a deeply humanist alternative narrative. This frame brought attention to the personal feelings of the participant, but it also did so in a deliberately outlandish way that served to deflect attention away from how he really felt as he went about his business. It's a sort of literary sleight-of-hand. And it worked.

As we see in the popularity of journalists who choose to deploy elements of Gonzo in their work today, it continues to work. But the normative standards of journalism - objectivity and balance - continue to dominate the public sphere, so the basic problem that Thompson identified has not gone away. But the tools available to readers have changed - we now have social media - and the relationship between politicians and voters has also changed for the same reason. Nevertheless, even those journalists who are most active on Twitter continue to try to maintain an objective persona because they believe that this will serve to conserve their professional reputations.

But still the shadow of Thompson lingers, and his famous tropes continue to help journalists do their work. There might be other ways to "do" journalism, ways that explicitly flag a personal debt to Thompson, but that requires a level of courage that most lack. Going out on a limb and adopting a radical stance with respect to sources, policies, and mainstream issues, is something that has hardly been tried. The tools now exist to independently build a stand-out brand, however, and the journalist who decides to break away from the pack might find that readers hungrily follow them into new fields full of novel opportunities.

Johnny Depp did Thompson a disservice, or at least the scriptwriters of the movie about his Las Vegas book did, when they concentrated with such excessive and prurient insistence on the drugs and cars and hallucinations. Most of that stuff was probably just made up by Thompson in his effort to pull off his masterly sleight-of-hand. The hedonism was a proxy marker for mere dissatisfaction. What Thompson really wanted to do was to renew the relationship between public figures and the franchisees, to correct the out-of-kilter orbit of the public sphere, and to inject a modicum of honesty and humanity into the debate.

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