The Philosophy of ‘Non-Fiction:’ Truth Claims in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

‘What were we doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Did I actually have a big red convertible out there on the street? Was I just roaming around these Mint Hotel escalators in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come out here to Las Vegas to work on a story?’

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1979)
In 1981, American business journalist and author Joseph Nocera wrote a scathing diatribe for The Washington Post against the work of Hunter S. Thompson. ‘Thompson has given New Journalism a bad name,’ Nocera declares, ‘instead of being exhilarated by (New Journalism’s) freedom, he was corrupted by it. Instead of using it in the search for truth, he used it for trivial self-promotion.’[1] This demonstrates a larger debate around the distinction between Fiction and Non-Fiction, and a larger animosity from certain critics towards the Non-Fiction techniques pioneered by Thompson and his New Journalist ilk.[2] But what is a ‘search for truth?’ And why is Thompson so far away from this imagined standard? In this essay, I look to tackle these questions with regards to Thompson’s masterpiece, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, ‘truth claims’ and the concept of a ‘Creative Non-Fiction.’
Joseph Nocera, critical rival of New Journalism
The New Journalism, pioneered in the 1960s by the likes of Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, offered, in Wolfe’s terms, ‘the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.’[3] This was achieved through immediate, ‘gripping’ techniques previously associated with the realistic novel; techniques including scene-by-scene construction and realistic dialogue, approaching, in Wolfe’s estimation, some sense of people’s status life.[4] In other words, characterizing them with a place in society, hopes, desires and behaviours; making them three-dimensional. The ‘journalists’ became immersed anthropologists, interested, like their forebears in the realistic novel, in a sense of the lives of people, beyond the facts of people. Thompson takes this a step further by making himself a part of the story via a highly subjective first-person narrative (‘pure gonzo’[5]). A step that proved, for some, a step too far.
Fear and Loathing chronicles Thompson and his attorney barrelling through Vegas in a drug-fuelled frenzy, looking, as he continually reiterates, ‘for the American Dream.’[6] Nocera’s problem begins with the main drive of Thompson’s scattered, stream-of-consciousness narrative, which he sees as purely giving Thompson a writing ‘persona’[7] onto which he can project a compelling, but flawed, vision of the world; a lazy shorthand that ‘college students are particularly susceptible to.’[8] For Nocera, Thompson’s characterisation of self detracts from the journalistic ‘search for truth.’   
Ken Hogarty argues that the New Journalism arose from the failure of traditional, ‘official’ journalism’s elimination of the personal voice to achieve an ‘objectivity’[9] which is plainly impossible. As he notes, ‘if nothing else, journalists’ world views, language, and personal histories coloured what they determined was important.’[10] Indeed John Hersey, an early practitioner of New Journalism, drew his own line as to where ‘objectivity’ lies, famously taking against fellow New Journalists Wolfe, Capote and Norman Mailer on the grounds that they were inventing as opposed to reporting.[11] However in his most popular work, Hiroshima, Hersey borrows the structure from the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey to link together the stories of six people who survived the atomic bomb. Though he remains relatively affectless in narration, the decision to focus on just six out of the dozens of people he interviewed creates its own kind of bias.[12] To Hersey’s chagrin, Wolfe wrote from the immersed perspectives of those he interviewed, perspectives he could never have known or successfully verified. For Hersey, Thompson’s subjective first-person narrative, awash with author’s statements one couldn’t possibly verify, like ‘Vegas is the meanest town on Earth,’[13] would probably not even qualify as a non-fiction style.
John Hersey, ‘the legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP’
But, actually, Thompson’s statement is interesting, and illustrates a point (‘Vegas is the meanest town on Earth’). Mainly because it is followed by: ‘Until about a year ago, there was a giant billboard on the outskirts of Las Vegas, saying: DON’T GAMBLE WITH MARIJUANA! IN NEVADA: POSSESSION – 20 YEARS SALE – LIFE.’[14] These two statements illustrate the two polarities in a classic dual concept of language. In Logical Positivism, language can be divided into either emotive or symbolic. Symbolic language is the statement or recording of thoughts, the rational, whereas emotive language is the expression of feelings, the poetic (or aesthetic). In this dichotomy, language is symbolic if it is verifiable; the emotive is for contemplation, whereas the symbolic conveys information. Morris Weitz criticized Positivist aesthetics, arguing that it’s not that authors don’t make truth claims, though much of their language is emotive, but that they make a different kind of truth claim.[15] Weitz suggests an understanding of ‘depth meanings:’ those meanings which, psychologically, are suggested by the aesthetic surface meanings of a work. For Weitz, ‘it is here that the emotive meanings of art become symbolic and where one is to look for the truth claims of literature.’[16] What Weitz takes umbrage against in Positivism is the notion that ‘meaning’ is reserved only for tautologous statements of pure fact, where, to him, ‘depth meanings,’ or ‘second-order meanings,’ have certain potencies too. 
For example, in the excerpt from Fear and Loathing, the ‘depth meaning’ of these two statements about Vegas can be interpreted as a reflection of Thompson’s position; Thompson is ‘another ugly refugee from the Love Generation’[17] in a world gradually becoming more conservative (or ‘mean’). This evocation of a world where ‘Joe Fraiser, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like (Thompson himself) refused to understand – at least not out loud,’[18] is a ‘second-order’ truth suggested by the surface, emotive language, which may be false,[19] but presents itself for contemplation. As a side note, I would also argue that, in many ways, the ‘truth’ of this statement could be verified, by testimonies of the time[20] or by the facts that comprise it. On the semantics of verification, I echo Weitz’s sentiment: ‘To refute the thesis that truth is successful verification would necessitate a discussion as long as the whole of this paper. Anyway, it’s not particularly relevant to our thesis since, even if truth were successful verification, the second-order meanings of art can be, in many cases, successfully verified.’[21] Through discussing Positivism, we can argue that ‘second-order’ meanings in a narrative may possess truth, but does using them in Non-Fiction not undercut a factual narrative? Does Thompson’s invocation of a ‘truth’ centring on himself and his perception not intrude on (or perhaps infect) his reporting of the outside world? Hersey may have argued that a second-order meaning not reflected by and of itself would amount to an invention. But this is the central problem of objectivity; a world conceived in and of itself is an incongruity.
Nocera’s key problem with Thompson is that he accuses him of ‘catering’ to the prejudices of the counterculture, still an identifiable audience then, by propounding ‘intellectually fashionable’[22] stereotypes. Nocera notes a moment in the second part of Fear and Loathing where Thompson characterizes an argumentative cop as a ‘noisy little asshole,’[23] rambling: ‘I had been there with these fuzzy little shitheads… mean-tempered rule-crazy cops.’[24] To this, Nocera writes: ‘Thompson always liked to claim that what he was really after was the “truth.” These, then, are his truths. You have to be a member of the Weather Underground to believe they contain any lasting insight.’[25] And Thompson’s statement is definitely subjective, and prejudiced against the authorities of the time, but I think Nocera misses a key insight that proves to be fatal. To demonstrate this, I will look at Brett Lott’s discussion of Non-Fiction, and Ynhui Park’s concept of a ‘linguistic convention’ in Fiction.
An illustration by Thompson’s collaborator Ralph Steadman of the police convention in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Now, we must clarify, before going forward, our epistemology. Park summarises my position well: ‘There is no world tout court, no knowledge tout court. The world is made by the act of knowing it, and knowledge is constructed by a conceptual system. Since there are various ways of devising a conceptual system, and since knowledge is relevant to a conceptual system there are many forms of knowledge.’[26] Whichever way we explain/ think about (or narrate) the ‘unwashed mass of facts’[27] that constitutes our lives, it is only one of many. This is how Hersey’s style, minimal though it may be, still amounts to bias. From this, we can extrapolate that ‘art’ (or ‘fiction’) is just one of many symbol-systems, but one largely based in emotion and contemplation over cognition. For Park, the surface meanings of fiction are governed by a ‘linguistic convention’ which says: ‘the words and sentences in a linguistic product should not be taken as referring to any real things.’[28] Although novels, particularly realistic ones, may refer to things that are real (Park uses the example of Madame Bovary’s provincial northern France), ‘the convention says that the language in a fiction means what it means without its real referent.’[29] In other words: the ‘second-order meanings’ are its function and its cognitive surface meanings are either incidental, or serve the second-order meaning. Non-Fiction, on the other hand, is governed by the convention that its language is related to its real referent. So Thompson’s real referent then, in Nocera’s example, would presumably be the cop, and thus could we not say that his description is both indolent and partisan? Well, not quite. I believe that the real referent is not the cop, but Thompson himself.
Brett Lott introduces the idea of ‘the self as continent, and you its first explorer.’[30] For Lott, the ‘creative’ part of ‘creative non-fiction’ starts with you (or the ‘self’ that both Hersey and Nocera seem vaguely dismayed by, and that ‘official’ journalism has continually tried to eliminate). He explains: ‘without you and who you are, a piece of writing is simply nonfiction: a police report.’[31] As we have covered, subjectivity is inevitable when we choose to narrativize something, instead of this ‘police report,’ fact-sheet style of writing. For Lott: ‘when I begin to incorporate the sad and glorious fact that the way I see (the world) shapes and forms what it is to be seen, I end up with creative nonfiction;’[32] without this realization, Non-Fiction is merely notation. I would argue that Hersey’s ‘objectivity’ amounts to a narrative decisionto remain affectless (or ‘quietly recitative’[33]), and that it is only due to the subject of Hiroshima that this happens to be appropriate. It does, however, remain a decision nonetheless. What Nocera appears to miss in Fear and Loathing is that Thompson’s characterisation of the cop is not without its context. Thompson’s subject is himself: an ‘over-thirty drug dilettante’[34] in 1971, three years after Nixon’s election, and a year before his re-election.[35] Fear and Loathing remains ‘non-fiction’ because, though it holds the second-order meaning of a lamentation (‘’Consciousness Expansion’ went out with LBJ… and it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon’[36]), conveyed through the aesthetics of Thompson’s drug-fuelled trip to Vegas, the ‘real referent’ is always Thompson himself and his experience of said trip. Thompson discovers the ‘continent’ of himself to be a creature of melancholy, caught in the morose tundra of ‘a proper end to the sixties.’[37]
My contention is that, as soon as Non-Fiction becomes Creative (or narrativized), it is no longer related explicitly to the cognitive. It is related, like the novel, to the emotive or poetic, but this doesn’t abolish its status as Non-Fiction. To the question of falsity (‘in my attempt to put order to my days, am I deluding myself, inflicting an order that was and is nowhere to be seen?’[38]), we can only respond with further introspection. Our inability to find a true narrative means that we can only approach the self (and the world) with ‘a rigorous and ruthless questioning.’[39] We must find order in chaos without creating it, and the decision of where to draw this line ultimately falls on our own introspection. In this way, the task of writing non-fiction is tantamount to our very being. As in Creative Non-Fiction, we are all fallibly, but necessarily, working towards ‘an understanding of what it is that has happened… (an attempt) to see order, however chaotic it may be,’[40] and I think that Nocera’s criticism, and the broader criticisms held to New Journalism, are at best reactionary, and at worst degenerative. In the end, the only sense of truth we can ever hope to find is, and will always be, our own.
Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta, the basis of the lead duo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, sitting in a restaurant in 1971

Bibliography:

Heyne E (1987), “Toward a Theory of Literary Nonfiction,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 479-490.

Hogarty K (1991), “Audit Them: Biographies, Autobiographies, and Other Nonfiction,” The English Journal, Vol. 80, No. 4, pp. 57-60.

 Lemann N (2019), “John Hersey and the Art of Fact,” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, April 22nd, 2019.

Lott B (2000), “Roundtable: What is Creative Nonfiction? Two Views,” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 191-192.

McDowell E (1984), “Nonfiction Techniques Debated Anew,” The New York Times, 20th June, 1984.

Nocera J (1981), “How Hunter Thompson Killed New Journalism,” The Washington Monthly, April 1981, pp. 44-50.

Park Y (1982), “The Function of Fiction,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 416-424.

Thompson H S (1979), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, St Albans: Paladin Books, an imprint of Granada Publishing Ltd.

Weingarten M (2005), The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, New York: Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.

Weitz M (1943), “Does Art Tell the Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 338-348.

Wolfe T (1975), The New Journalism (ed. Wolfe and E. W. Johnson), London: Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.


[1] Nocera J (1981), “How Hunter Thompson Killed New Journalism,” The Washington Monthly, April 1981, pp. 44-50, p. 50.

[2] McDowell E (1984), “Nonfiction Techniques Debated Anew,” The New York Times, 20th June, 1984.

[3] Wolfe T (1975), The New Journalism (ed. Wolfe and E. W. Johnson), London: Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, p. 35. 

[4] Ibid., p. 46.

[5] Weingarten M (2005), quoting Bill Cardoso, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, New York: Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, p. 235.

[6] Thompson H S, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, St Albans: Paladin Books, an imprint of Granada Publishing Ltd., first mention: p. 14.

[7] Nocera (1981), p. 46.

[8] Ibid., p. 46.

[9] Hogarty K (1991), “Audit Them: Biographies, Autobiographies, and Other Nonfiction,” The English Journal, Vol. 80, No. 4, pp. 57-60, p. 57.

[10] Ibid., p. 58. 

[11] ‘The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.’ Lemann N (2019), quoting Hersey, “John Hersey and the Art of Fact,” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, April 22nd, 2019, p. 9.

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

[13] Thompson (1979), p. 44.

[14] Ibid., p. 44.

[15] Weitz M (1943), “Does Art Tell the Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 338-348, p. 342.

[16] Ibid., p. 344.

[17] Thompson (1979), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p. 62.

[18] Ibid., p. 27.

[19] Weitz (1943), p. 346.

[20] “I think he (Thompson) saw the generation as falling apart long before most of us who were still trying to be practicing members. It was pure inspiration,” Weingarten (2005), quoting David Felton, p. 250-251.

[21] Weitz (1943), p. 348.

[22] Nocera (1981), p. 49.

[23] Thompson (1979), p. 103.

[24] Ibid., p. 103.

[25] Nocera (1981), p. 48.

[26] Park Y (1982), “The Function of Fiction,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 416-424, p. 418. 

[27] Heyne E (1987), “Toward a Theory of Literary Nonfiction,” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 479-490, p. 489.

[28] Park Y (1982), p. 418.

[29] Ibid., p. 418.

[30] Lott B (2000), “Roundtable: What is Creative Nonfiction? Two Views,” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 191-192, p. 195.

[31] Ibid., p. 195.

[32] Ibid., p. 195.

[33] Lemann (2019), p. 5.

[34] Thompson (1979), p. 185.

[35] ‘But what is sane? Especially here… in this doomstruck era of Nixon,’ Ibid., p. 165.

[36] Ibid., p. 186.

[37] Ibid., p. 27. 

[38] Lott (2000), p. 198.

[39] Ibid., p. 198.  

[40] Ibid., p. 193.

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