My eleven-year-old niece Lydia got a phone this morning. She promised me this past summer, while visiting from Australia, that I’d be her first text. She followed through. I responded to her greeting with an embarrassing amount of exclamation points and a throwback “What’s up?” to which she responded “The sky.” This is a simple retelling of an event that happened in my life. The truth of the moment is here—Lydia did message me, Lydia did respond in a curt and classic way to my aunt-appropriate amount of textual excitement. Lydia didn’t actually get a phone, though. She set up messaging on her new iPad and won’t get an actual phone until this Christmas. The story I shared is still true. It still brought me joy. I was still technically her first iMessage. I just set up the furniture differently to streamline the retelling.
Robert Boswell, in his book on the craft of fiction, details what can go wrong with short stories, noting that “the most common failed story and the most difficult to address,” is one where “the story [is] written by a writer who simply knows too much about the reality that the story wishes to portray” (Boswell 22). Boswell proposes many ways to remedy this, but I saw him speak a few years ago and one solution he proposed stuck with me (which I’ll have to paraphrase, because I am nowhere close to 90/95% accuracy in remembering the direct quote). He spoke about how, in fiction, we have to sometimes borrow furniture from other stories. Not steal plot-lines necessarily, but steal the situations or the setups that will allow our characters to be themselves most clearly. In my first paragraph, I stole the trope of the pre-teen receiving her first phone. It is (I hope) easier for my reader to register that image quickly than to have to think about messaging on an iPad, which is more complicated to set up and which is less special than having an actual phone, and which, really, isn’t even technically texting. Capote does this, too—in retelling a story, it seems impossible not to.
Tim O’Brien famously does this in The Things They Carried. Although the collection of short stories is published as fiction, O’Brien did go to war and does even appear as himself in certain stories. However, he has to alter specifics about the actual truth in order to better portray the greater, universal Truth that he has experienced. In O’Brien’s essay “Telling Tales” in the Atlantic, he notes that “to vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer” (10). This is what Capote is doing—taking human events and translating them into a novel in order to tell a story. He does this throughout In Cold Blood, giving us scenes where we are in detectives’ houses hearing their wives talk about a neighbor’s cocker spaniel and how their son “Paul . . . had fallen out of a tree” or how their other son “had gone into the yard to burn rubbish and started a blaze that had threatened the neighborhood” (166). We are at the dinner table with them, which is at least plausible because the characters were alive to interview. But we also get information from characters who Capote had no way of interviewing because they were dead before he even knew about them. Capote dabbles in verisimilitude more so than actual as-it-happened truth, which is why even though In Cold Blood was initially billed as non-fiction, it should be considered fiction. The little moments that Capote inserts to develop characters (and, in turn, to make the story have more of an emotional pull), like when he describes Susan, Nancy’s friend, as “the one person with whom she [Nancy] needed be neither brave nor reticent,” (33) are moments where he is sharing thoughts he can only infer. Even though he does have access to Nancy’s diary, there is no way for Capote to actually know Nancy’s true thoughts on Susan. Even for characters who he is able to interview, Capote still has to reconcile each account in order to cobble together what gets included in his narrative.
Parts of In Cold Blood have already been proven untrue or tainted. Capote himself “made nearly five-thousand changes, ranging from crucial matters of fact to the placement of a comma” between the time he initially published the piece in The New Yorker to its publication by Random House (De Bellis 520)—sure, he changed grammatical errors, but he also changed specific details, even made “changes contributing to characterization” (523). This is because Capote does what all good fiction writers do, which is to mess with the furniture. He steals furniture from himself, even. George Garrett in VQR notes how Capote’s earlier novels “have a clear and consistent moral frame, an inversion of conventional, middle-class values” where “it is the outsiders and the outcasts who reject conventional morality and are examples of another kind of virtue.” He concludes that in In Cold Blood, “Perry Smith becomes in almost every detail we are given a spooky embodiment of Capote’s early fiction.” I am not saying that Capote was wrong in doing this—I’m simply saying that Capote is doing what fiction writers do, and that is to bend narratives and create interesting stories out of what we (writers) know. Capote did this successfully in his novels, but the technique becomes tricky in non-fiction.
Is this kind of character-bending avoidable in literary non-fiction, though? Has it been done with no margin of error and then no one bought the book because the book was so clunky or uninteresting that it couldn’t capture any readers’ attention? Do we condemn Capote for following the rules that good fiction writers follow? For “deleting details” between drafts (De Bellis 524) in order to change characters and “create a less formal tone” (525)? De Bellis calls these changes “a breach of trust . . . with the reader” because they cause “doubts . . . about other matters of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme” (529). Capote lies about things even as simple as timeline—he writes of when the possible killers are identified that the KBI “dispatch[es] an agent that very night to the Kansas farmhouse where one of the suspects had been living with his parents,” but, according to KBI documents, “the KBI waited five days to visit that farmhouse” after being alerted (Helliker 2). Capote bends parts of what actually happened in order to make a more cohesive narrative in the book. Is this acceptable in literary non-fiction?
What even is the purpose of the non-fiction novel? Is it actually possible to write? Or do the items that a novel necessitates disqualify it from being non-fiction (despite how hard Capote tries for them not to)? Is the goal of a literary non-fiction novel to tell a Truth or just a series of small truths? Is it a non-fiction author’s goal to simply present the events as they happened, or to curate a mood, a narrative, a theme? Is telling a Truth based on some truths and some untruths still non-fiction?
Robert Boswell says, in his book on the craft of fiction, that he tries to always write from a place of unknowing, “to resist knowing until the story finally rubs [his] nose in it” (5). He goes on to argue that fiction succeeds when the writer gives “a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension” (5) which is the opposite of what Capote does. Capote’s job in writing non-fiction is to write from a place of knowing—or at least from intense research and interviews—to create further understanding. He is forced to embrace unknowing, though, because of the unavoidable gaps in what he is able to know. Instead of letting his characters develop on their own, Capote is forced to mold them to portray what they need to portray to fit into his book. The nature of non-fiction necessitates knowing, but because Capote has to work from a place of partial unknowing, In Cold Blood is both successful for it (because he is following Boswell’s rule for good fiction coming from a place of unknowing) but is separate from what Capote purports the novel to be, because it is not unadulterated non-fiction.