By the middle of the 20th century the conceptual juxtaposition of "history" and "novelist" ushered in a new era of literature coined, "New Journalism", whose most famous proponents include Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. The results where smashing, as Alfred Kazin of the
New York Times Book Review
wrote of Norman Mailer's, The Armies of the Night, a re-creation of the October 21, 1967 March on Washington, "Only a born novelist could have written a piece of history so intelligent, mischievous, penetrating and alive." (Kazin,
New York Times
) While New Journalists derived facts like historians, through primary and secondary sources, they wrote like novelists, which Kazin protests as the source of "alive" history. Through heart felt interviews on Death Row, civil rights protests, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon campaign, New Journalists took notes, but rather than writing newspaper and magazine articles they created non-fiction narratives. What remains is a truthful and mischievously subjective account of history.
Although tremendously enticing and popular novels, New Journalism creates a troublesome quandary. Writers of "New Journalism" do not have the privilege of an omniscient narrator, as would a traditional novelist. When they describe a characters' subconscious they undertake an assumptive role which is slightly "mischievous," inventing the psychosis of a character and the formative chain of events that brings them to a literal climax. In Truman Capote's In Cold Blood for example, Perry rereads a letter from his father that was presented at a parole hearing. As Perry packs his most treasured belongings while leaving Mexico, Capote writes, "This biography always set racing a stable of emotions -- self-pity in the lead, love and hate running evenly at first, the latter ultimately pulling ahead. And most of the memories it released were unwanted, though not all." (Capote, 130) Critically, is it safe to assume that the biography "set a racing stable of emotions"? Capote interviewed Perry extensively, thereby allowing such an assumption to be realistically affirmed. However, is it possible to suppose that self-pity was the leading emotion and hate was the lasting one? With these suppositions comes an intuitive knowledge of Perry's past, his relationship with his father, his view of himself; a view that only Perry, himself, could have. Yet Capote writes Perry's subconscious as a journalist presenting Perry's character, thereby blurring the reality of Perry, is he a character in a novel or an accomplice in the deaths of the Clutter family on November 15, 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas?
While a close reading of Perry's reaction to a saved letter might be a minuscule detail in the schema of In Cold Blood, it exposes the complications inherent for journalistic novels. If such a paltry example becomes so controversy laden, consider the implications surrounding 300 page novels such as In Cold Blood, or 1,000 plus page novels like Executioner's Song. As humans and history become characters and plots, history becomes a novel. Furthermore, the popularity, permanence, and critical acceptance (Mailer alone won the Nobel Prize, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the National Book Award), makes these presumptuous novels, history.
The narrowing gap between non-fiction history and fiction or fact and fiction demands more attention today then it did fifty years ago. As networks' top ratings come from "Reality" TV; the
New York Times
is slammed not once but several times for crafting stories; Bill O'Reilly constructs an empire around the misnomer "No Spin Zone"; and James Fry makes more money off his novel A Million Little Pieces after it is discovered not to be an autobiography as he empathetically stated, but a novel based an actual events; one begins to question what is fact and what is fiction.