Tag Archives: Richard Todd

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.


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

A slew of new books about writing

“Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn’t flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off.”—Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Kidder-Good Prose

As the owner of an entire bookcase crammed with writing manuals dating back to the 1940s, Dad’s as well as mine that begin in the 1970s, I’m leery of new acquisitions. Rearranging my books earlier this winter, I thought, “I should at least reread some of these before buying another.” But that’s not a formal vow. Hence I find myself tempted by a sensible-looking new one, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, to be published January 15, because I admire Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction narratives and I know his editor and now co-author, Richard Todd.

Theirs has been a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1973 when Todd, as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, began editing and encouraging Kidder, a brash newcomer trying to break into magazine journalism. Their new book reveals that the tables were turned in their relationship recently when Kidder edited a draft of Todd’s wry lament about America, The Thing Itself (reviewed). I’m eager to know more, to see the editor get his comeuppance, but I’ll have to read the book to find out what Kidder said because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature cut me off.

Having stumbled across Good Prose on Amazon, I found myself directed to four more forthcoming books on writing.

Essayist and essay scholar Philip Lopate will publish in February To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl blurbs the book, saying it “includes brilliant and helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them and their vexing questions in clear cultural context. This is the rule book.” Also in February, Lopate’s new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, will be published.

Goldburg-True Secret

Natalie Goldberg, author of the enduringly popular Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (reviewed) will publish in March The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language. It’s unclear how this book will extend Goldberg’s vision of writing because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” isn’t yet functional for it, but the description—which reads in part, “Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg’s revolutionary writing and life practice . . . ”—implies that this is a summation of her teaching methods.

Then there’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, by Stuart Horwitz, to be published January 29. The description says Horwitz’s method is “a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.”

Finally—and I’m sure there are more forthcoming writing books but I refused to look—there’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing (January 13) by Martha Alderson, author of the blog Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers, recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Briefly sagging in the face of this how-to cornucopia, I wondered why are there so many books on writing. The obvious answer is that they sell.

Which only begs the question: What is it about writing? On the one hand, I take comfort—as intended—in statements like “writing’s just bricklaying”; i.e. making meaning and pleasing structure from piles of inert material. And I know there’s merit in the metaphor’s veiled plug for discipline; something made, day by day, takes on its own life, makes its own plea for completion. I even ruefully appreciate the heartless corollary mocking those with “writer’s block”: There’s no such thing as plumber’s block.

Yet such analogies seem partly disingenuous and reflect only partly my own experience. Writing is different. (Isn’t it?) It’s an art as well as a craft. It’s concentrated thought. And it’s far spookier, and far less substantial, than bricklaying. Bricks are physical objects, and words are symbols, invisible until writers pull them from their brains as if snatching them from thin air, write them down, and accept or reject them. Love works better than discipline, for me. But lonely work it can be. Surely I’m not the only writer who has gone to the bookcase and pulled down a book, almost any book, to reassure myself that my sentences are not so very different from those that have found print.

Writing can feel so insubstantial. Which is why, if nothing else, books on writing offer scribblers something beyond advice: comfort. As my groaning bookcase might attest, however, be  selective.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.


Filed under NOTED, reading, REVIEW, working method

Review: ‘The Thing Itself’

The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity by Richard Todd. Riverhead. 272 pages. &16.47

Probing inner truth in this edgy moment, Richard Todd finds much that feels inauthentic, empty, drained of meaning. Once executive editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Todd’s been paying attention a long time and he lives in a place reeking with history, western Massachusetts. He wants to know the source of this malaise and why we hunger after authenticity—and what is that, anyway? In our neighborhoods New England saltboxes and Capes clash with split-level ranches and Bauhaus beach houses, the garages jammed with junk we once craved. Meanwhile, information hits us in an even wilder semiotic stew. The onslaught of ideas and events shorn of context is too great for much to be carried feelingly into our hearts.

And he wonders: is this lament itself just human vanity offended by human vanity?

The Thing Itself begins with Todd’s purchase of a rustic wooden box, supposedly a 200-year-old antique, for $200. Immediately his faint sense of larceny for snatching a bargain gives way to the suspicion that he’s been had. He’s right. The forgery spurs his ramble into America in search of solidity. The endless blows to his ego are funny. At Disney World he stumbles into a “character breakfast,” and Chip, a human stuffed inside an animal suit, musses his hair and mauls his vanity. In a Las Vegas bar he watches geysers choreographed to Appalachian Spring, the spectacle an oddly pleasant sacrilege. At colonial theme parks he’s baleful witness to docents of a certain age wearing mobcaps.

To curmudgeonly Todd, American culture seems the sad residue of authenticity that’s dead and gone. Take the mall: the farmer sold out for a profit; the developer bulldozed the woods and fields for gain; the mall’s cash registers are busy; and we stampede there in welcome postmodern anonymity. “Yet something unfortunate has happened here,” he writes. “You can feel it. As you drive past, the scene is not uplifting. No one has been exploited, but everyone has. This is the feeling, of course, that exudes from much of built America, from our endless date-raped landscapes. Something that began as consensual has ended in tears.”

The Thing Itself is impressive for the way it deftly references great thinkers and poets. My only displeasure was Todd’s dismissal of spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, whose bestselling critique of ego, A New Earth, he reads in a predatory way. Todd’s real beef here is longstanding: the apparent tension between blissed-out being and restless striving. The notion of too many folks unproductively at peace in the republic unsettles his Yankee soul. He wonders how we’ll get anything done. But the title of The Thing Itself is from a poem, by Wallace Stevens, that refutes Todd’s concern. Stevens took the line from Shakespeare’s meditation in King Lear upon man’s humble animal physicality, the “poor, bare, fork’d animal,” beneath ego’s facade. Stevens’s poem is about a man hearing a bird sing, really hearing the daybreak birdsong, because his ego had fallen away and he was in the moment—not in the past, fighting his dead parents, or in the future, rehearsing his Pulitzer speech. It’s about a man who just was—and then who wrote a poem.

Todd’s book isn’t pedantry or a screed, though, but a warm, creative work. The author is aware of when he’s being snooty, and he cheerfully chronicles his defeat by the rampant personal and corporate folly of our time. His message in a bottle—Hey, this is how it looks and feels to me over here—isn’t a memoir, but as it proceeds we glimpse his key moments. In these scenes he’s getting hurt or behaving badly. Like any adult, he’s haunted. Which should remind us that anyone worth knowing has let himself down. Few, however, pass through life as thoughtfully as Mr. Todd.

The Thing Itself leaves us with the cheering sense that despite our diminished situation our historic burden hasn’t shifted. We’re a clever species that craves goodness. We yearn to be more than our urges. In another day, the authentic self we desire might have been called (without irony) soul. This book suggests we keep a cold eye on society but see what’s holy. That we notice and nurture our inner lives. In this way it rejoins us to the ancient conversation on what it means to be human. “Most people can’t be saints, and most objects can’t be art,” Todd observes, “but in each case the extent to which they are marked by the impulse toward grace is a measure of their worth.”


Filed under journalism, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW