Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

Why Truman Capote’s masterwork keeps making news.

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with its plain diction, elegiac tone, and rhythmic sound and syntax:

 The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

The original cover, 1966.

The original cover, 1966.

But there are problems. I’ve written here before about In Cold Blood (here  and here), noting that today the book that has done so much to further narrative nonfiction storytelling would be a scandal in its genre, at least among practitioners. The two major and more or less proven examples of Capote’s fabrication are when Perry Smith, the killer he identified with, apologized on the gallows for the murders (never happened, according to credible witnesses, though apparently Capote had begged him to) and the book’s closing scene in which the crime’s chief investigator runs into one of the victim’s friends at their graves (totally invented).

Kidder is known to be a stickler for factual accuracy in his work, and his and Todd’s chapter “Beyond Accuracy” in Good Prose is a deep and nuanced discussion. They wouldn’t countenance what Capote did but maybe aren’t aware of the unending low boil concerning his book’s issues. They do weigh Janet Malcolm’s overblown indictment of journalists as confidence men, while acknowledging that Capote “appears to have lied shamelessly to his subjects,” presumably meaning the killers. Nothing about the cottage industry that’s grown up around what is or is not fictional in In Cold Blood. But then, that’s a book in itself.

Voss-Capote's Legacy

That book appears to have been published in 2011, Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details—why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”

Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.

I have Voss’s book and haven’t yet read it. But I need to, I realized, after a Wall Street Journal exposé on Friday. I don’t find very compelling the article, by Kevin Helliker, which points out that Capote was given special treatment by the case’s chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and that Capote in turn made Dewey the hero of In Cold Blood. Newly discovered files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation purportedly show Capote’s shadings of events to make Dewey look better and reveal Dewey’s large feet of clay. My guess is that readers will care even less about this than they do about the book’s fictional ending scene.

But maybe that’s not the point, or only part of it.

Admirers of In Cold Blood, including me, have used it as an example of narrative nonfiction because it’s geniusly written. But it’s inconsistent to praise it, especially to students, who love it, while knowing or even strongly suspecting its fabrications. And a recent movie about Capote has further muddied the picture, fictionalizing as it did the book’s supposed effect on him: it killed him. In fact, it made him rich and famous. And while being two-faced surely did his soul no good, what appears to have killed him, aside from severe alcoholism, was being banished by his high-society friends for revealing their secrets in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Maybe it’s time for the nonfiction camp to give up In Cold Blood. Maybe we need to call it what it is, a great novel based on exhaustive research into a real crime. Its claim to be nonfiction is partly what made the book the sensation it was, of course, but it now endures on its literary merit. With added interest, for some of us, because of the deep and perplexing questions it raises about narrative and the role of the storyteller.

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18 Comments

Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED

18 responses to “Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

  1. I have successfully resisted reading In Cold Blood thus far. I’ve always thought of it as a “True Crime novel” and have a revulsion to the genre, however brilliantly written. But, (sigh), it’s on my Kindle now, and easy to access on my Cloud Reader in big graphic type. I guess I should just go ahead and get past it. Then I’ll come back and report!

  2. As long as “In Cold Blood” is being read, which is after all the important thing from posterity’s point of view, I don’t think anyone is going to quarrel with your calling it creatively imagined, or instituting whatever caveats you find necessary. Capote is known to have pulled some tricks with it, and no one could fault you.

    • Thank you, Victoria. As Jane Smiley says, “true stories can never be fully known,” and she mentions some of the many aspects of narratives that skid beyond the storyteller’s control. She does not mention the storyteller, the main issue here. To Capote, I guess what he wrote was nonfiction. I have known a successful journalist, an excellent writer, who was successful partly because of the way he saw things, which required not seeing other things. Not inventing, in his case, but staying true to his vision of reality.

      I think Capote could not help making his story more shapely, for literary as well as for personal reasons. So, yeah, I personally am going to start calling it a novel, and if I present it to students will brag on his deep immersion, not on his fidelity to facts. Sure Perry Smith should have apologized—it would have been the right thing to do and would have affirmed his own humanity—but sadly he apparently didn’t.

  3. Richard, I’m so upset by this latest news that I was gasping in horror over that WSJ piece published the other day. But I wonder if we can’t just let it stand as nonfiction, despite the errors and author insertions and miscalculations and fabrications and distortions. After all, he was the first to do such a thing as a nonfiction novel, and we have since written the hard and fast rules.

    I know; if this were some fake Holocaust book or James Frey, I’d be ready to pounce. But my heart is broken.

    • Yes, Leslie, I think in practice the book has been grandfathered. Maybe that’s the compromise indeed. But partly because of its success if not its stature, it has made us more critical of lesser nonfiction and of In Cold Blood itself.

  4. Grandfathering Capote. Seems like a good way out of the dilemma of trying to understand the rules of a genre. Good job of investigative journalism yourself, Richard.

  5. It breaks my heart that Capote is most famous for my least favorite of his work. I know I’m off point here, but I love his short stories. In fact, every holiday I read “A Christmas Memory” and “A Thanksgiving Visitor.” In Cold Blood left me, well, cold, and is not the sort of book I would ever re-read (fiction or nonfiction).

  6. The recent biography of her is pretty good, Darrelyn. I wrote about here. What I remember is that she started two books, one a true crime story a la In Cold Blood, but she’d scored such a huge success with To Kill a Mockingbird everything seemed downhill. Her portrayal in the two movies about Capote is very interesting, and different, I thought. In one, I think it’s Capote in which she’s played by Katherine Keener, the actress signals her displeasure with Capote’s manipulative ways with locals. Totally false, I’d wager. He may have cajoled and charmed like the movie shows, but they were after a huge story and I doubt she frowned at him for it.

    • I haven’t read the bio, but I’ll look for your review. I’m just finishing Such a Life. It’s taking me forever to read because I’m enjoying Lee Martin’s story so much, I keep slowing down so it won’t end. A thousand thanks for the recommendation.

  7. For some time now I’ve regarded ICB as “based on a true story”. So, like you Richard, it has to be considered a novel at this point. Where a novel changes names, he used the same names and called it nonfiction. But he did cover his ass by calling it a “nonfiction novel” so perhaps nobody should be surprised by this in the first place. He said it 50 years ago!

    But what a great exposition: This book and its spinoff stories is a course unto itself. You could build an entire semester around the work, namely what not to do, but surely there are things that can be emulated.

    • Good points, Brendan. And it WOULD make a great course: the book, the issues, the books about the book, the movies. I can see a graduate journalism class at Columbia really digging into the topic!

  8. Sandra Millers Younger

    “A nonfiction novel.” That seems to cover things nicely. I recall reading In Cold Blood in high school. What sticks with me now, decades later, isn’t the gore, but that ironic scene where one of the murderers is scrambling for change dropped under a bed. I’m definitely with Jane Smiley re: the difficulty of telling truly true stories. As a career journalist who’s just completed my first narrative nonfiction book (“The Fire Outside My Window” coming in September from Globe Pequot), I tried my best to be scrupulous about accuracy. Yet still, I ran into situations where the primary sources themselves (firefighters) didn’t recall or accurately relate their own experiences–as revealed by radio transcripts–and other cases where the only eyewitnesses insisted on contradictory accounts. So what do you do? How do you know what’s truly true? Do you pick sides? Do you build your story on what people told you they said or what they actually said? In the end, I tried to bridge the gap with indirect quotes, etc. but it did underscore the wisdom of corroborating accounts with second and third sources wherever possible. Sometimes, too, the best you do is be totally honest with the reader, with caveats like: “Although X disagrees, Y maintains that . . .”