The World as a Novel: From Capote to Mailer

The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.

When Truman Capote explained, on the publication of In Cold Blood, that the book was really a “nonfiction novel,” it was natural to take his description of his meticulously factual and extraordinarily industrious record of research as the alibi of a novelist whose last novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had been slight, and who was just now evidently between novels. Capote clearly hungered to remain in the league of novelists, so many of whom are unprofitable to everyone, even if he was now the author of a best-selling true thriller whose success was being arranged through every possible exploitation of American publicity. And all these things were true. Capote is a novelist, novelists tend often enough to be stuck in novels, discouraged by the many discourtesies to current fiction. Clearly Capote wanted to keep his professional standing but to rise above the novelist’s usual battle for survival. In Cold Blood, before one read it, seemed by the very nature of the American literary market to be another wow, a trick, a slick transposition from one realm to another, like the inevitable musical to be made out of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

Still, what struck me most in Capote’s labeling of his own book was his honoring the profession of novelist. Novels may be expendable, but novelist is still our great instance of original genius. What interested me most about the book after two readings—first in The New Yorker and then as a book—was that though it was journalism and all its secrets were out on first reading, it had the ingenuity but not the total ambition of fiction, it was fiction except for its ambition to be documentary. In Cold Blood brought to a focus for me a problem not so much of genres as of truth and transmutation in contemporary writing, of fact and its “treatment” as we so easily say nowadays. There is a lot of “treatment” behind the vast amount of social fact that we must properly call political journalism—writing about collective experiences, the public domain, that has a palpable design on us. There is also a good deal of nonfiction, dedicated only to information, that gets its inevitable treatment in a book we call a “novel” only because the author calls it that. But that is as it should be, even if the novel is not. In the world of imagination, everything is named and judged by the author’s claim of sovereignty.

The imagination’s claim of its own authority is important because, as poor Andrei Sinyavsky said in his marvelous polemic against “socialist realism,” a work of literature can be anything the author likes but should not be eclectic. George Painter has been able to document essentials in Proust’s life from his great novel. Proust so openly drew from “life” that he wanted the model for Madame de Guermantes—whom he named to Jean Cocteau—to read his book and presumably to recognize herself. Nevertheless, A la Recherche du temps perdu is a novel, as the Book of Job…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.