Mostly Novels by Chelsea BiekerMostly Novels

In Cold Blood: A Novel?

By Emily Burns Morgan

In Cold Bloodhadn’t read In Cold Blood since college, but after assigning it in the class I’m now teaching and thus reading it again, it’s easy to see why I remembered it all these years. A well-researched narrative of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, the book reads more like a novel than journalism, true-crime, mystery, or psychology; in fact, it samples decadently from all of these. Capote uses police reports as well as "numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time," along with his own observations, to tell a story which begins the morning of the day of the murders and ends, after lengthy plot and character development, with the murderers’ execution. Because Capote inserts scenes and conversations he can’t possibly have witnessed personally, in addition to his thorough research, the genre of the book has always been and remains a major point of interest and contention. Capote called In Cold Blood a "nonfiction novel," and credited himself with the invention of a new genre. Genre is important here—it’s not only what makes the book work as literature, it’s also what makes it worth talking about nearly fifty years after its publication, in a societal climate far more inured to mass murder than the one in which it originally appeared.

The heading under which Capote’s text is categorized matters because that categorization changes the way we understand and accept "his" story. Readers of "regular" novels have certain expectations about what a novel should be and do. Importantly, those of us who read "literary novels" (a term which can be debated at length itself) tend to expect and desire that everything in the novel will fit, that every last detail will be tied together to create an ultimate meaning. (Whether we want that meaning to be more or less obvious is a matter of taste.) At the same time, however, we do not want to be aware, or at least not explicitly aware, of the hand of the creator as we read. As novel readers we are willing to "suspend disbelief" to enter the world of the story; but when the storyteller falters—for example, when events in the book do not ring "true"—the reader is jolted out of this disbelief, and made unpleasantly aware that he or she is reading a fiction. Thus, great novelists work hard to avoid sliding into unbelievability, either through cliché, or unlikely coincidence, or for other perceived errors. Capote’s work, however, is only part novel, and therefore the danger navigated by fiction writers does not trouble him. Why should it?  Many things happen in In Cold Blood that seem too perfect and too convenient to be true, and yet we believe them. We have to: despite the unlikeliness of some of these instances, we know that they literally are true. The advantage that gives the writer makes all the difference.

On the question of veracity, of course, concerns should and have been raised about Capote’s characterization of his players—particularly the murderers. It’s obvious that in addition to reportage, Capote’s inferences, guesses, and yes, even invention, abound. As discerning readers, we accept In Cold Blood as one man’s interpretation of the facts, understanding that due to differences in perception and memory, no single truth exists concerning the actions and emotions of human beings. Still, we all agree that certain things actually occurred, and others did not. Herb Clutter really did happen to take out a double indemnity insurance policy on the day he was murdered. Nancy Clutter, according to her friend Susan Kidwell, actually did smell cigarettes on the morning of the day she was killed, an anomaly that works for Capote as a convenient piece of foreshadowing. Perry Smith really did mail his and Dick’s boots, the only piece of evidence linking them to the Clutter murders, back to the US from Mexico, and he and Dick really did get picked up by the police just minutes after collecting these boots from the Post Office. If these kinds of coincidences occurred in a regular novel, we might buy the cigarette smoke as artistic license, but my guess is that many would cite the insurance policy as a red herring, since it plays no later role in the rest of the book, and seems to have little narrative purpose. The neat coincidence of the boot mailing would surely be considered a hackneyed plot devise, an obvious contrivance that would lose Capote the respect of many a savvy reader. That here these particulars are verifiable is Capote’s golden ticket to get away with what, in a work of fiction, would never be allowed—at least not under the coveted title of "literature."

Literary scholars and other bibliophiles, generally speaking, hold fiction in higher esteem than other forms of writing, and the novel has long rested comfortably at the very top of this list. In my view this ranking is appropriate because writing a novel requires more, and more varied, skills than any other type of literary craft. One must devise plot, characters, dialogue, and events, and sustain them over a hundred or more pages. One must build a world and people interesting enough that readers are willing to devote days or even weeks to them. We recognize that it takes unique, in many ways special, people to spend countless hours alone, talking to and dealing with the made-up people in their head to create a great novel, and we appreciate that dedication and perceived sacrifice.

Non-fiction writers, on the other hand, have their material ready-made, so to speak. Of course, there is the task of finding the data, then cutting and shaping it into the story one wants to tell, all of which are undoubtedly creative and difficult tasks. But still—non-fiction writers have something to go on. They have real people to talk to, and they have the security of facts and research at their disposal. Additionally, we accept more readily the conventions of non-fiction works because we believe them to have basis in reality, and what is literally true fascinates us perhaps more than what is merely true in imagination. Thus, we are more forgiving of non-fiction; we do not hold it to the same high standard as a novel, even when the non-fiction also bears the title of novel, as is the case with In Cold Blood.

In the preface to his book of short stories, Music for Chameleons, Truman Capote extols his techniques. "How can a writer successfully combine within a single form—say the short story—all he knows about every other form of writing?" Capote asks. "For this was why my work was often insufficiently illuminated; the voltage was there, but by restricting myself to the techniques of whatever form I was working in, I was not using everything I knew about writing—all I'd learned from film scripts, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, the novel. A writer ought to have all his colors, all his abilities available on the same palette for mingling (and, in suitable instances, simultaneous application)." By throwing out the rulebook on which colors can be used where, Capote does indeed give himself an advantage enjoyed by few other writers before him, and perhaps even since. Yet his use of the "full palette" of writing techniques does nothing, in my view, to alter the longstanding hierarchy of literature. By trying to use the best of all possible worlds, Capote in effect limits his scope, as the criticism of In Cold Blood documents. In the case of fiction vs. non-fiction one can, and cannot, have one’s cake and eat it, too. In Cold Blood is a stunning achievement, one which propelled Capote to deserved fame and fortune. But still, it is not a novel.

In real life, one man or woman’s version of events is just that: a version, a story. In the world of story, the artist/creator makes meaning from top to bottom. A true novelist is the ultimate creator—free of the bonds of reality. Non-fiction is valuable, pleasurable, often and certainly in this case beautiful literature, but it is not fiction, and as such, can never achieve fiction’s highest form. Capote wants all his tools at his disposal, but he has failed to consider what each one might mean differently in its new context. What Capote doesn’t seem to realize is that his methods dictate the terms, and qualify the degree of his success.

Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and Martha Stewart Living, among other publications.