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