Writing for Revision: Critical Essay

Critical Essay:  In Cold Blood

  • 1,500 - 1,800 words
  • Bring four copies to class on Friday, October 25
  • Revision due, in class, on Friday, November 1

This will be a critical essay, an academic paper.  It has become common to use the word "academic" in a vaguely pejorative way: the word suggests something dry and abstract, an exercise relevant only to the classroom, and not even to a very interesting classroom.

As a professional academic I would beg to differ: the academic essay differs from other kinds of nonfiction writing only in that the an academic essay always driven more obviously by an argument, and for that reason is generally more obvious and straightforward in the way it makes its claims, and more rigorous in the way it supports them. 

The Question

You need four things to write a good critical essay:

  1.  a text;
  2.  a good motivating question;
  3. a claim (which is just an explicit answer to the motivating question) and
  4. a supported argument  (which shows us how you got to your answer by connecting to the text)

For this essay, I'll supply the text:  Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  In the space of this essay, you might address any number of questions, each of which defines an angle of approach.  Here are a few, but these are not the only ones:

1.  What role does gender and sexuality generally, and "the masculine" in particular, play in the novel?  How do ideas about manhood (and womanhood) play out in the way the community understands itself? In the psychology of the killers? Where, and how, does Capote use ideas of gender and sexuality to illuminate the characters and the things they do?

2.  This novel is usually referred to as "creative nonfiction."  How is the "creative" part related to the "nonfiction" part?  What narrative techniques does Capote use to tell the story?  How do those techniques frame -- or indicate, or compel or coerce -- our understanding of what happened in Holcomb between 1959 and 1965?  

3.  Capote's original desire was to examine the impact of the Clutter murders on the community of Holcomb -- only later did he shift the emphasis to the murderers. What does this novel say about the community of Holcomb, of Garden City, of Finney County, of Kansas?  What are its values?  How, and by what mechanisms, do people find their place in this community?  How do the Clutter murders disrupt the community, and what is the community's response to that disruption?

4.  In Cold Blood is in some ways a novel about families:  the Clutter family, Dick's family, Perry's family, all of which intersect at a single terrible moment in 1959.  What kinds of families do we see in the novel?  What is the relationship between an individual and his or her family?  What role do families play in the lives of the people in the novel?  Do we need to understand the family in order to understand the actions of individuals? How?  And how much?  (For this, it might be useful to narrow your focus to a particular character and his or her family.)

5.  How does In Cold Blood frame capital punishment?  Does the novel take a "position" on the death penalty?  If so, what is it, and how is it framed?

That's enough to start, but it's not an exhaustive list.  You may write on any of the questions above, or you may tweak them a little, or you may write on another question.  Less important than which question you address is that you address a question.  A good, interesting, pointed question will lead you to an interesting analysis.  A broad question, a yes/no question or an easy question will leave you stranded.

The "Reader"

A final note, on "the reader." In this kind of writing as in any other, it's important to imagine a reader, somebody you're talking to. But, oddly, if you take as your reader the most obvious choice -- me, your teacher, or even your classmates -- you will probably find yourself stymied. Why? Because you are writing to an audience who already knows, probably, most of what you have to say. If you write to insiders, you will end up writing in shorthand -- and, after awhile, you will start to wonder why you are writing at all. That's how you get stuck.

The solution is to write to another reader, somebody outside the circle of the class. Imagine somebody smart -- smart enough to understand what you're arguing without a three-week refresher course. Imagine somebody who has not read the things you've read, so needs to be shown what you're talking about. And imagine somebody who is basically sympathetic and interested -- somebody who wants to know what you think. For many of you, the easiest way to imagine that audience is to imagine either a very smart friend, or a professor you work with other than me. If that person can pick up this piece of writing and get it, then chances are you've made a solid and thoughtful argument.

Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013, 6:32 AM