Summer Book Club: Truth, or something like it

As I read the first section of In Cold Blood this week, I thought a lot about truth.

Because I’m being trained as a librarian (or perhaps why I’m being trained as a librarian), I tend to think in categories. I like to sort things, and for things to have their place. And my first question when reading this is: Where is In Cold Blood‘s place?

The back of my edition of the book claims In Cold Blood is “Nonfiction/Literature.” The New York Times pull-quote calls it a “superbly written ‘true account.'” Both the local public library and my University library shelve it under the Dewey number 364.1523, which, for those of you who haven’t memorized your Dewey numbers out to the fourth decimal place, is the label for “True Crime.” All signs point to this being a factual account of a quadruple murder.

In my Informational Resources for Youth course last semester (a.k.a. Kid’s Nonfiction), we had lengthy discussions about how some resources are labeled as nonfiction while others aren’t. This particularly becomes a problem in the “narrative nonfiction” genre (also sometimes referred to as “creative nonfiction” or “the nonfiction novel”), which is known for including elements more typically found in fiction texts to impart information, such as characterization, plot development, and description. In this style, which isn’t presenting “just the facts, ma’am” and lacks in-text citations (or citations at all), readers are left to rely on the author’s word. But how can we know that the author’s word is fact?

During our discussion in class, we dissected several passages of books by Jim Murphy (The Great Fire, Blizzard!, and American Plague, for example), a children’s nonfiction author known for his narrative style that reads just like a story, to see which parts of the text, line by line, could be verified by some source, whether or not that source really existed. We gave him the benefit of the doubt in his research, but wanted to see if he took poetic license at any point. For the most part, Murphy pulled it off. For almost every line, we were able to come up with some sort of source that could be used to verify that information, which led us to believe that Murphy is a quality writer of nonfiction that uses his narrative style to get kids to learn about historical fact. Does Capote do the same in In Cold Blood?

I spent some time doing a similar dissection of the first section of Capote’s text. Let’s take the first paragraph, for example:

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 local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before the traveler reaches them.

There’s nothing in this first paragraph that could not be verified, and yet it is full of Capote’s beautifully engaging personal style that reads nothing like a geography text about Kansas. He’s clearly got the voice of a reporter here, but a voice that simultaneously begs you to keep reading. And later, some sections are built entirely from a quote from one of the characters of the story, like the section with Bobby Rupp (Nancy’s beau) starting on page 50 or the account from Larry Hendricks starting on page 61. For all we know, these could be exact transcriptions from interviews with Capote or the appropriate authorities.

But are they?

Just now, I dug through the first 74 pages scouring the text for a line that could clearly not be verified, some sentence that is pure conjecture, but I was hard-pressed to find one. Like Murphy, Capote’s particularly skilled at phrasing his sentences in a way that the information could have come from someplace other than his own imagination. And yet, I still question it. The level of detail he presents is so precise. Take, for example, the description he gives of Nancy getting ready on page 19:

she changed into faded Levis and a green sweater, and fastened round her wrist her third-most-valued belonging, a gold watch; her closest cat friend, Evinrude, ranked above it, and surmounting even Evinrude was Bobby’s signet ring…

Perhaps Capote got the information about her outfit from Jolene Katz, who came to bake a pie with Nancy that morning, and maybe her three most valued belongings were explained in her diary, an item later kept by the police as evidence and possibly accessed by Capote. But how can we know that? Similarly, any conversations with the four members of the Clutter clan in Capote’s narration (so far, anyway), are always with a person who survived the fateful night and could have been called upon to relay the dialogue. Not even getting into the question of whether or not these interviewees could remember exact conversations (I’m not so concerned with that), did Capote really seek out all these individuals for the purpose of seamlessly reporting the last day in the Clutters’ lives, as if it were fiction? Should we believe that he did that? And does it even matter if we do?

I guess what I’m asking is whether the “truth” of Capote’s account is necessary to making this book important or of high-quality. We tend to judge resources claiming to be nonfiction differently from those claiming to be fiction (as could be seen by the turbulent James Frey scandal of 2006), whether or not we should. As a huge promoter of the idea that fiction can share truth in a much deeper way than most nonfiction can, I feel like I shouldn’t struggle with this issue, and yet I do. I know it’s something I’ll continue to be conscious of as I push in to part two, “Persons Unknown.”

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3 thoughts on “Summer Book Club: Truth, or something like it

  1. Great post! I’ve often been curious about nonfiction books that have a more narrative style than most history texts that I had to read for classes in college. They’re usually more engaging to read, but I do like being able to look at footnotes to see how the author got their information. I think you’re right – even if some of the details are questionable, the overall story will still be important, though it might have a taint if people think it’s not all true. I’ll be interested to see what you think as you continue the book!

  2. Thanks, Laura! I’ve decided to put my constant questioning aside for now and take the book as it is… it’s become too distracting otherwise! As soon as I’m done though, I’m going to have to do a little research… 🙂

  3. I just ran across a book called “The Lifespan of a Fact” by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal that came out earlier this year. The two (“the author” and “the fact checker”) hash out what is considered fact/nonfiction revolving around the death of a teen in Las Vegas. Sounds right up my alley and very relevant to this discussion.

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