A Critical Review of Matthew Winston’s essay ‘“How Do You Like America?”- Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Sports Journalism’

Matthew Winston’s essay is looking at the way in which Hunter S Thompson wrote as a gonzo journalist compared with the more mainstream sports journalists. He also discusses how Thompson’s writing didn’t fit in with the all-American ideology and that Gonzo journalism was more concerned with the dark side of the sports world (Winston, 2015, p403). I will review his technique, the structure of the essay, the style used and his principle argument. Winston uses a number of quotations from other well-known sports journalists to support his argument and I particularly liked this effect, as it gave the essay a more analytical feel. Moreover, the use of these quotations engaged me, particularly because they were comparisons to Thompson.

The essay starts with quite a lengthy introduction followed by four sections. Each section discusses a different side to sport and sports journalism in America. In the introduction, Winston gives us an overview of what Gonzo journalism is and how Hunter S Thompson was at the centre of it. His definition of Gonzo journalism telling us that:

focusing on counter-culture and the social history of the 1960’s, drugs, dissident politics, the critical utility of radically subjective approaches to reportage and other “heavy” issues of cultural politics and literary journalism. (Winston, 2015, p403)

This use of language emphasises the cultural aspects of the time in which Thompson was writing and his non-conventional approach to journalism. The introduction also highlights the methods and style of gonzo journalism and how complex this style of writing is. Winston also refers to “Thompson-the-character” (Winston, 2015, p404) and this use of punctuation gives Thompson a separate persona, as though he is two different people, which reflects the style of journalism in which he was writing from conventional journalism to gonzo journalism.

The first section of the four referred to earlier is entitled “Mom, Apple Pie, and the Flag” and discusses the ideologies of the All-American Dream. Winston’s use of discourse here is significant in that it encompasses everything America stands for. Winston discusses in this section how sacred the faith of the American sports ideology is and that it cannot be exploited (Winston, 2015, p405). He quotes from sports journalist Michael Oriad to emphasise his point: “Football in the periodical press by the 1950’s was not simply American but America itself” (Oriard 2001 cited in Winston, 2015, p405). This use of quotation from a renowned sports journalist serves to reinforce his argument regarding the conventionality of sport in America and how Thompson’s style of journalism was in no way mainstream.

The second section of the essay is entitled Eating Heroes Like Hotdogs and Winston references Thompson’s literary works and characters from them to emphasise the side of the sporting world that no-one within that world wanted made public. He also describes Thompson’s writing as “…unconventional uses of rhetorical devices and outlandish imagery…” (Winston, 2015, p408). The language used here shows a writer working beyond the realms of tradition and conventionality. Winston touches briefly here on Thompson’s work, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (Thompson, 1983) which focuses solely on the nature and celebrity of the sports world. Thompson was highlighting in his writing the pressure felt by the athletes to win for the advertisers through sponsorship and endorsement deals. Again, Winston is using this piece to highlight the negative side of the sports world and makes good use of it to emphasise just how unconventional gonzo journalism was in America.

The third section is entitled Violence in the Parking Lot. Winston discusses Thompson’s article regarding the Kentucky Derby and how money is all important, “Thompson shows an event that may be steeped in tradition…but is nonetheless…a sporting event about money”. Winston uses a lot of quotes in this section from Thompson himself regarding the dark side of gambling and money changing hands at major sporting events. I like the way Winston quotes directly from Thompson as it gives him a voice, as though we hear his side of the argument. A lot of Thompson’s quotes used in this essay are quite long but I do not think they detract from the essay; they add more credibility in this way.

The final section is entitled The Notes Seem to Tell the Story. I particularly enjoyed this part of the essay as it focused on how Thompson wrote. Winston explains here about how Thompson put together an article with a series of notes, “…I just started jerking pages out of my notebook, numbering them and sending them to the printer.” (Vetter 1974 cited in Winston, 2015, p413). This quote from an interview with Thompson evokes an image of a chaotic, unorganised writer who can seemingly write successfully in this way.  Winston relates this quote to how gonzo journalism can be fractured and fragmented memories of a drunken mind, half remembered and chaotic (Winston, 2015, p414).

Winston uses the final three paragraphs to conclude his argument. A brief review of how gonzo journalism is different from the main stream sports journalism but focusing on the social context. He then reviews the writing style of unfinished prose and narrative, commenting again on the differences between the two. Here Winston is bringing together all of his previous points to a short end, which ultimately brings the essay together satisfactorily but it is the final paragraph which I feel substantially ties everything together. Winston describes gonzo as “…this new exuberantly radical sports journalism, represents a perfect marriage of form and function” (Winston, 2015, p415). He also comments on the structure, style and form, technique and refers to certain aspects of it as poetry. This gives the reader a certain belief that if they had not read anything by Thompson before, they should certainly do so just because of how unconventional his writing was. Winston is somewhat in awe of this style of writing and has an undeniable respect for Thompson and this becomes clear as the essay draws to its conclusion.

 

Bibliography

Hellman, J. (ed) (1981). Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction. London: University of Illinois Press

Nadel, A. (1955). ‘Disneyland: ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ and the Fiction of Cold War Culture’. In: McHale, B. & Stevenson, R. (eds). (2006). The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English (1) [Online]. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/staffordshire/reader.action?ppg=1&docID=448742&tm=1483609214697 [Accessed: 16/12/2016]

Oriard, M. (2001). King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Thompson, Hunter. (1983). Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Vetter, C. (1974). “Playboy Interview: Hunter Thompson.” Playboy Magazine, November.

Winston, M. (2015). ‘”How do You like America?”: Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Sports Journalism’, Journalism Studies [Online] vol. 16 (3) pp. 403-416.  Available from:  http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/10.1080/1461670X.2014.937154 [Accessed: 16/12/2016]

 

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