Truman Capote's Contribution to the Documentary Novel: The Game-Theoretic Dilemmas of in Cold Blood

By Wainwright, Michael | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Truman Capote's Contribution to the Documentary Novel: The Game-Theoretic Dilemmas of in Cold Blood


Wainwright, Michael, Papers on Language & Literature


In the days when the nuclear ghosts of Khrushchev and Kennedy are poised to rise again, the contrast between these two visions makes, to my mind, the strongest case for literary scholarship in which realism, objectivity, and rationality are refugees no longer.

--Peter Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge

Prisoner's Dilemma is about avoiding exploitation, but in a Chicken game one person or the other must compromise to avoid a mutual disaster. Each player wants to convince the other that he or she will not back down, and the person who does is "chicken."

--Barry O'Neill, Honor, Symbols, and War

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design.

--Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

To which genre of literature does Truman Capote's (1924-84) In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences (1966) belong? (1) According to Capote, his volume exemplifies a new literary class, the nonfiction novel. "What I wanted to do," he explains, "was bring to journalism the technique of fiction" (Conversations 120). The apparently motiveless murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, on the night of November 15-16, 1959, provided Capote with an opportunity to put his theory into practice. Capote's subject matter was "controversial," notes Jim Willis, "but there is no denying the story's popularity with the reading public, and In Cold Blood became an instant success and long-lasting best-seller" (94). This vindication assured Capote that "the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry" displayed by In Cold Blood gave the affirmative answer to his "greatest creative quandary" (Music xiv): whether a full-scale journalistic novel could be accurate, aesthetic, and accessible. "The novelistic techniques generate an excitement, intensity and emotive power that orthodox reporting or historiography do not aspire to," David Lodge elucidates, "while for the reader the guarantee that the story is 'true' gives it a compulsion that no fiction can quite equal" (203).

The "nonfiction novel" is certainly Capote's neologism, continues Lodge, but "it has in fact been around for quite a long time in various guises" (203). J. A. Cuddon identifies the generic archetype as the "documentary novel." "This form of fiction," he writes, "was invented by the Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules, in the 1860s" under the appellation of the " roman documentaire." During the twentieth century, adds Cuddon, "such a novel has become a form of fiction which, like documentary drama, is based on documentary evidence in the shape of newspaper articles, legal reports, archives, and recent official papers." Notable examples "have been Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925) and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood' (255). Barbara Foley, who remains the leading authority on documentary fiction, not only repeats the assertion that this genre "is a species of fiction" (41), but also agrees with Lodge's sense that the documentary novel adheres to referential strategies associated with nonfictional modes of discourse. Documentary fiction, she believes,

locates itself near the border between factual discourse and fictive discourse, but it does not propose an eradication of that border. Rather, it purports to represent reality by means of agreed-upon conventions of fictionality, while grafting onto its fictive pact some kind of additional claim to empirical validation. (25)

Lodge and Foley, however, attribute documentary fiction with a longer provenance than Cuddon does. Lodge cites Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as the generic archetype, while Foley places Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) at the forefront of the genre. Lodge's cursory article must then cede the academic field to Foley's detailed monograph, which ascribes three distinct phases to the evolution of documentary fiction, with each new stage emerging gradually from its antecedent. …

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