When you're reading the most compelling pieces of writing, you often notice something different about them right?
There's more emotion, the words are quicker, edgier...they've got something extra. Maybe the reporter or writer has made them-self apart of the story? Maybe you've noticed that things are a bit more honest and sensational...
You're probably reading GONZO, a form of journalism that is as fast and visceral as some fiction. Non-fiction doesn't have to be dry or objective. Here's the ultimate guide to understanding Gonzo, and even how to write a bit yourself.
The birth of Gonzo journalism came with Hunter S. Thompson and the article, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved".
“Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and
angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between
races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”
-The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved / Hunter S. Thompson
Formerly an "objective" (is there even such a thing?) or "straight" journalist, Thompson discovered a new type of story telling when he attended the Kentucky Derby, along with cartoonist / political artist Ralph Steadman. Thompson saw more value in the act of covering the event, than the event itself. This is one of the pillars of Gonzo journalism. Cover the event, but don't ignore the truth, because that's the most exciting part.
His candid and shockingly honest account of the Derby didn't focus on the race itself, no no. It was about the crowd, the spectacle and the debauchery of the Kentucky elite...sipping on expensive drinks and spewing obscenities into the air while wearing thousand dollar suits.
It was a new way to write about things, and it was more risky and vivid than most objective journalism. It was fictionalized non-fiction, and required a bit more humor than objective stuff too.
Gonzo is technically defined as: a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word "gonzo" was first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson who later popularized the style.
Thompson is now known mostly for his magnum opus, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" a savage journey into the heart of the American dream.
Drug addled and limitless in prosaic value, the book was immortalized in it's 1998 film adaptation, which famously features Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro as Thompson and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo.
"We were somewhere around Barstdow on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold." Is one of the most famous lines in all of literature and journalism. It came from Hunter, along with "Buy the ticket, take the ride."
His work is full of ridiculously profound quotes, but Gonzo isn't about all that.
Thompson went on to perfect this style with is dynamic political account of the 1972 election between the devil incarnate (Richard Nixon) and George McGovern, entitled "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72". It is counted as one of the most truthful, yet least accurate books about politics to ever be written. His work stands alone as completely individual, honest, candid, dangerous and compelling non-fiction. Steadman even rendered Thompson his own symbol, pictured above, "the Gonzo fist", typified by two thumbs.
A part of the wave of "New Journalism", championed by Tom Wolfe, Thompson took the pillars one step further.
Wolfe says in his book, of the same name, that New Journalism, and to an extent Gonzo, should consist of these four elements, aside from accepted journalism techniques:
1. Scene by Scene Construction: New Journalism shouldn't be based on second-hand accounts. The writer should witness the events first hand, and not rely on others' opinions. The writer has to be able to recreate the scenes and events.
2. Dialogue: recording actual conversations and bits of information as they happen, without editing, and in order to establish the character.
3. The First Person: instead of reporting the facts, you have to show the reader what's happening. It's just proving that who, what, where, when and why is sometimes not enough. First person, is something that Gonzo has to have. It's an insider's perspective from the person telling the story.
4. Social Autopsy: this is what Thompson was getting at with the journey of obtaining the story, rather than the story itself. What people are wearing, what the sounds are, the smell, the weather and the feelings it evokes in the narrator (or the reporter) are of the utmost importance. The truth of the entire experience has to be shown to the reader, just not told.
Don't get it wrong, Gonzo is not a narcissistic form of writing. It's not all about you...you have to use yourself in a way, to get the outcome of the story to resonate with lots of people. It's an exposing of you, in service of the story. Self-obsession and the necessity to document every moment is not what Gonzo is about. It's about the story, just like "objective" journalism.
The basic elements of Gonzo are pretty stylistic. The same principles of truth-seeking and desire to tell a good story are present, just like in "objective" journalism.
To me, Gonzo is something you just happen to stumble upon when you're working on something. I did a series for the Athens News in Athens, Ohio on the Nelsonville Music Festival in the Gonzo style. First person, unapologetic and totally not objective.
The series focused on my experience at the festival, harkening back to sights, sounds and the people that attended. The music was on the back-burner but created a portrait of sorts for those who could not attend. The three columns culminated into this piece, that summed up the weekend.
Even on Vingle my aim is to show people what I'm seeing, use my experiences as a guide and an example of what not to do, or what to do better. Gonzo is about sharing a bond with the reader, identifying with them on a molecular level, rather than distancing yourself with facts and figures. It's a cross between literary creativism and heart-pounding story telling, and I like to think it's pretty cool.
(Thompson pictured with Bill Murray, his long time friend and another actor who played Thompson on film in "Where the Buffalo Roam")
You may be asking, "how do I write like this?"
And to tell you the truth, Thompson's style just can't be emulated, but you can become a better writer and engage with the ideals of Gonzo.
Well, today, lots of people do it without even knowing it. Gonzo today is like modern blogging. People spewing out what's on their minds, trying to use their experiences at different events as lightning rods for profundity, we get it.
Everyone has a blog now, but not everyone is a Gonzo journalist. It requires some training, some tact, and a few screws to be loose. It's writing that prides itself on being dangerous and a little bit off-center.
So here are some key basics to writing like a Gonzo nut-job:
1. Throw all modesty and secrecy out the window: Gonzo is a journalism form that does not pull punches. You can't hold anything back from your audience, no matter how embarrassing or a-moral. It's all about transparency. If you can't be truthful, then you should just write fiction.
2. Don't take yourself too seriously: You're not doing God's work here, you're telling a story. And more or less you're probably telling a grim one. Just do the work and make sure that you're talking straight from the gut.
3. Realize that objectivity is not the closest thing to truth: The truth? Well, the truth is something that only comes from you, not the facts, not the figures. Gonzo is about a personal sense of right and wrong. It centers on the reporter and their experience in order to relay a universal message that the audience may not be able to say on their own. It's your job to expose what people are really thinking, and you have to be tough.
If you're intrigued by the world of Gonzo, here are some recommended readings:
ANYTHING and Everything written by Hunter S. Thompson
"Hell's Angels" in which Hunter infiltrates and rides with the most dangerous motorcycle club known to man.
Collected Works: "Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone" (good for people who want the essential stuff)
Fun fact, you probably know Wolfe for his novel "Bonfire of the Vanities"
New / Modern Gonzo
And even my lonely little columns:
“I think the trick is that you have to use words well enough so that these nickel-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.”
--Hunter S. Thompson