Books: A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 28 February 1998
Berendt's bestseller helped revive this dubious brand of dramatised reportage. A hybrid and a bastard the form remains, although - like many such - it can exert a seductive pull. The genre in its modern guise began in the New Yorker in 1965, with the work that still defines it best: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's throat-gripping account of four senseless murders on an isolated Kansas farm, and of the pair of wild drifters who were hanged for them.
A plump country caterpillar from Alabama who mutated into Manhattan's flashiest social butterfly, Capote never came close to equalling the book through his drink-and-drug-addled later years. That much, at least, is plain from the 500 grinding pages of George Plimpton's new 'oral biography', Truman Capote (Picador, pounds 20). If you fancy a gargantuan, high-society reprise of Lou Reed's 'New York Telephone Conversation' (with 30 pages lavished on a single party), Plimpton's vast patchwork of interviews will fit the bill. If not, just nip into a bookshop, find the index, and check the contributions from the grumpily respectful Norman Mailer and the archly hostile Gore Vidal. ('Capote said to me, "Thank heavens, Gore, we're not intellectuals". I said, "Speak for your fucking self!"').
For a writer who always chose to mingle gossip, fact and myth, a bald set of transcripts must count as the worst conceivable portrait. So, in the case of In Cold Blood, clashing statements from law officers about its veracity lie side by side on the page. Capote's reputation rests on us knowing exactly what sort of alchemy he worked with the truth. Yet, without any critical analysis, the many contradictions dangle in mid-air. One witness even claims that Capote wrote 'a good part' of To Kill a Mockingbird for his childhood friend and co-researcher in Kansas, Nelle Harper Lee. Well, did he or didn't he? It matters to that novel's horde off fans. This lazy method can't enlighten us.
Indeed, you often wonder how strong a guiding hand Plimpton imposed on the team of minions who did the tape-recording. This bloated tome alludes to an ex-Observer editor it calls 'David Avsder'. Now, Plimpton probably knows David Astor, and the great literary socialite can certainly spell his dynasty. If a book carries your name on its cover, surely good manners dictate you should at least read it first?
Life & Style blogs
Alexander McQueen at auction: What makes a really great piece of fashion?
A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
No female ejaculation, please, we’re British: a history of porn and censorship
Stressed nurses are 'forced to choose between health of patients and their own'
Pornhub: Kim Kardashian's sex tape is the most-watched porn video of all-time
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...