Tag Archives: Tracy Kidder

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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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.

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Filed under NOTED, reading, REVIEW, working method

Truth and beauty redux

Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?

A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.

There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.

But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.

• • •

I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:

 Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

 Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

 Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, Persona, Voice, POV, poetry, subjectivity, teaching, education

Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.

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About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, journalism, teaching, education