By Alex Dalenberg

February 18, 2013

Not to make this blog — which is ostensibly about vintage popular literature — an extended meditation on fabrication and the variable nature of truth, but I felt it was worth touching on the recently unearthed revelations about the accuracy of Truman Capote’s pioneering work of creative nonfiction In Cold Blood.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news early this month. My neighbors over in Brooklyn Heights also have a nice post (Capote penned the iconic nonfiction novel from his Brooklyn apartment). I recommend reading both articles but, to sum it up, recently rediscovered documents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation show that Capote gave favorable treatment to detective Alvin Dewey, Jr. It was Dewey who gave the writer the extraordinary access necessary to write a book such as In Cold Blood.

Among the Journal’s findings: that Capote exaggerated Dewey’s role in solving the case, changed critical details and omitted key mistakes to improve Dewey’s standing as the hero of the story.

Full disclosure: I’m a journalism guy, not a literary professor, but I’m feeling some cognitive dissonance here.

On the one hand, my gut reaction is to have little to no professional sympathy for characters like Jonah Lehrer, who recently got a handsome $20,000 payout from the Knight Foundation to discuss his dismissal from the likes of The New Yorker and Wired for plagiarism and fabrication. Although, personally, it’s hard to watch someone so bright flush their career down the toilet. I’ve made a lot of boneheaded mistakes. I’ve gotten things wrong, but I’ve never flat-out made anything up, not that I could or will ever match the likes of Capote in terms of sheer writing chops.

But still, I feel that if you get into the nonfiction game, the rules are at least fairly clear. If you make stuff up you will pay a the price in terms of reputation and lost career opportunities.

On the other hand, as I was discussing with my literary editor significant other earlier this week, Capote basically invented an entire genre with In Cold Blood. So does he get something of a pass? To go way back, the Roman historian Livy, for example was not history’s most academically rigorous historian, but, nevertheless, an important one. The discipline was by and large still figuring itself out. It takes awhile for the rules and standards that govern a genre to fall into place. I’m not sure if we’ll be reading In Cold Blood some 2,000 years from now, but, at least in contemporary terms, it’s a toweringly influential book in terms of how books are written today.

For me, this probably does dim some of Capote’s star, if only because he himself proclaimed it to be painstakingly factual. That doesn’t leave any room for artistic interpretation. And, in this case, the details aren’t even altered in the service of so-called higher truth. Although I would argue that, unless you’ve advertised that you’ve taken those kinds of liberties with the material, that’s still a weak defense. But you can get really deep in the weeds when it comes to what constitutes taking liberties.

Maybe the problem is not getting caught. At least while you’re alive. Writing a masterpiece helps too, just make sure it’s both really, really masterful and really, really influential. Unless you can guarantee both those things, I wouldn’t recommend what Capote did as a career booster.

Because, let’s face it, something like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces may have been a pretty good read, but it was never going to catapult the guy into the literary firmament, whether it was mostly bogus or not. In Cold Blood will never not be influential. It’s kind of like how USC will never have not won the 2004 Orange Bowl game, even if the Bowl Championship Series stripped it of its national championship.

In some ways, this is all old news. The accuracy of In Cold Blood has been a point of contention for decades. But how about you, dear reader, if you’re a fan of the book, do these new revelations affect your opinion?