In Cold Blood as Literary Journalism
Literary journalism is criticized as being the bad child of “the modern age of media and hype”(Yagoda, “In”). But, looking back through the ages, there are many examples of what is now called literary journalism, or blurring the line between fact and fiction. What has changed ” . . .
is not the practice of literary journalism but expectations about truth” (“In”).
In Postmodern American Fiction, the editors make the point that Truman Capote’s ” In Cold Blood (1965) illustrates how the postmodern inclination to blur the boundary between standard journalism and fiction could itself create a new layer of narrative tension within the bounds of the tradition novel”(125). According to Yagoda, though, this isn’t a new trend.
Yagoda cites Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, A Journal of the Plague Year. It was supposedly the account of a resident of London during The Great Plague, 1664-1665. In 1664 Defoe was four-years-old.
He used history to create the fictional journal, making the story a little more personal (“In”).
Yagoda also uses Thucydides as an example. In Book I of his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, the author writes, “As to the speeches which were made either before or during the war, it was hard for me, and for others who reported them to me, to recollect the exact words. I have therefore put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them” (“In”).
These two examples, and there are many more that could be added to this list, show that literary journalism isn’t new, nor is it the product of media hype. The thing that is new is the how truthful the author is about his fabrications.
One of the first things a journalism student learns is to attribute anything that is not known fact. With the publishing of In Cold Blood, Capote was lauded for his, ” . . . meticulous accuracy and total recall, which obviated the need for not taking notes” (“In”). Capote used his journalistic skills, and, because he didn’t attribute anything to anyone, the story became fiction.
It was the beginning of many such books by journalists. The list includes Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra, The Last Brother by Joe McGinniss, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (which is considered non-fiction although the author has said he made up some conversations and messed with the chronology). Many of the books have been made into hit movies.
Thus, the line has been blurred. By taking the truth, changing it just slightly, and calling it fiction based on facts, the reader reads what he believes to be true. But most readers are smart enough to realize when the author is fabricating and when he is telling the truth.
Most readers see the fiction based on fact and realize the author has taken the facts and made up a story.
As Joseph Mitchell said in the author’s note to Old Mr. Flood, “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual. This will never be every writer’s aspiration, nor should it be; facts have a beauty, precision and power all their own” (“In”).
Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy.
Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Yagoda, Ben. “In Cold Facts, Some Books Falter.
” New York Times 15 March 1998, late ed. Lexis-Nexis.