Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

In Cold Blood

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Another recent read is “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. From my personal point of view, it is interesting in at least three regards:

  1. It demonstrates how a particular style of journalistic writing that usually fails completely actually can work, reinforcing my more general belief that it is not so much the type* of something as the quality that matters. Indeed, it shows that I had not generalized sufficiently, because I thought this type of writing hopeless. Consider e.g. the abysmally-poor-but-award-winning drivel of Claas Relotius or much of what ends up in “The New Yorker” or “Der Spiegel”. Having read “In Cold Blood”, I have a better idea of what some journalists try to do, and am somewhat more willing to respect the attempt—but I remain unaltered in my claim that they usually fail badly. (And I do not say that this type of writing should normally be considered appropriate for e.g. a news-paper, even when of Capote-level quality, as it is usually contrary to the purposes of good journalism.)

    *I deliberately go with a vague word, because the application is wide. For instance, TV is not inherently inferior to books—but the risk of finding garbage quality when randomly turning on the TV has historically been greater than when randomly grabbing a book in a bookstore. (Whether this still holds true might be disputed, considering current bookstore trends.) Similarly, the sci-fi genre might once rightfully have been maligned because so much of what was written/filmed/whatnot was on the pulp level—but this was not a consequence of the genre, it self, but of the low quality. Today, there is sufficiently much quality sci-fi available that it would be foolish to attack the genre instead of the individual work.

  2. It is a good example of an improvement of the art of writing, per se, in which it displays a legitimate case of literature without “higher values”. The main value of the book is not its content but its successful exploration of a new or different type of writing, which brings the art or the craft forward. (Secondary value is found in both entertainment and the potential for insight into the backgrounds, psychology, behavior, whatnot of the criminals involved. However, the latter should be taken with some caution, as Capote apparently did not stick entirely to the truth.)
  3. In my own writings, I wrestle with the question of detail. (How much is appropriate? What adds color and what wastes time? Etc.) This book gives many examples of how adding detail can be used to great effect and without leaving the reader on autopilot.* (But I still feel that he errs slightly on the side of too much.) The use for characterization and sympathy building is particularly effective, somewhat like Stephen King**, but in a much higher quality writing.

    *As a contrast, note my discussion of “A Discovery of Witches”, a book with damaging amounts of undue detail.

    **Stephen King might seem an odd comparison, but he has often impressed me exactly by his ability to use just a few lines to give a successful first characterization and/or build sympathy, and I would view this as his second greatest strength (behind his imagination). Reading “In Cold Blood”, I was struck repeatedly by the suspicion that it (or some other work by Capote) might have been a strong influence on King. (However, I have seen similar abilities elsewhere, in particular among short-story writers.)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2020 at 5:13 am

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