When I first crossed the threshold of journalism college back in the 1980s, New Journalism was still relatively new. It began in the late 1960s and flourished into the 1970s. When my dad – an old journo then working in the Irish Times – or my teachers spoke about it, there was a hint of awe in their voices. You knew by the way they spoke about Gay Talese and Truman Capote that something special had happened not that many years ago. Now, as new evidence emerges about Capote’s seminal work In Cold Blood (my dad had a dog-eared, much loved copy by his bed), maybe it’s time to ask whether it was that special at all.
Every journalism student is forced to read Tom Wolfe’s introduction to his anthology of New Journalism. I know, because I now teach journalism and do some of the forcing. In the introduction, Wolfe spells out what happened with long-form magazine journalism in the 1960s and 1970s, and how exciting it was. Basically, writers such as Jimmy Breslin, Talese, Capote, Norman Mailer and Wolfe himself began to use the techniques of fiction to write fact.
They used dialogue, they used scene-by-scene construction, they used descriptive writing. They used imagery and metaphor. They used funny grammar and spelling and syntax. Yet at the bottom of all this, the foundation on which their edifice of fancy words rested, was the contract with the reader that it was all true. They hadn’t made anything up.
Some examples: Gay Talese wrote a great piece about the black boxer Joe Louis called “Louis at Fifty”. In was published in 1962 in Esquire magazine. It blew the doors of traditional journalism. It went inside the head of Louis and told you what he was thinking. Hell, it even told you what his wife was thinking.
Capote’s book In Cold Blood has many sequences that appear to describe the interior life of a pair of murderers. In both cases, the writers said publicly that the reason they were able to say what so-and-so was thinking at such-and-such a time was because they asked so-and-so “What were you thinking?”.
So it was old-fashioned reporting: taking notes, noticing little details, asking questions. Then a little sprinkle of creative writer’s magic and there you have it: one of the best-selling books of all time, the first “non-fiction novel”, the founding document of “The New Journalism”.
Or have you? In Cold Blood dealt with the murder of the Clutter family in 1959. The killers were hanged in 1965. Capote’s dispatches for the New Yorker were avidly followed and his book on the murders, the investigation and trial was a huge hit. More recently, two movies, Truman and Infamous, dealt with the case and Capote’s role in it.
Now, the son of one of the lawyers involved in the trial has released his father’s papers and claims that Capote basically made stuff up.
Whooa! Hold up there! Made stuff up? Like, invented stuff? Apparently. And this is a breach of the central contract between New Journalists and the reader: we’ll put up with all your fancy writin’ stuff as long as it’s all true.
Which brings us to another thorny problem: so let’s say Capote made up some of the dialogue, thoughts, inside-the-head stuff etc. What if, just what if the story he wrote is more “true” than what actually happened? Eh? Thought that’d get ya.
Read more about the lawyer’s claims: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/dec/05/truman-capote-failings-new-journalism-in-cold-blood