Great creative nonfiction does not shirk from controversial topics—or, sometimes, from passing judgment on them. After all, writers become fully engaged in their subjects and inevitably come to conclusions about them, and often they will want readers to share these conclusions. But in terms of craft, confronting contentious topics, passing judgment on them and persuading readers to follow along, requires great skill. Writers must strive for just the right tone (jaded? angry? bemused? objective?), a carefully constructed (but often subtle) thesis and a conclusion (again, often subtle) backed by logic and evidence.
Writers who are skilled at persuasion have ancient forebears. In fact, the dictates of persuasion date all the way back to Aristotle and have changed little over the past two millennia. And while one imagines Aristotle might not have fully appreciated Gonzo Journalism, a manic, highly subjective form of reportage that originated in the ’70s, the father of Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, was also a master of persuasion.
The author’s notorious, drug-fueled antics aside, Thompson’s work is characterized by a clear, logical and precise mind. A full arsenal of persuasive tools is on display in one of his earliest forays into Gonzo, “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy,” originally published in 1970. Killy, an Olympic skier, was one of the first Olympic athletes to develop a relationship with corporate sponsors. While Killy’s character is the focus of the essay, the piece is really a critique of the commercialization of sports. Coming at a time when many sports writers were unwilling to confront this issue, Thompson’s willingness to assert that commercialization corrupted athletes and made their lives miserable was significant and cutting edge.
Throughout “Temptations,” Thompson leads readers a little closer to his argument each time he describes Killy promoting another product, allowing Killy’s actions and speech to convey the falsity and high cost of his selling out. But Thompson is clever in how he presents this falsity, employing some classic techniques from the art of persuasion: He carefully establishes the debate’s key focus at the essay’s beginning, praises Killy to maintain an air of objectivity and employs a barrage of evidence to convince readers that Killy has fallen from grace.
Thompson starts his essay not with his first meeting with Killy but instead when a friend meets Thompson at the Boston airport. He tells his friend he wants to have a drink with him, instead of sticking with Killy’s entourage: “I’ve been chasing all over the country for 10 days on this thing: Chicago, Denver, Aspen, Salt Lake City, Sun Valley, Baltimore. …I’m supposed to ride up [to New Hampshire] with them tonight… but I’m not up to it; all those hired geeks with their rib-ticklers.”
Thompson’s complaint to his friend also registers with readers, extending friendship to them, too. And because the complaints are based on 10 days of real experience, readers are more likely to tolerate them. In fact, Thompson has carefully constructed the narrative to take the reader on a rollercoaster ride of inductive reasoning, lining up each particular piece of evidence to support his conclusion that Killy is corrupt.
Next, Thompson expresses his admiration for Killy’s athleticism, a step that is likely to win favor with readers and also establishes Thompson’s fairness toward his subject. Then, with the requisite admiration logged in, Thompson begins to chip away at Killy, his careful verbal jabs like a series of perfectly administered karate chops. Over breakfast, Killy turns pitchman with a press release that he has received from Chevrolet about a rise in sales.“I looked to see if he was smiling,” Thompson writes, “but his face was deadly serious and his voice was pure snake oil.”
To re-establish his credibility and fairness, Thompson again backs off to admire Killy the athlete: “Killy’s whole secret is his feverish concentration. He attacks a hill like Sonny Liston used to attack Floyd Patterson—and with the same kind of awesome results. He wants to beat the hill, not just ski it.” Throughout the rest of the narrative, however, Thompson allows Killy to hang himself (in one beautifully rendered scene, he snaps at a little girl who is trying to take his picture) until the reader is overwhelmed with Killy’s loutishness. By the end of the piece, Thompson has freed himself to express his contempt for Killy openly—although even then his contempt is not wholly without compassion, and American society shoulders much of the blame:
…With nothing else to win, he is down on the killing floor with the rest of us—sucked into strange and senseless wars on unfamiliar terms; haunted by a sense of loss that no amount of money can ever replace; mocked by the cotton-candy rules of a mean game that still awes him. …His name is immensely saleable on the marketplace of a crazily inflated culture-economy that eats its heroes like hotdogs and honors them on about the same level.
Thompson openly describes Killy’s despair and sense of being lost in the world. Ultimately, he allows the reader to join in his assessment of Killy as a victim, both of himself and of our celebrity-oriented, “fifteen minutes of fame” culture. Having immersed himself in Killy’s world and gained intimate knowledge of the man, he uses this knowledge to make a larger statement. Ultimately, Killy’s story serves as a kind of parable, a carefully argued treatise on the danger of sacrificing the integrity of passion to conventional greediness. Thompson’s use of reasoning, based on a careful mix of logic and emotion, makes his argument compelling and plausible.
In this, Thompson is particularly indebted to Aristotle, who identified the ways in which the psychology of readers and writers interact and how an emotional appeal (in Aristotelian terms, “pathos”) is a necessary element of persuasion. But emotion can’t stand on its own; the interaction between writer and reader is dependent upon “ethos,” or the character of the writer (much like developing the right tone or persona).“Logos,” Aristotle’s third element of persuasion, refers to the quality of the argument itself.
For many beginning writers of creative nonfiction, logos, the fundamental underpinning of telling a story—a core thesis, a logical structure or backbone, which holds together the narrative—is what is missing. In a narrative, this backbone must be bolstered by evidence, usually provided by scenes. A logical narrative structure is so basic that some writers forget that it is necessary, but even the most beautifully spun books or essays don’t work without an internal system of logic.
Most writers have a pretty good idea of how they want their readers to respond to their work emotionally and intellectually— whether the work is a memoir about an abusive ex-spouse, a carefully researched essay about an art heist or a tale of a fishing boat lost at sea. Getting the reader to follow along is the real trick. But by keeping the three elements of persuasion in mind—ethos, pathos and particularly logos—writers can be sure that their work contains the necessary elements not only to move and compel their readers but to lead them to agree with the writer’s conclusions.