For most of the summer I’ve been living across the street from the house where Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. There’s not a day goes by that map-in-hand tourists don’t pause to take pictures, and on the weekend sizable walking tours stop for brief lectures from culturally earnest guides. It’s a pretty house, and unique to the area, and if you’re interested in owning a piece of history it’s on the market for $18 million.
I’ve never read In Cold Blood, and don’t plan to. I’ve long known about the horrific murders the book is based on, and a year ago I watched one of two recent movies about Mr. Capote. In retrospect I can only say I wish I’d skipped the movie, too. (Not that it was badly done.)
As I’ve written before, there’s a fairly strong connection between celebrity and literary success. More so than I think there ought to be. There’s also a fairly strong connection between sensationalism and literary success, and again I wish that wasn’t the case. Not surprisingly, combining these two commercial appeals can create a potent mix in terms of expected sales.
While I’m sure there are other contenders, I’m hard-pressed right now to think of anyone who so ruthlessly exploited the intersection of celebrity and sensationalism as Mr. Capote did with In Cold Blood. (On revision I must take that back. By anyone I meant writers of merit, which Mr. Capote clearly was. On the broad question of exploiting celebrity and sensationalism O.J. Simpson is the clear winner, along with everyone else in the publishing pipeline who thought If I Did It was a good idea.)
Taking nothing away from Mr. Capote’s writing talents, I have always had deep misgivings about his approach to the tragic story he wrote about, and about the way in which he exploited the murder of an entire family for his own ends. Whatever else the title of his book might stand for, I’ve never been able to quiet the feeling that the one person truly acting in cold blood was Mr. Capote, because no book-length account of human violence was ever written without premeditation.
As a rule I don’t believe in analyzing a work relative to authorial motive or real-world events. Rather, I believe the text is the text, and that most commentary surrounding written works is either unenlightening and parasitical, or aimed at other markets — chief among them the academic-industrial complex. With In Cold Blood however, I think ignoring Mr. Capote’s motives as a writer, his celebrity in the literary world, and the real-world events that the book is based on would be to ignore key aspects of the work’s success, if not its entire reason for being.
In Cold Blood is to fiction what a reality show is to television drama. You can argue that it’s masterful, or that it was groundbreaking, but I don’t think you can call it fiction, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable calling it literature. What I think it really represents is a cold-blooded, no-holds-barred attempt to gain notoriety and authorial acceptance by any means necessary. That Mr. Capote used his considerable authorial gifts to exploit the convergence of celebrity and sensationalism has always struck me as less than impressive. Or, put another way, if someone as talented as Mr. Capote felt it necessary to wash himself and his readers in other people’s blood, I’m not sure that says anything good about the book business, let alone Mr. Capote.
Coincidentally, the summer of 2010 also happens to be the summer of Stieg Larsson. Author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and two other books in what is called the Millennium Trilogy, Mr. Larsson died long before his books were published. In fact, there’s some evidence that he never intended the works to see publication, so leveling a celebrity-chasing charge against him would seem to be wildly inappropriate.
However, to the extent that Mr. Larsson did not exploit the intersection of celebrity and sensationalism himself, his death gave others the opportunity to do so. Unpublished novels discovered in a dead writer’s trunk have always had cache, and if those secreted works contain uncompromising acts of sexual violence perpetrated against women…well, what more could a reader or publisher hope for?
Like In Cold Blood, I won’t be reading Stieg Larsson’s books. I’m not interested in injecting manufactured acts of cruelty into my mind, or pretending that the ability the subject myself to descriptions of brutality and sadism without being traumatized is a sign of maturity. If people enjoy Mr. Larsson’s books I make no moral judgment about their enjoyment, but I do reserve the right to question the authorial premise. How hard is it, really, to push such buttons in any reader? (I grant some writers are better than others at doing so, and that some may even manage to rise above the base material, but sensationalism remains the common foundation.)
It’s a measure of the degree to which Dragon Tattoo has become part of pop culture that I’ve read a number of reviews of the book, as well as articles about Mr. Larsson. Given the extent to which Mr. Larsson decided to depict acts of violence against women, it’s not surprising that there have been a fair number of criticisms leveled against his trilogy from the point of view of feminism, though the main character of the trilogy is female.
What concerns me, however, is not so much a critical assessment of Mr. Larsson’s authorial intent, but the more obvious point that the authorial rigging he used to motivate the sexual violence of his books was entirely premeditated. While the average reader need not (and should not) be aware of this, any informed conversation about the merits of Mr. Larsson’s work has to start with the fact that he clearly wanted to repeatedly explore sexual violence in detail. In fact, I would go so far as to conjecture that Mr. Larsson’s primary motivation was authoring the literary torture of his characters, after which the story itself was shaped to fit that goal. (To deny this possibility one would have to argue that the story of the Millenium Trilogy could not have been written in any other way, which is patently absurd.)
I don’t think it’s a radical notion that sexual and violent material of any level of quality tends to have a better chance of selling in the marketplace than material which is not sexual or violent. Had the novels discovered after Mr. Larsson’s death been genteel stories of coastal Scandinavia I’m confident they wouldn’t be selling as well as the Millennium Trilogy is selling. Which brings me back to a basic point.
How hard is it to write things that make the reader wince or leer? How hard is it to push those buttons in the human mind? And if it’s easier to sell when you do those things, and even easier to sell when you do those things to excess, what does that say about the relative merit or skill of authors exploiting such (apparently) human tendencies?
I ask these questions because I’m not comfortable doing the same thing. I know I could do it, but I also know I wouldn’t respect myself if I did. In fact, and I’m sure this isn’t something one says in polite literary circles, I don’t respect storytellers in any medium who exploit graphic cruelty for their own ends. I also don’t excuse writers who profit from the violence and cruelty of their words while professing that authorial integrity to plot and character forced their hand. To my mind The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo falls in that category.
Believe me, I understand the arguments in favor of the freedom to write such content. I do. We can’t live our lives in a happy-happy world filled with happy-happy endings and happy-happy heroes. Art must imitate life to the extent that it ever can. I get that. I really do.
But I also think there’s enough real cruelty and abuse in the world that exploiting it for narrative ends needs to be carefully considered. It’s not an accident that carnage and brutality sells, any more than it’s an accident that sex sells, but doing either without seriously thinking about the implications strikes me as a willful and callous act of cynicism. I know it helps sell content, but it’s more cold-blooded than I’m willing to be.
As noted I have not read, and do not intend to read, In Cold Blood or any of Stieg Larsson’s works. Were I criticizing the demonstrated craft in those works, or making a moral argument against such works, I think it would be fair to criticize me for not having read them. For the record, I am not questioning the level of craft or making the argument that such works should be censored or prevented from publication. Rather, I am making a personal value judgment about the content I want to read (and subject myself to) and the content I want to write (and subject my readers to). By analogy, I don’t believe I have to stage or witness a killing in order to object to murder.
I simply know there are things I’m not willing to do as a storyteller, and intentionally setting out a plot structure and characters that then demand that I explore and document psycho-sexual violence is one of them. If you need that stuff in order to be interested in what I write, we’re both out of luck.
And that’s what I end up thinking about when I sit on the stoop and watch the tourists pay their respects to the house where Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. At least when I’m not thinking about the Clutters.
— Mark Barrett
Brent Robison says
Mark, I applaud your nonconfrmism. Seems downright un-American these days to disrespect celebrity, sensationalism, violence, and brutality, when the mass media would have us believe those are what we’re all about. As I peruse the bookshelves, both physical and virtual (self-pub too), it seems you and I and a few others are out of step with the hordes, the loud and the bloody. And that’s a good thing, which I plan to continue. It’s a responsibility to offer alternatives.
A year ago on my own blog I made a statement similar to what you’ve said here: “What? No murders?!”: http://brentrobison.blogspot.com/2009/08/what-no-murders.html
Thanks for the solidarity!
I’m not against murder in fiction per se. My favorite genre fiction is and always has been the mystery, and particularly the hard-boiled detective story. My first (and so far only) novel is a murder mystery, but even at that I had a lot of conversations with myself about how I was going to approach the crime itself.
I’ve enjoyed my share of murder mysteries that are simply puzzles, but I confess that they provoke some unease. I don’t like the idea of murder being reduced to a motive for entertainment, but of course it is, and routinely so. (I hope I didn’t do that — I tried not to.)
I don’t buy the argument, however, that the antidote to such sterile abstraction is the in-your-face description of carnage and cruelty. Yes, emotion needs to be present, but describing the hacking and slashing and fluid release of a brutal, sadistic rape usually ends up being more pornographic than it is enlightening. And I think choosing source material (real or fictional) that features insanity and violence also leads to that kind of treatment — often intentionally so.
So I try to straddle the fence, and be respectful and responsible. I do make a distinction between entertainment and literature, and my short story collection is meant to be the latter. Regarding the former, however, my goal is veer more toward the literary end of the entertainment spectrum than the exploitative.
As you noted in your piece, there’s already enough of that.
Brent Robison says
Yes, it’s all in how it’s handled: reducing murder to either thrill exploitation or intellectual exercise, both go wrong as you say. I’ve recently renewed an old interest in Chandler’s detective stories and I’ve been reading a bit of crime fiction (unusual for me), looking into a direction I want to go with own work — subverting the conventions of the genre in the service of philosophical exploration, ala Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Don’t know if I can pull it off though….