Monday, February 21, 2005

Sweeping Generalizations Are Decadent and Depraved

So even people I would usually agree with (James Wolcott, Steve Gilliard) are mis-using the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. But to act as if Gonzo Journalism was just blogging without the internet is a huge misperception. You can only see Gonzo in the context of New Journalism, and yes that means one more exhumation of the 60s. But what Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese and Michael Herr and Ellen Willis and so many others accomplished was a breaking of the form of objectivity, or better, a realization that writing is never objective, as all writing is choice. So, if it's not un-angled, why not make the angle a part of the story? For Wolfe that became his easily parodied but poorly mimicked amphetamine style of caps and exclamation points, for Didion it became an obsession with the breakdown of the self (which is why her later writing is really better than her more acclaimed early writing--she's not so self-obsessed). For Thompson it became the sense that Big T Truth wasn't always found along the path of small t truth. When he writes about Fish Meat Village or the Brown Suburban Motel, you know of what he speaks, for he speaks American. Plus, he wanted to make us laugh, and I'd at least like to hold that American patois is rooted in humor, from Clemens and Mencken to Vowell and Sedaris.

The saddest part of the HST tale is that he's really been dead for years. The old rumor was he was one of 5 people who read the full Iran-Contra hearings report, but really his writing was over by The Great Shark Hunt, a great collection to start with if you need catching up (and if you haven't read him, you do need catching up). It became clearer and clearer that all the drug consumption you assumed he exaggerated he probably somehow did do.

Still, there's something like Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, that nails Nixon, Muskie and our sorry electoral state years before it got truly sorry. There's real genius in the way he makes things up to nail the things we only wish could be made up.

But we can't romance him too much, and I say this as someone who watercolored "Bad Craziness" over his dorm room door as a freshman in college. Yeah, there's no way that the voices in the wilderness ever make it into the Big Tent, but that's sort of true by definition, isn't it? And while it's true plenty of fiction is personal, for Steve Gilliard to blame it all on the writing workshop is to buy into one more cultural bugaboo as prominent and phoney as Hillary Clinton, World's Biggest Lefty. Yes, I did go to a writing workshop, but that's not the point. The point is that by Gilliard's claims, all fiction, to be valuable, must address world themes. If that's true, we need to dump petty personal fiction writers like Chekhov and the Joyce of Dubliners, just for a start, and I'm not ready to do that.

Not to mention that suggests that there aren't contemporary fiction writers hunting huge themes--what about Colson Whitehead and Paul Beatty, to name just two. And to suggest that fiction can really handle "politics" all that well. And to suggest that all nonfiction writers empowered by the initial rush of New Journalism give us sweeping vistas on the world's soul (then we'd have to throw all of the recent memoir craze into the trashbin, even the good stuff like Mary Karr and Nancy Mairs). And to suggest that the personal isn't the political, and do we really have to keep fighting that fight?

One of the saddest things is that Hunter will get most remembered for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which mostly gets read as a wild time just beyond the bounds of your average frat boy. Instead it's one of the highlights of the great American tradition of writing about Vegas far more interesting than Vegas itself--while Vegas busily copies all of the world in its harried parodies of Paris, New York, Venice, Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur's Caesar's Rome, writers did it one better, elevating it to a national mirror of our greedy dreams.

But ultimately there's one last thing--bloggers are no Hunter S. Thompsons. Keep hitting that next blog link on Blogger and you'll see 90% of what's there is journals made public, where all of you is Dear Diary and everyone's thrown away the key. Then one of the ads pops up. That's the real clue something is different. Thompson never struck it rich cause he never learned the art of the journalistic blow job, as it's so ungraciously put. Nope, he wanted to rename Aspen Fat City to kill all the marketing deals.


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