Peter Richardson

Peter Richardson. Author of A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. He teaches California Culture at San Francisco State University. He also wrote American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams. He is also editorial director at PoliPointPress, which publishes trade books on politics and current affairs. See my Q+A and review of Peter’s book here. You can buy his book here.

Peter Richardson on Gonzo Journalism: Should it be Emulated?

Gonzo is usually considered a species of New Journalism, which grafted literary techniques (first-person narration,dialogue, etc.) onto the usual conventions of magazine reporting. The taxonomy is good as far as it goes, but it masks some important distinctions among practitioners. Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe never visited Planet Gonzo, for example, and though Hunter Thompson would probably appreciate the comparison to Norman Mailer, the labels take us only so far.

What distinguishes Thompson’s writing at its best is the tension between the experiences he describes–savage is a favorite adjective–and the extraordinary control and precision of his prose. Those little sentence-level decisions create devastating and sometimes hilarious effects. When combined with the unique persona Thompson created, through which the world reveals its perverse meaning, this style precludes imitation. Only a fool would try to emulate it for any purpose besides satire.

Which isn’t to say that Thompson has no progeny. The first place to look is Thompson’s old stomping ground, Rolling Stone magazine. Having hired Thompson after the decline of Scanlan’s, which first matched Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman, Jann Wenner is now publishing Matt Taibbi, whose work invites comparison with Thompson’s.

Like Thompson, Taibbi is profane, outlandish, scornful, and funny. He covers politics but also writes about sports, and he makes no pretense of objectivity, at least in the now discredited sense of reflexively seeking out an opposing perspective, no matter how absurd. He also has Thompson’s ability to penetrate and dismiss the bullshit that permeates our political discourse. A major difference is that he hasn’t created a literary character called Matt Taibbi, which is probably wise. This should keep him out of Doonesbury, at least for now, and it allows him to focus more on the scandal at hand. His analysis of Goldman Sachs and the health care debate, for example, can’t be dismissed as the ravings of a celebrity provocateur.

Privately, Thompson complained about writing for a magazine preoccupied with what the Jackson Five had for breakfast. Taibbi could probably say the same thing, perhaps substituting the Jonas Brothers. But you have to hand it to him–and Rolling Stone. They’re doing some of the most interesting and hard-hitting political journalism in the country, and the gonzo parallels are irrefutable. If this is emulation, I say bring it on.

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