Karen Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, published by Counterpoint Press in 2015; it is a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, and is on the shortlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize; it was also a Los Angeles Times bestseller. She is also the author of Like Normal People, (Houghton Mifflin) which was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press).
Her short fiction has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Story, Narrative, The Harvard Review, Guernica, and The Iowa Review. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best and have won two Pushcart prizes. Two of her stories have been read in the Selected Shorts program on NPR.
On December 1st you can read our interview with Karen Bender in the Launch of our 16th Issue.
Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.
That’s Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the much-lauded Neapolitan novels, in an interview just published in the Paris Review. And I’m sure she’s right—that is the truth about literary truth. You can’t have it, not in any genre, if, as she earlier states, “the writing is inadequate.” But say the writing is not only adequate, but exquisite! What about the actual truth—the truth-truth—in a work that claims to be nonfiction? Does it matter at all? For how long? And who gets to decide?
I’m thinking about In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Beautifully written, right? But is that what mattered when it was first published? Is it all that matters now? Why did he call it a “nonfiction novel”? Was he inventing a genre, or only wanting it both ways?And—if that’s what it was (the latter)—so what; what’s wrong with that?
Backing up—I get regular emails (A.Word.A.Day, almost daily) from Wordsmith.com: wouldn’t you know the day I was scheduled to talk about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis), the word for the day was “expurgate”— and its definition: “verb tr.: to remove parts considered objectionable.” Hilarious. There I was in my hotel room putting the finishing touches on my tiny talk—this had to be a sign, a directive; for me, of course, not for Truman Capote. If you were to expurgate In Cold Blood, it’d have no blood at all. The best parts are the objectionable parts, right? But are they objectionable? Or are they only the best?
In Cold Blood, billed by the author (as noted) as the first “nonfiction novel” (although his assertion is debatable—just about everything about Capote is debatable, after all),was published half a century ago this year: hence the occasion—the AWP event—an opportunity to consider the book’s legacy and relevance today. But let me back up again: it was 1969. I was 12. The Clutters had died ten years earlier; the book had been published three years before. I read on my back in a sun-filled room (mine: I had a big bay window, and a chintz bedspread pulled up over my knees); it was one of those days when your parents keep urging you to go outside, get on your bike, get some fresh air…but I was cooped up with Truman Capote. I could not get enough. I read the way we read fiction—or the way we did when we were kids, which is why we fell in love with writing in the first place, yes? I mean to say, if Capote had ruled out first person presence and point of view (a requirement, said he, of his brand-new form), I had not: I believed in what was happening in that farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas as if I were dreaming it up all by myself. It was Nancy Clutter who got to me, of course—Nancy, who was 16 and perfect. She had a horse and a boyfriend; she was good at everything; everyone loved her. Nabokov has counseled us against identifying with characters. That isn’t our job he explains in his invaluable essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. And even so that’s how I read fiction back then, and how I still read it when I get lucky: for the duration (at the very least), I claim it as my own.
I knew, of course I did, that Capote’s book was not just “based on” a true story (that’s Hollywood parlance by the way—based on, inspired by—these are the phrases screenwriters and producers use to let us know they’ve fudged the facts): that was undoubtedly part of the lure—that this terrible thing had happened to a real girl, a girl just like me (okay, nothing like me—no horse, no boyfriend, not dead—poor Nancy… I ached for Nancy). But not only “based on,” that’s my point: According to Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, the author “publicly boasted” that “In Cold Blood may have been written like a novel, but it is accurate to the smallest detail—“immaculately factual.”” Clarke goes on to say, “Although it has no footnotes, Capote could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book,” he said, “the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.”
But he did give way to distortions, that we know. And he had to have invented—because he wasn’t there! So—does it matter? Once a work is part of the canon—once it informs the culture as this book has, is it, perhaps, a waste of time to worry about the rules? In any case, I can tell you, if you’re 12 years old, and you’re death-obsessed, as very many of us 12 year olds were (for me that was also the year of A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Roald Dahl’s macabre Kiss, Kiss) the rules (not that you knew them at the time, but say you had—Genre, wtf, who cares, you would have said then—and here’s an awful thought: were you more enlightened then?) would seem not to apply.
Flashing forward (I hope I’m not giving you whip lash): Every time I went to jot down my thoughts about the book I got stuck in just this way—as if I’d been chosen, me of all people, to come at the book from this particular angle. But of course that wasn’t why the moderator (smart, insightful Kelly Grey Carlisle) had contacted me—it couldn’t have been; she had no way of knowing how strident I’ve become about genre blur—about the responsibilities of writing nonfiction. What she did know, she must have, was that I’d written about a murder, my father’s, in a book called Bigger than Life.
And yet. I wasn’t willing, at first, to zoom in from that perspective—as if I have some particular purchase, or privilege, or prescription for writing about trauma. How long, how many times, I asked myself, can a person milk a trauma? And so, this time, for this panel—and this was an act of avoidance, I guess—I resolved I wouldn’t resort to that strategy. This time I’d change it up. Therefore I engaged in an informal survey. I emailed a bunch of my colleagues—a dozen smart, successful writers—and asked them to tell me in a line or two what they thought about In Cold Blood.
The first responder, a journalist in her mid-50s, who, like me, had read the book as an adolescent, wrote that she was (again, like me) “swallowed up in the story.” When I asked if it occurred to her that Capote had made any of it up, she answered that it was “written with such authority that I believed in it.”
Another friend—a guy pushing 60 who pens novels and writes for television—had read much more recently, as a middle-aged man. He was “blown away,” he said, “by the prose, the storytelling, the essential invention of an entire genre.”
And another novelist, who remembers the book from high school in the 70s, told me that, having to do with the title, perhaps, she’d felt cold as she read, and “a little sick, the way you feel when you suspect yourself of prurience. The narrative distance probably also contributed to that feeling.” She added, “I believed every word.”
Two more: First, from Nathan Deuel, a young nonfiction writer (he has to be named, because I can’t take credit for his answer, though I wish I could): “It’s a beautiful book! But it’s also a big hash, right? I could imagine a great course that involved Capote, D’Agata, Dillard, etc. Details, Danger, Destiny, and Deceit.”
Last, from a New Yorker staff writer, also in her 30s, who read the book a year or two after she graduated from college: She was “thrilled” by the writing, she said, though she remembers wondering, “How is this NON-fiction?”
Good fun, my survey, though it didn’t change anything for me; it only confirmed my misgivings, which have more to do with my own way of reading, I fear, than with the book, itself. I found myself wondering over and over: Did Capote get away with something when he published In Cold Blood? Would he get away with it now? To even entertain the question makes me wonder when exactly I became so rigid in my expectations and standards? And now: face to face with In Cold Blood, do I have the courage of my relatively recently-cultivated convictions? Are my notions about genre worthless to me in the face of art? (At what point in time do we decide it is art, whatever it is? I want to know that, too.)
Here’s another quote, this from a 1957 interview in the Paris Review, two years before the Clutters were murdered. A writer called Pati Hill asked Capote if he had “definite ideas or projects for the future?” He answered:
“Well, yes, I believe so. I have always written what was easiest for me until now: I want to try something else, a kind of controlled extravagance. I want to use my mind more, use many more colors. Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means.”
As flattered as I’d been by the invitation to join Kelly Grey Carlisle’s AWP panel—it’s always flattering to be invited—as the months ticked by I began to suspect I had no business weighing in, not really. I’m not a journalist. Nor have I yet challenged myself to write about the experience of anyone I do not intimately know—which was the realization, in spite of my intentions, that prompted me to make a connection of sorts: because, come to think of it, back when I finally sat down and imagined murder on the page, I did, in fact, write in third person. But if it was the absence of an emotional attachment that allowed Capote to choose omniscience, it was just the opposite for me. I felt cornered. I chose third because I didn’t trust myself, not because I did.
The most frustrating thing about what happened to my father isn’t that it was unimaginable—though it was—it’s that I have to admit, first and always, before anything else (this is the problem of writing about your own dead, the ones who are real to you) I will simply never know. What was it like? Did he believe he was going to die? Did he have time to be afraid, or angry, or sad? Because I actually knew him—my father—I was unable to convince myself (as Capote had) that I could ever come close to knowing. And I judged myself harshly—still do—for pretending I could. I called the chapter “Conjecture.” And if I’m not sure what I think about In Cold Blood (not to compare myself to Capote, please don’t mistake me), neither am I sure how I feel about my own pages—about how, with the truth up for grabs (but forever out of reach), I nonetheless allowed myself to “reanimate, revive, subject” for the sake of “literary truth.” If “literary truth” is the end-goal in fiction, in nonfiction, even and especially when it’s the best we can do, it perhaps comes up short.
With all that in mind, and continuing to prep, I ran into an essay called “Ghosts in the Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” written by Capote himself, in which he talks about his sense of disconnection on the set; how odd it was to watch actors impersonating murderers in the Clutter house—that’s where they filmed the movie!—at the actual house: “…eight years have passed,” writes Capote, “but the Venetian blinds still exist, still hang at the same windows. Thus reality, via an object, extends itself into art; and that is what is original and disturbing about this film; reality and art are intertwined to the point that there is no identifiable area of demarcation.”
Although he admits, on first viewing the movie, to experiencing a “sense of loss”: “Not,” he says, “because of what is on the screen, which is fine, but because of what isn’t.”
Ironic, no? As if the filmmakers were the ones who compromised? As if he did not?
My first publications were short stories, the first in the Fall 1969 issue of the The Georgia Review and the second in the January 1971 issue of Esquire. In 1975, 1986, 1992, 1993, I published story collections, a novella in 1995, and a novella with two stories in 2000. During those years I was also writing and publishing poems and essays. But around 2000, in the process of writing The Story of a Million Years, I essentially converted myself into a novel-writer. Instead of writing stories, I wrote “chapters,” most of which could stand alone as stories.
But here in the early months of 2015, I’ve come back to story-writing with new subject matter and a renewed passion for the form. The main reason I’ve returned to the short story is that a couple of new technical elements have entered my writing process. One of them is that I’ve discovered that my narrative prose can be enhanced by imposing a formal “discipline” on my paragraphs. I’m not sure why I first chose to make prose-writing more difficult than it ordinarily is, but I’ll speculate that it came about fairly naturally. From the many sonnets, villanelles, and syllabic poems I’ve written, I’m accustomed to the discipline of formal requirements–I’d just never considered trying such a device in prose. In the process of writing a story about a character named Hazel Hicks, I noticed that the first several paragraphs I had composed were approximately the same length–and I liked the look of that symmetry on the page! I must have thought something along the lines of Wow, that looks so cool, I’ll bet I can do that for the whole story.
The other new technical element in my writing process is my realizing a way to give my subconscious more control in my narrative decision-making. In this case, a novel I wrote very quickly in 2012 (The Faulkes Chronicle) showed me how to invent things on the fly. From my success in making necessarily spontaneous decisions, I learned that my literary imagination didn’t need as much supervision as I’d thought it did. My composing process could function in a way that in forty-some years of trying to create literary art I’d never quite acknowledged or trusted.
These new elements have enlivened my writing life, they’ve made story-composition more exciting for me, and I’m grateful for their arrival in the language-generating lobe of my brain. For readers of the somewhat wonky discussion that follows, however, I offer these two caveats: 1) What works for me may not work for you, and 2) I have no evidence that either of these new “methods” will make my work any more publishable than it ever was.
The Finite Paragraph
Here’s the first paragraph of a story titled “None” that I finished just a few weeks ago:
Hazel Hicks was the first “None” to graduate Crossley State College as a Religion Major. Hazel herself thought it nothing special. She thought it an obvious choice for someone like her. Which is to say, a person who took every form of life seriously but who found all creation stories implausible–even the most entertaining and compelling.
In my font (12-point Courier) and my manuscript margins (1.25” inches on both sides of the page), this paragraph is six lines long. All but one of the other seventy-one paragraphs of the story are six lines long. And that one line is longer because it has a special place in the narrative. I count lines instead of words. Last lines of the paragraph get a little slack–they can be six or seven spaces shorter than the other lines. I don’t justify my lines, and MS Word makes all the decisions about line-breaks–which adds an element of kooky arbitrariness to how the words arrange themselves in each of the lines of my paragraphs.
The number of lines to which I limit my paragraphs matters in ways I don’t much notice while I’m writing. In three other recent stories, I’ve used nine, eight, and five lines. The lower the number, the greater the difficulty in composing a viable paragraph. And I’m pretty sure the sound and texture of the language changes with the different numbers–but not in ways that I try to control.
The main result of restricting the number of lines is that every paragraph requires extensive revision. So I’m revising two or three times more than I ever have before. I’ve put more time, effort, and thought into every sentence than I have in the past.
I try not to start the next paragraph until I’ve at least tentatively finished the one I’m working on. So I’m a slower story-composer than I have been, and my extended attention to the lived moments of my characters produces more detailed and intense scenes.
Tedious though this method may be, it offers a new pleasure that seems to me akin to what a brick-layer or a stone mason may feel while working on days- or weeks-long construction projects. When I finish two or three of these highly revised paragraphs, it pleases me to see them on the computer screen. Visually those paragraphs suggest solidity of accomplishment–blocks of language that can be assembled into a sturdy composition. Actually even a single one of them pleases me, because I’ve worked on it and cajoled all the little pieces of it into forming the right arrangement of words and sentences.
For literary construction, “the right arrangement of words” in a single paragraph requires that the sentences be of different lengths, that they be grammatically various, that they are musically appealing, that they generate some energy and enlivenment, and that their meaning advances the narrative and/or offers its reader something notable, interesting, startling, funny, and/or memorable.
The discipline of the six-line paragraph is much less demanding than the one for writing sonnets, villanelles, or haiku. So my paragraphs still have the somewhat relaxed sound and spirit of prose–but my hope is that now they will also have some of the intensity, richness of texture, and depth of poetry.
Narrative Problem Solving Through Syntax and Diction:
Letting my sentences do my narrative thinking–that’s the principle I’m applying to these stories I’m writing right now about Hazel Hicks. Here’s a paragraph from page 6 of “None,” the story I mentioned earlier–at this point Hazel Hicks has become a school bus driver.
Benny was twelve, which made him one of the oldest children at Fork Mountain Elementary. He slouched, he had zits and facial hair, and he had a smell Ms. Hicks was pretty sure was cologne. He wouldn’t look directly at her, he didn’t like her sticking her arm out to stop him, didn’t like her making him tell her both his first and last names.
When I wrote this paragraph, I was thinking almost exclusively of describing this boy as Hazel would have seen him as he stepped up into her bus. I had no design, or ulterior motive, for having Hazel extend her arm to stop him, other than imagining that she would, as part of her job, require Benny to properly identify himself to her.
I did, however, have a general plan for Benny. I knew that I wanted him eventually to commit an outlaw act. I wanted him to challenge Hazel Hicks in a way she’d never faced before. I wasn’t sure what the act would be or how it would affect the community of her school bus. And this is where my new method of narrative thinking came into play. In the past, prior to writing the scene, I would have thought out exactly what Benny would do, along with the when and the how of it. Nowadays I’ve excused myself from that premeditated way of composing–planning it out beforehand and then executing the plan in my writing. Nowadays, I tell myself that if I’m sufficiently absorbed in the scene I’m writing, my sentences, as I am generating them, will make the necessary decisions. Composing one sentence of credible action after the other will render each stage of the scene visible–and to sustain that credibility, the decision of what happens will be determined by the words I choose for each phrase and each sentence.
Here’s a paragraph a few pages farther along in this same story:
Frank Hoback’s face seemed to want to convey something to Hazel, but when Benny Sutphin climbed the steps staring straight at her, she wasn’t ready for what she saw. His right eye was swollen nearly shut, and the flesh around it was visibly bruised. She thought she knew exactly what his outraged face meant to tell her. Look what happened to me!
I like to believe that I decided on the black eye just as Benny was climbing the steps to board the bus. At this stage of the composition, I haven’t yet decided exactly what Benny’s going to do. But I have prepared for him to commit a violent act–as a delayed response to whatever happened that gave him this black eye before he boarded the bus to go to school.
Now here’s a paragraph just slightly beyond the previous one:
The children spoke so quietly among themselves the bus seemed to be sounding a minor chord. When she parked it and opened the door, the kids were eager to be free of it. Benny was the last to walk up aisle. She raised her hand to let him know she wanted to speak to him. When she said his name, he slashed her arm with a pocketknife.
And here’s exactly the place where the sentences have done my thinking for me. Hazel’s raising her arm to stop Benny in their first meeting turns out to have been excellent preparation for Benny’s outlaw act. Very likely my subconscious had a notion that Hazel’s raised arm on page 6 would come into play in the story’s turning point on page 9. But it did not confide that notion to me until three pages later–by way of the sentence “She raised her hand to stop him to try to talk with him.” After I’d written it, I revised that sentence (and changed “stop” to “let him know”) so as to make Hazel’s arm-raising less confrontational–thus the phrase “let him know she wanted to speak to him” makes the last clause of that paragraph–“he slashed her arm with a pocketknife”–all the more shocking.
The sentence in which the act occurred made the decision that Benny would slash Hazel’s arm the instant after she said his name. Maybe I could have planned to have it happen that way–Benny’s slashing Hazel’s arm immediately after she utters his name has a compelling narrative and psychological logic to it. But I didn’t. Its happening just in the moment of my typing the sentence made me shiver with shock–as if I’d just seen it happen.
Making-decisions-in-the-writing requires me to trust my imagination to work out the details of a general plan that I’ve brought to the writing. So it more deeply engages my subconscious; therefore, it makes the typing of the sentences more exciting. And it leaves room for changing the plan if a better move presents itself as I’m composing. It infuses my pages with more spontaneity.
Making it new comes naturally for most artists–it’s a basic of the artistic inclination. But the longer you practice your art the harder it becomes to produce something original. Musicians’ careers offer an audible demonstration of this principle. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell (singer-songwriters of my generation) are never far from my thoughts when I think about aging artists. All three of them were extraordinary for their talent and achievement in their twenties and early thirties. Although it feels disrespectful for me to say so, Mitchell’s powers diminished first, though what she wrote and sang remained interesting. The lingering interest may be because the new songs (“Come In From the Cold,” e.g.) evoke a listener’s memory of the old songs (“I Could Drink a Case of You,” e.g.), thereby enabling a dedicated listener to hear a past masterpiece simultaneously with the new “pretty good song.”
Dylan and Simon had stellar middle periods. Simon’s Graceland was arguably the finest pop album ever recorded–but since then there’s been a decline in his level of achievement. Dylan has gone on recording superb music, though it has to be said that he’s recorded nothing that’s in the same league with “Blowing in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Masters of War.”
It’s Dylan’s ongoing viability that I find comforting, though it’s also disturbing in certain ways. I appreciate his belligerent and successful refusal to be locked into the box of “Folky,” but I can’t quite digest his disavowal of the idealism we heard in those early songs. I don’t like his commercials for Cadillacs, and I have a lot of trouble with both the sound and the concept of his album of songs Frank Sinatra made famous. But I’ll tell you one thing I do like, and that’s his “Things Have Changed,” which was written for the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. And I think his 2012 album Tempest is evidence of his ongoing viability as both a songwriter and a performer.
I’ve never been that much of a fan of Miles Davis’s music, though I’ve always recognized that his work and his contribution to jazz was that of a master. But I’ve also always thought that his move into rock and funk around 1968 was a huge mistake. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the necessity to make some changes, and to make big changes rather than small ones. And doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I’d been Miles Davis. I’d have probably made a worse move. An interesting comparison would be Ray Charles’s decision to record Country & Western songs, a move that revitalized his career.
Trying to make art is, in my view, the most rewarding possible life, which is why most artists understand it to be a lucky privilege. But the noble challenge is to keep making new art without– well, I don’t know any better way to phrase it than “falling on your ass.”
If Bette Davis is right, that “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” then it’s for sure that an artist’s finding a way to stay creatively alive in his or her senior years will be a challenge all the way to the end. You can’t stop trying to make your work new, and you can’t stop being afraid you’re going to fall on your ass. And here’s the ultimate difficulty–you can’t anticipate whether your new work will be viable or be the visible sign to the world that you’ve finally taken the fall. Art-making is a gamble; you don’t bet money, you bet your talent, your identity, your self-respect, your life as you have known it.