The Beat Generation, Gonzo Journalism, and Crap Writing

Over at Charles Montgomery’s Korean Literature in Translation website, there is a small discussion on “weird” or “strange” writing. He was discussing a Korean novel that – whilst not entirely awful – seemed only to be strange for the sake of strangeness. I commented that this is something I see a lot as an editor, particularly as an editor of a Beat Generation-themed literary journal.

Don’t get me wrong, I like strange writing. I think that it’s important for poets and authors to break with convention and try something new. William S. Burroughs did it with Naked Lunch. Allen Ginsberg did it with Howl. Jack Kerouac did it with On the Road. The Beats took their literary heritage, the world around them, and their own unique perspectives, and created something utterly new. Something weird.

After the Beats came years of experimental writing and music (which isn’t to say that such things didn’t exist prior to the Beats, but that’s not the focus of this particular discussion). Perhaps the example we dwell on most in Beatdom is that of Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism.

The Beat Generation and Gonzo, it is postulated, were responsible for more shitty imitations and bad parodies (excuse the reference) than any other writers of their time. It could be argued that at the start of the 21st century some of the worst, most ill-conceived novels submitted to publishers are inspired by the Beats and HST.

The reason for this – I think – is that these freethinking, innovative artists created works of art that were so daring and different from their contemporaries that they sent across a message that has echoed through time: That weird, warped, strange, odd, crazy, shocking, nonsensical writing is, by its definition, art.

I would argue that the Beats and Hunter S. Thompson have been responsible for creating armies of writers who deliberately construct “novels” and “poems” that are mere gibberish. Some are shocking for the sake of shocking, some are confusing for the sake of confusing, some are groundbreaking where the ground needn’t be broken.

What these pretenders and imitators evidently forget is that whilst one could shower Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Thompson with just criticism, these men were talented artists. Burroughs wrote some of the most disturbing and incomprehensible novels of the 20th century, yet he put a tremendous amount of thought into his work. Scholars have poured over Naked Lunch since its inception. The same goes for Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road.

These Beat texts have stood the test of time, and we are still waiting to see if the same can be said for the work of this essay’s fourth subject: Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, he has earned his place in the canon of American literature, but he has never been as accepted as the Beats before him. The reason for this, I believe, is that not enough work has been put into studying Gonzo and pre-Gonzo writing. (In that statement I contend that “Gonzo” is a one-man genre.)

Thompson, contrary to popular thought, was a meticulous writer. (Much like Kerouac’s fabled one-shot attempt at writing his generation-defining classic, Thompson is known for producing his Gonzo texts in drug-fueled moments of desperation. Both these stories are literary myths, perpetuated to increase the author’s sales.) His pre-Gonzo work is hard to fault, yet it has never gained the same cult following as the likes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” It is easy to take a look at the drug-fueled carnage of his body of work without realising that these things were literary devices. It was not excess for the sake of excess. It was the next step in the development of a dedicated, talented journalist looking to fix faults in the state of his profession.

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Or maybe I’m wrong, dear reader. Tell me: What you think?

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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30 Comments

  1. the first point i will make is that obviously the beats and gonzo weren’t the worst examples. lets not forget hemingway.

    also lets not overlook crappy modern writers who spawn other crappy modern writers. how many people read *insert chick that wrote twilight* and then wrote a shitty vampire story?

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Steve. I appreciate you kicking off the debate.

      Firstly I say that I did mention that I was only talking about the Beats and Gonzo, and nothing from before that time. The reason I mentioned that is because someone – possibly HST – actually said that Hemingway had spawned more bad imitators than any other writer. I’m not sure if that’s true today, but I think at one stage it probably was.

      Also, fair point on the Twilight thing. Dan Brown was the same a few years ago. How many books were released that ripped off The Da Vinci Code? Too many. But at least these weren’t as crappy as some of the Gonzo/Beat knock-offs. There is a market for vacuous vampire fiction and silly Harry Potter wannabes. As long as someone can string together a sentence… Well, that’s different from the gibberish that tries to be this century’s Naked Lunch or the kids who write poorly constructed drug stories with liberal use of words like “atavistic” and “swine.”

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  2. I don’t see how it can be the Beats’ FAULT, which is really what irks me about people who claim to hate Beat writing because it’s oft-imitated.

    Seems to me it’s the fault of those who don’t seek out their own voice and instead try to mimic and ape, which is constantly a problem with young/inexperienced writers and nothing new or unique to Beats at all. Honestly, it may not be that SO many more people mimic Beats; it may just be that a mimicry of Beats is obvious. The hallmarks of Beat writing and the most oft-reproduced among them are so consistent, one would never mistake a Beat mimicry for mimicry of anything else.

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    • I absolutely 100% agree with you. It’s not the Beats’ fault in any way, shape or form. They did what they did and couldn’t be expected to know that subsequent generations of artists and writers would simply copy them. In fact, I like your use of “ape.” That’s a better way of putting it.

      And you make a good point – mimicry of the Beats is obvious. I did it when I first read Kerouac. My sentence structure changed and I started writing the most ridiculous knock-off bullshit. Thankfully I grew up and realised what I was doing, and tried to find my own voice.

      Hunter S. Thompson “aping” is worse, if only because it’s even more obvious. People not only think that writing about drug use is a guaranteed way to be a successful writer, but they think they can copy his unique style – going as far as too (like I said in a previous comment) use words like “atavistic” and “swine.”

      When HST was a young man he famously copied the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald because he wanted to understand their rhythm. That’s fine. He acknowledges that this was a lesson in writing. He never sent a Hemingway or Fitzgerald rip-off to a publisher and claimed it as his own. In the end he created a style that was so unique no one could copy it without it being slap-in-the-face obvious.

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      • And, to be fair, I think there’s something contagious about it. If you spend too much time engrossed, particularly in Kerouac, those rhythms and idiosyncrasies of voice are catching.

        At some point I realized that, inspired as I may be, I couldn’t write immediately following reading him because I was too easily affected. Maybe it’s just a lesson that takes some time to learn.

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        • Agreed. I was debating with someone last year the problem with HST and his legion of “Gonzo” fans. I was chastising them for blindly imitating their hero, and he pointed out that when read Hunter S. Thompson, after a while it’s hard not to speak like him or write like him. A truly original piece of writing can be infectious. Like you say, Kerouac was the same with his rhythms.
          I think you’re also right about leaving it a while after reading something so distinctive. I find it hard to continue a piece of writing if I’ve been reading something totally different. For example, if I’m writing short story and I get into some Kerouac, it can really throw me off my rhythm.

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  3. Hi,

    Yeah, and from what i’ve been seeing, shock for shock’s sake is getting worse. Maybe it’s the need to grab attention in the overload of the web.

    Anyone who wants to understand HST has to read ‘The Proud Highway’, his collected letters up until he began to make it with ‘Hell’s Angels’. Actually, anyone who wants to WRITE should read them to understand how long the journey was, how much work went into his craft, how tortuous the evolution. Gonzo certainly didn’t just happen . . . .

    I think though the Beats – and HST – deserve some criticism. Kerouac’s no-edit thing was nice in theory, hard to read in practice. ‘Visions of Cody’ could have been a great book if it had been edited. Ditto Burrough’s cut-ups. Interesting idea – but I tried to reread ‘ticket that exploded’ recently and couldn’t hack it. As for HST, drug use killed a lot of his talent. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I can’t read much after ‘Fear and Loathing’.

    Best,

    Tim

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    • Thanks for that, Tim. The Proud Highway is probably my favourite of HST’s books. I reread it in February of this year and gained a whole new level of respect for the man. It’s staggering how much effort the man put into being a great writer, and in his later years… well… that’s a sad story. After ’73 it’s a little harder to find the good pieces of writing.

      As for Kerouac’s no-edit thing. Just like HST pretended he didn’t edit his Gonzo-era work, Kerouac also greatly exaggerated his spontaneous prose. He put a lot of editing into (some of) his work. I loved Burroughs but it was hard to get into his cut-up stuff at first.

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  4. I think there are some poor imitators, and that they support false stereotypes, such as, to produce groundbreaking literature, all you need to do is travel cross country and scribble in a notebook, or drop some acid, bar yourself in a room w/ a bottle of whiskey, and great literature will produce itself. Like you point out, Kerouac, HST, et. al. were very talented artists who worked extremely hard at their craft. I recent read “windblown world, the journals of Jack Kerouac” in which one can see how Kerouac struggled through self-doubt and depression. And anybody, in my opinion, who thinks they can just act “Gonzo” or “Kerouacian” and produce work as good as these guys is an atavistic swine.

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    • Haha, you’re right Brian. They are atavistic swine.

      Seriously, though, Kerouac & co all put real work and effort into writing. Their writing is interest partly because of their wild and fascinating lives… but who would read about these lives if they didn’t put the practice into becoming great writers? I’ve spent too many hours editing interesting stories by talentless writers. It’s a shame, but if they just learned a little grammar and spell-checked their work, they’d be sitting on a decent story.

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  5. I think that there will always be poor writers out there, be they inspired by the Beats, Gonzo or the latest Mills and Boon. For every person who has written a terrible free flowing road novel, there are a hundred who have tried to construct a spy thriller with a twist or a bodice ripper with passion! We only see our small niche of bad imitators, but i’m positive they are just the tip of the iceberg.

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    • This was already discussed on the FB group but I thought I’d repost here for others to read and comment…

      I have to say I agree with Wayne, but I would bring into the argument something that was mentioned by Becky – that Beat and Gonzo imitators are so much easier to spot. I also feel that spy thriller/vampire romance/boy wizard knock-offs tend to at least be written by people with a basic grasp of the language. These “I took acid!” writers more often than not can’t spell their own names correctly.

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  6. The upside of the cheap and poorly written knock offs is that one better appreciates the originals and this is true in all art forms. From literature to cinema to visual art. Often overheard as I have stood in front of a Pollack at MOMA, ” I can do this. This looks easy. All you have to do is get canvas and splatter paint.” So, because I am a fan of art history and a lover of the Beats, I can spot a knock off a mile away and I can appreciate the time, energy and genius of the originators. All new artists I believe wrestle with creating in the style of the people they most admire. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Thomson’s innovative work will stand the test of time and continue to inspire generation of writer- just like Rimbaud, Proust and Thomas inspired their work. Imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery, but that kind of flattery just doesn’t last.

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    • That’s a refreshing point of view, Trina. It is difficult to be original. Artists in all media struggle to find their own voice, but that’s why people like Kerouac and HST are still remembered years later – because they managed it. They looked to their heroes for influence, but never made the mistake of thinking that they could be, for example, Ernest Hemingway II.

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  7. thank god people are saying bad stuff about hemingway. even steinbeck said, ‘people who read his books have no use for mine…’
    and i always thought the line dylan has about ‘been through ALL of…fitzgeralds books’ was a swipe at fitzgerald since he wrote so little and made such a show of it.

    thanks Beatdom for saying like it is.

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    • I like both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, don’t get me wrong. It’s not their fault that they’ve been bastardised like HST and the Beats. I do, however, like that Dylan quote. Fitzgerald, for all I loved The Great Gatsby came across as a bit of an asshole. Maybe I’m wrong. I honestly don’t know as much about the guy as I perhaps should, but that’s the impression I’ve gotten.

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  8. Jack Kerouac inspired me to create the “marjorie-cartoons.” it is “bad art” in caption driven pieces. Yes, inspiration is indeed not imitation, and one can be inspired to be creative in all art forms by writers who themselves took chances and were original.

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    • One couldn’t look at your cartoons and think, “She’s ripping off Kerouac!” and that’s the difference. You took inspiration to create something totally different. (By the way, I had a good laugh at some of your cartoons. Kudos.) Imitation is just sad, really.

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  9. I think that with some, we have been told all our lives that this type of writing was innovative and ground-breaking without understanding the time that these writers lived. It was innovated. We were told if we wanted to be great writers that we needed to write like these people. So many of us tried to be these writers by copying their style, vocabulary and syntax, even their habits of drugs and alcohol to be that great writer and failing miserably. What was original in at the time of the Beats and HST is now old and worn. What is not realized that pieces of what made these authors great needs to be stolen, reworked and made into something that doesn’t even resemble the original work. We need to take what previous generations did, work it into who we are but discover our own voice. We don’t need another Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Thompson.

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    • Exactly. The next great writer will take inspiration from these writers and make something totally different. Their style was innovative at the time, but like you say, now it is worn. It’s sad to see people copy it.

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  10. This is a great discussion and is exactly why I still have a great novel I don’t try to publish. Too much Kerouac in it!

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    • I know the feeling, Nick. I keep my earliest writing out of interest – it’s amazing to see how certain writers take hold of your own style for periods.

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  11. recently, i sent a chapter of something i wrote to a trusted editor.
    he told me it read beautifully.
    i was telling a friend about what i wrote and then proceed to read some of it over the phone. while reading, i noticed that i was speaking in the old familiar cadence of william s burroughs. the subject matter and verbiage do not imply burroughs in any way and i doubt that it is noticable but i have to admit that i really enjoy reading it in burroughs rhythm. i like to think that when we shook hands, we exchanged a few molecules.
    i wonder if my works appears derivate. i hope not!

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  12. Hmm… Reading in the voice of Burroughs is a great way to make anything sound better. Same goes for HST. These guys had voices that were unique and amazing, and obviously influenced their writing style because they read their work aloud. But don’t worry – your work doesn’t sound derivative.

    When I read back my first attempt at a novel about Korea I read the whole thing back in HST’s voice. It sounded better that way than in my own. I wonder if that was because there was some HST influence or if maybe it was just a fitting voice.

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  13. well, that is good to hear, oh trusted editor.
    i really do like listening to the way he drags out a phrase or puts particular emphasis on certain words. when i heard it in my own stuff, i was happy, really.
    i just read the comment i left at 528pm in the voice of burroughs and even just saying his name that way is fun…try doing it in public and i think it would get a bad reaction, however. hahaha. some people are squares and just don’t get it.

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  14. Well, a problem with your article is that you make these assertions about all these bad imitators but you name no names or works and thus provide no evidence.

    I can’t fault you too much.

    You probably don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

    What about Seymour Krim’s “Shake it to Me, Badass,” one of the first works of beat reviewing. I hope I’ve got the title right. You don’t like John Rechy’s City of Night (On the Road influenced) or Larry Hinneman’s Paco’s Story (National Book Award Winner, influenced by Naked Lunch).

    Now here, to my way of thinking, I’ve named some good imitations. Your turn to name some bad ones, and prove you know what you’re talking about.

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    • The bad ones I refer to are mostly submissions to this magazine, rather than published works. I’m not entirely sure that it’s morally acceptable for me to name names of would-be contributors in such a negative manner. Sorry. I realise that is a bit of a flaw with the piece, but I’m not comfortable with it.

      Let’s see…. I suppose one could merely Google “Gonzo writing” and peruse some of the awful blogs written by fools who like to think they’re HST II.

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  15. it seems to happen more with ‘novelty’ authors. not that their work is of novelty quality but because they came to the public at a time when media was creating reputations. you have to admit that this ‘stealing’ or whatever you want to call it mostly involves authors who were born into a relatively close span of years. or why do you hear it about hemingway but not steinbeck? maybe it is a macho thing. who are the female gonzos?
    how many authors after HST have as many imitators and how many before kerouac, et al?
    you never hear someone say, this is reminiscent of charles dickens or sarte or camus. sartre and camus may have been involved had they had american sensibilities. who knows…maybe there is a whole french movement of crappy sartre/camus imitators?

    man, i opened several cans of worms here…

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  16. Really good, man. It’s been a while now since you wrote this. What are your feelings now? I do think of gonzo as a philosophy and therefore it’s principles live on in many areas of contemporary life.

    Evidence? Fuck evidence.

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  17. It’s been two years, yes, but I still receive a lot of derivative drivel. I think it’s true of any great author, but if you have an inimitable style, people will try to imitate you. They can’t resist. And they can’t succeed. I think of Gonzo as a one man genre, same goes for what Kerouac did, and Burroughs. The number of rip-offs floating around online… I like that people do them – it’s great practice – but they’re just xerox machines. Art is making something new.

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