Current affairs and arts journalism by Yasmin Morgan-Griffiths
In an age where the digital media revolution is expanding as quickly as attention spans are shortening, newsrooms have to ensure their content is both punchy and entertaining. News has to be compressed into ever shorter sentences and soundbites, so turning to the novel for inspiration might not be the first thing that springs to mind of a 21st century journalist.
But the genre of ‘New Journalism’ that emerged in the 1960s continues to spark controversy and fascinate readers. The seamlessly woven threads of the writer’s subjective impressions and hard, objective facts are often impossible to disentangle, revealing that journalism is in fact neither perfectly balanced, nor completely factual.
Yet, even in this age obsessed with precision, the relevance of the fictional journalism endure. Some works are even held up as teaching materials for journalism classes, implying that they can still teach us how to make journalism vibrant and engaging. But before we lose ourselves in awe and admiration for the genre-bending, sharp-minded sleuths behind some of New Journalism’s most famous works, aspiring hacks should take heed of the lessons their works have provided, both positive and negative. This week, I’ll be looking at Truman Capote’s famous ‘nonfiction novel’, In Cold Blood.
In Cold Blood – 1966
Although it is almost impossible to pinpoint the first time a journalist thought it might be a good idea to report from a fictional slant, In Cold Blood is regarded as one of the pioneering works in the genre. Truman Capote was honing his prose fiction long before he even entered the profession of journalism. As an 11 year old, he practised the craft of short story writing for three hours a day after school, showing the same commitment to the written word as a virtuoso musician might to an instrument.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that he is best remembered for what he called his ‘nonfiction novel’. When a report in the New York Times about the slaughter of the wealthy Clutter family in the small town of Holborn, Kansas, caught Capote’s eye, he became obsessed with the investigation and began closely following the trial of the two accused murderers. He claimed he had an eidetic memory, which he used to mentally record his conversations with the Holborn townspeople, the investigators and the killers themselves. Over the course of four years, with the assistance of his childhood friend Harper Lee, he assembled his 340 page report of the case, which quickly became an international bestseller.
The novel isn’t exactly praised for its its objective documentation of the events, nor does it achieve the traditional ‘whodunnit’ mystery and suspense of many classic crime thrillers. Capote is mainly concerned with the ‘why’ of the crime, and as such, his real innovation is his deeply psychological analysis of the criminal mind. He reveals the identity of the killers early on, as well as how the murder was carried out, but the true motivation for the killing remains unclear for much of the novel. Much of the novel is dedicated to exploring the killers’ childhoods; perhaps in the hope of understanding what cruel crucible of abuse and deprivation they were formed in.
Capote’s close attention to the mannerisms and habits of the killers adds profound depth to his characters, suggesting that, although they indeed murdered in cold blood, they might not be as cold-blooded as traditional reportage may have led us to believe. The erudite Perry’s obsession with songwriting and expanding his formidable vocabulary puts him in considerable juxtaposition with his macho, paedophilic partner in crime, Dick, who planned the murder and coerced an unwilling Perry to join him. The fact that Perry was the one to empty Dick’s rifle into the brains of the Clutter family while his partner wavered under pressure, creates a portrait of criminals as being more complex that they are perceived to be in more traditional, often sensationalised, media reports.
In keeping with conventional journalistic praxis, Capote cites a range of real sources into his reportage, including the teenage Nancy Clutter’s personal diary and correspondence between the killers and their friends and family. Although he claimed the interviews featured in the book were accurate, it quickly becomes obvious that Capote has altered them so they now resemble fictional reconstructions of events and conversations. It would have been impossible for Capote to have witnessed the private exchanges between the killers, for example. Many of his interviewees and those connected with the case claim to have been misquoted or portrayed in a false light. The surviving Clutter daughters, Beverly and Eveanna, were angered by Capote’s portrayal of their mother as a reclusive invalid, and a local academic, Jon Craig, wrote a senior history thesis at Washburn University, Kansas, about how the fallacies portrayed as truths in the novel negatively affected members of those communities.
In order to avoid a battering from the critics, it is important to always distinguish that fine line between metaphor and complete fabrication. Whether Capote relied too much on his perhaps not entirely accurate memory to store quotes, or whether he felt the embellishment of certain events was necessary to his artistic project, many felt he crossed the line between literary licence and downright lies. But he did show that taking a more personal, psychological angle when reporting a case can add an interesting, revealing edge to what would otherwise be cold, hard reportage. But, as the furore surrounding the book has taught us, it is ill-advised to stray too far from the facts.
Originally published in Edinburgh University English Literature Pre-Honours blog.