In the history of literature, the genre spectrum has been fairly simple to navigate. The novel came about roughly 500 years ago; before that, one could choose among different types of poetry or opt for drama. When the novel, the novella and the short story emerged, each form encountered a sort of mitosis in which it spawned new types in virtually every generation. Truman Capote claimed to have established the “non-fiction novel” as a new genre with his publication of In Cold Blood, in which he wrote about a very real murder with the literary skill that had appeared only in novels. While writing about true crime does have the additional thrill for the reader in that it relates the actual, instead of the fictional, referring to it as a distinct genre is a bit much, as the differences between In Cold Blood and fictional novels about murder are not as material as those that separate other genres.
Before moving to a discussion of In Cold Blood specifically, it is worth examining the nature of genre as a classification. Consider the cinematic film noir genre. Obviously, there are certain visual, thematic and narrative elements that set that genre apart. However, once one has identified those elements in a discussion of any few noir movies, it is easy to keep hopping to other films that also fit the genre in a particular way. However, for a discussion of analysis to have substance, there must be something of depth to accompany the similarity. As Roland Barthes writes, motifs that appear again and again must be important, because “things which are repeated are significant” (12). However, the motivations for the similarities in a genre are the important part of the conversation. In the case of In Cold Blood, then, the question becomes why the demarcation of the nonfiction novel as a separate genre was so important to Capote.
There were critics who reviewed Truman Capote’s work and found that it did not usher in a new genre by itself. As Harold Schechter put it, while In Cold Blood “certainly stands as a masterpiece of the so-called ‘New Journalism,’ which deployed the techniques of fiction in the service of factual reportage” (7), that did not qualify the book as a separate literary form. Instead, the book takes the methods of one genre and uses them in a different one.
However, there are arguments to be made that the book does certainly stretch the boundaries of existing fiction – and existing journalism – to the point where one could assert a new form. Traditional journalism of the day certainly did not go to the depths of character analysis that Capote uses in his description of Richard Hickock in In Cold Blood. The way that Capote renders Hickock is far more three-dimensional than what one would normally find in a psychiatric report. Frequently, psychiatrists will attempt to distill the symptoms that they see in sessions into an easily categorized disorder. It is easier to treat patients this way – and it is easier to garner kudos for one’s own therapeutic reputation, as well. The aims of these sorts of reports are often to tie up loose ends, to classify, to organize. Because Capote’s aim was different – to describe – his work is also significantly different. Capote hews to the form of medical authority in describing Hickock, but he does so in such a way as to build a fascinating case study that simply portrays without pigeonholing (Koski 294). Indeed, in this work, he has “blurred the line between truth and untruth” (Jensen). However, by blurring this line, he loses the ability to say that his work is completely accurate. Such embellishments range from “allegedly misquoting people to making composite characters to ending the book with a scene that never happened” (Jensen). These alterations in the actual personalities and motivations of characters actually did some damage, emotionally scarring relatives of the sister of the victim, Bonnie Fox (Lee). The detective whom many credit for coming up with the solution, Rich Rohleder, is completely forgotten by Capote’s book (Smith). Even if one is unswayed by Schechter’s argument, feeling that the eye of the critic is unnecessarily snooty, the notion that Capote’s book may well be a novel, but is not purely nonfiction, slides this book back into the novel genre.
“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did” (Capote 12). This quotation from In Cold Blood describes the flaw in human nature that has informed every story since the serpent’s successful temptation of Adam and Eve. While Capote masterfully uses the techniques of fiction in describing a brutal crime, and while his work set the table for other masterworks of true crime, referring to this as a separate genre is excessive. What is not excessive is to praise his conversion of another newspaper story into a work that has made it into the annals of classic literature.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.
Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Vintage, c1994.
Jensen, Van. “Writing History: Capote’s Novel Has Lasting Effect on Journalism.” Journal-World
3 April 2005. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/apr/03/writing_history_capotes/
Kelley, Rich. “The Library of America Interviews Harold Schechter About True Crime.”
Koski, Cherly. “The Non-Fiction Novel as Psychiatric Casebook: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.”
Journal of Technical Writing and Communicatio 29(3): 289-303. http://baywood.metapress.com/app/home/contribution.asp?referrer=parent&backto=issue,5,7;journal,52,165;linkingpublicationresults,1:300326,1
Lee, Melissa. “Brother, Friends, Object to Portrayal of Bonnie Clutter by Capote.” Journal World
4 April 2005. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/apr/04/brother_friends_object/
Smith, Patrick. “Garden City Officer Forgotten in Capote’s Book.” Journal-World 5 April 2005.