Writing History: Capote's Novel Has Lasting Effect on Journalism by Van Jensen - Special to the Journal-World

Writing history: Capote's novel has lasting effect on journalism
By Van Jensen - Special to the Journal-World

April 3, 2005

Madeleine Blais teaches Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" in journalism classes because it is compelling and beautiful, she said, a masterpiece.

She uses the book to show her students at the University of Massachusetts what journalism can be, how it can reach past the ordinary. How it can blend the reportage of fact with the writing style of fiction.

" 'In Cold Blood' is something miraculous," Blais said, "an alchemy that should not have been possible. (Capote) had indeed turned reality into a kind of fiction."

This is half of the legacy of Capote's great book. Published in 1965, it helped show journalists the possibility of using creative writing techniques while holding to the guidelines of journalism; something now commonly seen not only in books but also in magazines and newspapers -- where many view the style as crucial to keeping readers.

But in writing the book, Capote blurred the line between truth and untruth, despite his claims of impeccable accuracy. His embellishments -- which vary from allegedly misquoting people to making composite characters to ending the book with a scene that never happened -- have bred ill will from some in the book who felt falsely portrayed and distrust from readers who, upon learning of Capote's changes, are left to wonder where reality ends and fiction begins.

And in today's media environment, in which Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of the New Republic have come under fire in recent years for falsifying portions of stories, the challenges to "In Cold Blood" are all the more relevant, said Jack Hart, a managing editor and narrative expert at The Oregonian, Portland's daily newspaper.

But, with "In Cold Blood" about to turn 40 years old, those leading the movement once known as "new journalism" agree that the book deserves to be remembered for its contributions...