Research: How far is too far?

Some writers have, in the course of their careers, reached a terrifying and occasionally impassible point when they realise they have nothing left to say. I’m not merely talking about writer’s block. I’m talking about the inability to write or even get fired up about any future project.

Truman Capote is a particularly stark example of someone who reached the end of himself in this respect. The book that provoked this (to my mind) horrifying state of affairs was In Cold Blood, published in 1966. Why after penning such a seminal text was Capote unable to write another full length book? There were short stories that followed, the odd television screenplay, and attempts at longer works (with one early novel published posthumously), but it is definitely true to say that he was never the same man after In Cold Blood. The question is why?

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In Cold Blood details the appalling true story of the how the Kansas Clutter family were murdered and the killers subsequently tried and executed. The events are known to the reader from the outset, so what keeps the reader interested is the rather grisly and ghoulish knowledge that at some stage the killers – mainly Perry Smith – will spill the gory details of their senseless massacre.

It was this interaction with the killers – particularly with Perry Smith – that Capote considered essential research for the book he was writing. A great book ensued, obviously. But what was the cost to him personally? Capote became increasingly obsessed with Perry. Furthermore, Capote emotionally exploited Perry to get him to talk. As a homosexual it is possible Capote felt an attraction, and used that to draw out the details he desired. Yet in spite of his feelings for Perry, Capote also knew the only thing that could bring closure to the story was the eventual execution of the killers – an event he felt compelled to witness, again for research purposes. His ambivalence over his feelings for Perry on the one hand and his obsession with completing his masterpiece on the other permanently scarred Capote, and he never wrote another book.

(Incidentally, much of this story is covered in the film Capote, for which the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar).

The lesson to be drawn from this is simple: research can be taken too far. In the same way that Lawrence Olivier took serious issue with Dustin Hoffman’s method acting during the filming of Marathon Man (when he famously quipped “Why not try acting dear boy?”), I have a similar issue with “method” research. For example, is it really necessary to become a prostitute in order to write about one? I believe it is possible to take research too far, and experience for experience’s sake will not necessarily provide any greater depth of knowledge and insight for the reader in the end product.

Besides, as can be observed from the experiences of Truman Capote, the price of such dedication can be very high. In his later life, Capote fell into a spiral of depression, turning to drink and substance abuse. He increasingly despaired of life, right up until his death in 1984.

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2 Responses to Research: How far is too far?

  1. oneofthem1s says:

    Hmm, some interesting thoughts to ponder over, and Truman Capote seems a good case study. Unfortunately I haven’t read In Cold Blood but am intrigued to do so. I’m curious about something; you say that it is a great book (even using the word ‘masterpiece’ at one point though you may be saying this was how Capote thought of it, rather than yourself), despite going on to say this was a case of research being taken too far. I guess my question is; what if the extent of that research was necessary to create the book you think was great? Would you rather Capote have not gone to those lengths and did not write the book that many now know and love? Which may ultimately have been better for him, but not so much for us as readers….

    I’m guessing your answer may be that you don’t think he needed to ‘research’ to that extent (which did seem to reach a worryingly obsessive level) in order to be able to write this book, though in the end how can we know for sure?

  2. simondillon says:

    Good question oneofthem1s. Frankly I am inclined to think he didn’t need to witness the execution, which I think was probably what really screwed him up. However, as you say, it is impossible to know for sure. Outside of the specifics of the Capote case, I do believe it is entirely possible to write a great book and not lose one’s soul (so to speak) in the process.

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