Dismantling the Capote myth

March 14, 2012

Long before literary provocateur John D’Agata was rankling the journalistic establishment with his unorthodox reporting “techniques” — changing dates, merging quotations, altering statistics, constructing composite characters — to “seek a truth … but not necessarily accuracy,” writer Truman Capote was doing the same in his most famous work, 1966’s In Cold Blood.

Capote always insisted his “non-fiction novel,” his new literary form, was “immaculately factual.” But almost immediately after the book was published by Random House after being serialized in the New Yorker, he was accused of getting the story wrong by Esquire magazine writer Philip K. Tompkins in a June 1966 piece titled “In Cold Fact.”

Over the years, the accusations have continued from many corners, including friendly ones. In his sympathetic 1988 book, Capote: A Biography, Gerald Clarke acknowledges that the final scene in the book, which takes place at a graveyard, is fiction. That scene, which is filled with dialogue, has the investigator in the murder case meeting with a friend of one of the slain girls in the cemetery where the murdered Clutter family is buried. Clarke writes that Capote constructed it: “Since events had not provided him with a happy scene, he was forced to make one up.”

A new book by Ralph L. Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, draws on previous literary forensics and his own scholarship to demonstrate Capote’s shocking faithlessness to the truth. Capote disputed his critics’ claims that he had dropped fiction into his non-fiction, telling one interviewer in 1972 that Esquire was wrong, reiterating: “What I wrote in the book was true.” Even though Voss spends only a couple of chapters debunking In Cold Blood (most of it is a celebration of the book and its influence), he makes it impossible for readers to deny that Capote cut corners, sweetened his material, wrote passages that argue with the facts in his notes and invented scenes.

What separates D’Agata, author of About a Mountain and a new controversial book, The Lifespan of a Fact, from Capote, of course, is his candor in interviews about his manipulations. In D’Agata’s mind, the sort of fact-bending he indulges in is no different from the mixing of hues committed by a painter at his canvas. D’Agata calls himself an “essayist,” not a journalist or a non-fiction writer, which he says gives him greater liberty at the keyboard. Capote, on the other hand, always insisted that his non-fiction was near to photorealistic, relying on no darkroom tricks to find artistic truth.

But what joins D’Agata and Capote is this: Both love “real” facts, but when blocked by journalistic convention from the literary effects they desire, they willingly leapt that fence to create whatever rules they needed to enhance their work. Because he admits to his shape-shifting, D’Agata’s work is harmless. Capote’s book, on the other hand, continues to be taught in journalism classes, is celebrated as a masterpiece, and I would guess that it has been read by 50 percent of Americans who consider themselves educated.

As many have commented before, Capote deserves the credit for the scrutiny his book has received and continues to receive. When George Plimpton asked Capote in January 1966 if he had used any fictional devices in the book, he responded: “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.”

It’s evident from Ben Yagoda’s 2000 book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, that the magazine didn’t apply its famed rigor to Capote’s work. (Voss doesn’t include Yagoda’s findings in his book.) New Yorker Editor William Shawn marked up the galley proofs of Capote’s story, inserting questions about the provenance of information in the opening scene, which was set in the Clutter family home on the day they would be murdered. “How know?” Shawn wrote. “No witnesses? General problem.” In New Yorker shorthand, Shawn wrote, “d/a” (discuss with author).

“There is no evidence that Shawn ever did discuss this or any other problem with the author,” Yagoda writes, and the story ran in the magazine without addressing Shawn’s queries. Decades later, Yagoda reports, Shawn would tell his deputy editor — without elaborating — that he wished he had never published the Capote story, the writer’s last work for the magazine.

Did Capote get some things wrong? Did some of the subjects in his book accuse him of being less than faithful in his portrayal of them? Of course. It’s impossible to write a book about a complicated murder investigation and not get a few things wrong. In 1979, one academic paper not cited by Voss records dozens of factual changes made in the hardcover after publication in the New Yorker. The number of churches in Garden City, Kan., is different, as is the number of assistants assigned to a police detective. “Times, directions, and places were also altered,” the author, Jack De Bellis, writes: The reason Perry Smith (one of the killers) was paroled and what states the fugitive killers passed through during their flight from the murder scene were changed. In the New Yorker version, Smith’s brother “killed his wife one day and himself the next.” The book clears the brother of murder. And so on.

“Though one assumes that revisions represent corrections, verifiable evidence might reveal otherwise,” De Bellis comments. Indeed, the book introduced an error by switching which of Smith’s arms was tattooed. “This suggests that Capote was simply unaware of mistakes which even a reader of Life or Newsweek might uncover with little difficulty,” De Bellis writes.

Combine the Voss book with other sources, including the work University of Nebraska students who revisited the book and the murders in 2005, published some of their work in the Lawrence Journal-World (here and here), and you amass an arsenal that if ever set off would torch In Cold Blood‘s long-questioned credibility.

To be generous to Capote, perhaps he was not completely aware of his own inventions. “Truman used to talk about how he never used a tape recorder or notes or anything doing that book,” George Plimpton told the New York Times when Capote died in 1984. “But sometimes he said he had 96 percent total recall, and sometimes he said he had 94 percent total recall. He could recall everything, but he could never remember what percentage recall he had.”

But generosity isn’t what’s really needed here. In a recent BBC broadcast, writer Colm Tóibín declared: “As a novelist, you have many rights and no responsibilities.” (At about the 23:50 mark in the broadcast.) You can make up whatever material you desire and reshape however you like. You’re free to augment the truth with your imagination or spin bold lies if that will help you type your way to the truth. You can write in anagrams if you wish or in gibberish. And you don’t have to deal with fact-checkers, press critics or the other sticklers who hound non-fiction writers. If fiction were a plowable field, you’d call it the Great Plains.

That other field, the much smaller one strewn with landmines, rusting rebar and barking dogs is called non-fiction — or in its less effete incarnation, journalism. Oddly, without an accurate record as our anchor, it would be difficult to create fiction, as former New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel observed in a 1998 essay. “Wrong facts and the truths derived from them are always correctable — with more facts. Fictional facts are forever counterfeit,” Frankel writes.

I believe in journalism, not journalists, and welcome anybody with a notebook, a recorder or a 94 percent total-recall memory to help clear our field and plant it with their work as long as they have a true story to tell. As for latter-day Capotes and D’Agatas, I can give you Google Maps directions to the land of fiction.

(Afterthought, March 17: If this piece interested you, allow me to direct you to my piece from later in the week about Mike Daisey’s episode on This American Life.)


For more on D’Agata’s method, see this Craig Silverman piece. All my buzzing about fact and fiction has surely cursed me. Find errors and report them to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I like to think of my Twitter feed as a new kind of literary form, beyond fact, beyond fiction, beyond truth, beyond meaning. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.


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In Cold Blood was assigned in my MFA in Writing program no less than three times. Once was tolerable; by the third time I had grown weary of this “classic,” particularly when instructors pointed out that the book had problems with accuracy. Then why teach it to writing students as a sterling example of creative nonfiction? Perhaps Daisey et al. will make writing instructors think twice before assigning Capote.

Posted by kgschneider | Report as abusive

He wrote a letter to one of the principals in the Clutter case, asking if he could take what he said and merge it into another scene in the book, so he certainly had no difficulties moving events around to suit him. (It’s in his published collection, if you wish to look it up.)

Posted by Bill_Peschel | Report as abusive