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What Is Gonzo Journalism?
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that features the author as its protagonist, simultaneously experiencing and reporting on a story from a first-person point of view. The writer becomes part of the story, portraying events through their own experience, which offers readers their version of the truth. Gonzo journalism stories are often presented through the lens of social and self-critique, and usually contain little rewriting or editing. In gonzo journalism, the personality of the piece and its subjective truths are more important than the actual facts of the story, so certain aspects of the writing are often exaggerated or profane, while the tone and writing style may rely on hyperbole, humor, and sarcasm.
Hunter S. Thompson and the Origin of Gonzo Journalism
New Journalism was a creative non-fiction style of reporting developed in the 1960s and 1970s, evolving into that signature, in-your-face gonzo form with writer Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is credited with inventing the brash journalism style that features skewed reporting sans any claims of objectivity.
Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso first used the term “gonzo” in reaction to Thompson’s Scanlan’s Monthly articles titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” In the article, Thompson gets caught up in the Kentucky Derby society scene, then tells all, sparing nary a lascivious or debaucherous detail. Cardoso claimed the term “gonzo” was South Boston Irish slang to refer to the last one standing after drinking all night, though it is claimed that Thompson’s literary executor said the term came from James Booker’s 1960s song of the same name.
4 Examples of Gonzo Journalism in Literature
New Journalism paved the way for the gonzo style.
- Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism. An anthology of unconventional journalism articles written by noted authors such as Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Terry Southern, famous for their refusal to conform to the structured and emotionless journalistic standard of the time.
- Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. An early example of new journalism, this essay is about the “Kustom Kulture” movement—a term referring to the custom car culture of the 1950s and beyond. Wolfe had been assigned the topic, but suffered from writer’s block. As the deadline neared, Wolfe submitted an amalgam of thoughts and observations, which Esquire published as is in 1963.
Building on New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson would go on to popularize the gonzo style with the publication of his seminal work: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the Rolling Stone piece, Thompson delves into what happened during his trip to Las Vegas when he was commissioned to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. Thompson documents his drug use, hallucinations, and various other obstacles that occur through erratic narration and profanity, frequently getting in the way of the job he was tasked to complete. The prose was so outrageous, dark, and full of humor that the two-part article was turned into a hardcover novel by Random House later that year.
- Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Thompson depicts his experiences while spending time with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC). In the piece, Thompson reveals an in-depth and contemporary look at the counterculture movement taking place in the United States during that time. Thompson fully submerges himself in the biker gang’s subculture, documenting their violence, drinking at their favorite spots, and observing their romantic encounters. He reveals many of the philosophies and ideologies of the Hells Angels members, along with his own personal feelings and fears regarding their penchant for retaliation and lawlessness. Thompson relates all of this back to his overall view on law and society, creating an understanding through his own personal experiences.
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