Eliza Clark’s Revival of ‘New Journalism’: Penance

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Readers flicking through Penance in a bookshop will immediately be drawn to the epigraph, a quote by Truman Capote, author of New Journalism masterpiece In Cold Blood, and wonder how the revival of the morally questionable genre can possibly be applied to an age where true crime media is consumed, produced, and profited from obsessively. New Journalism is a literary genre pushing the moral boundaries of ‘artistic licence’ in the reporting of real-life stories, and Eliza Clark is trying to show you that it is present everywhere.

Penance is a fictional novel modelled on the wave of contemporary true crime media, retold in a New Journalism style, and conducted with such verisimilitude and metafictional artistry that readers cannot help but become convinced that they are reading a true story. Clark’s narrator, journalist Alex Carelli, fancies himself to be the new Capote. A hopeless journalism career convinces him that he is capable of wielding the same artistic licence, absolving him of the moral responsibilities inherited with the job of putting real-life events into words. Capote’s In Cold Blood does not have this middle-man. Instead, we are told of the Clutter family’s murder through Capote’s direct voice, the omniscient eye, filling in the gaps with a patchwork of prose, literary symbolism, and emotional guesswork. Clark’s narrative framing, through introducing us to this unreliable narrator Carelli, forces us to question the authenticity of true crime narratives that pass through a medium aiming to profit from its entertainment factor. Clark is revisiting the genre left behind by Capote, judging his narrative voice and integrity as a reporter through her judgement of Carelli.

Clark’s narrative framing, through introducing us to this unreliable narrator Carelli, forces us to question the authenticity of true crime narratives

In a break from the narrative, a reporter questions why Carelli did not ‘tell people you were going to write a non-fiction novel… Why write half a novel and present it as a thoroughly researched definitive account of a major crime?’ However, before the reporter understood Carelli’s novel as a popular text, Carelli did not understand the murder as ‘major’, but rather as something dismissed by other reporters. Carelli read the story of Joni’s murder through the voice of misogynist true crime podcasts, clickbait adverts, and buried blogs on a forgotten social media platform; he saw the murder as something hidden and profitable, something in need of ‘artistic licence’ to uncover what had previously been unreachable by casual journalists. ‘I wanted to create something with real, tangible literary merit,’ which he did not see in the other forms of media that were reporting on the same murder. Here, Carelli established an aesthetic hierarchy, a judgement of other media forms that had previously broadcast Joni’s story. 

In the closing of Penance, the final thing Carelli states is: 

‘The snake has eaten its own tail.’ 

By criticising his own voice, readers are forced to question the voices and labels that package the media they consume in an age where true crime media has never been more popular. In the epilogue, we are led to question the morality of the enjoyment we just felt, turning against the novel, which itself led us to question the enjoyment we feel consuming other types of true crime media: serial killer fanfiction, blogs, ghost tours, historical records, even the pivotal New Journalism novel, Hiroshima

‘Did you see the pictures? Did you look for them?’ Carelli begins. A plot has already unfolded, in life, in podcasts, in news articles, before we embark on this literary unfolding of the past. We desire a new perspective, and this desire is exposed to us when we read the patchwork of podcast transcripts and terse journalism; we hunger for exactly what Carelli wants to give us, a complete narrative with no gaps, something which can only be literary. 

Capote similarly relies on the reader’s patchwork knowledge of the true story of the Clutter family, with modern readers landing on the Wikipedia in disbelief after reading only few pages of Capote’s too-literary-to-be-true rendering. On the other end of the tail that we chase through Penance is the biting mouth of our own morbid curiosity: ‘Each [true crime] article seemed tailored to our basest instincts,’ Carelli has written. We look to media to bestow onto our unpredictable lives a feeling of resolution and organisation, something that can be done sufficiently through New Journalism novels in their beginning-middle-end structure that they lend from literary constructs. This is what New Journalism drew our attention to in the 1960s, but now true crime media thrives on the scare factor of withholding this sense of organisation. Where Carelli fails in this contemporary climate is in his attempt to suggest that there is meaning, organisation, and purposefulness in the murder which was merely chaotic and unpredictable. The reporter that closes the tale cannot accepted the idea that Carelli has sufficiently organised the past through his ‘sketch’ of the people responsible. This reporter is the voice of moral analysis over the media we hungrily consume.  

‘I really felt this was an explanation for this crime… what I’ve done is really elevate a true story with beautiful prose and emotional explorations of the killer’s mindsets. You come away from my book with a much greater understanding of this case…’ 

Carelli takes the intellectual superiority within the novel, standing up for himself to ‘compare myself to Truman Capote,’ and ‘a skilled artist’. From this intellectual and moral absolution, Carelli casts judgement across the other forms of media sprinkled throughout the book. Among many examples, he judges the testimony of Jayde, replacing her voice with his because, ‘would you rather read the words of a professional writer, or a few misspelt anecdotes from a twenty-year-old who doesn’t know good prose if it smacked her in the face?’ 

Carelli takes the intellectual superiority within the novel, standing up for himself to ‘compare myself to Truman Capote,’ and ‘a skilled artist

Carelli supplements his ‘good prose’ with what appears to be direct excerpts from the girl’s blog posts. Carelli criticises Dolly’s true crime fanfiction, which is clearly reminiscent of Carelli’s own prose-ification of imagined scenes in Joni’s past. As Carelli looks down on Dolly’s media (stating, ‘her prose was so purple I felt embarrassed I’d stumbled across it’), other bloggers create fanfiction out of Carelli’s media: the creation of true crime fiction is a reactive cycle drifting further from any sense of truth. A snake which bites its own tail. 

Between the girls, Carelli imagines Violet making an aesthetic hierarchy of her own, ranking superiority based on appreciation of canonical serial killers, condemning Dolly because she creates media that is interested in ‘entry level serial killers.’ Readers are reminded that Carelli chose this crime because of its lack of coverage online; he desires to create his own literary fanfiction of niche killers, and thereby place himself at the top of the aesthetic hierarchy he has created through Violet within his own novel. 

This aesthetic hierarchy, the painting of the New Journalist writer as the superior narrator, and the book as the superior form of reportage, is not unique to Penance. The same can be seen, with a similar pervasive male gaze, in In Cold Blood. Capote criticises Perry’s crude attempts to become a poet and singer, even supplementing the prose with the metafictional inclusion of Nancy’s journal, read through the eyes of Detective Dewey. Clark’s Carelli holds the belief that the New Journalist writer has the most intimate power over their female subjects, their omnipotent authorial eye dominating the female mind: Carelli states that he seeks to reveal ‘emotional truths’ in his rendering of the minds of his female cast. 

This male gaze in Penance is also complicated and doubled by the gaze of the true crime industry that is also cast upon the murder. Indeed, Clark’s metafictional narrative structure, mixing various sources, writing styles, and interruptions until they all begin to blend into one passionately false recount, speaks collectively to the problem of true crime media today. The vast majority of the audience consuming true crime media is women, stating that they consume it to increase their own safety and awareness; within Penance, Heather is interviewed by Carelli and leaves the text stating, ‘You’re a creep. And I want you to write that into your nasty little book.’ Subtly, Clark is pointing to this phenomenon of the links between true crime and women feeling safe, drawing the reader’s awareness to the male gaze which is observing the entirely female cast of characters within the book. He discounts Heather’s statement that Dolly’s father was sexually abusive, using his own experiences as a male to fill in the gaps of Heather and Dolly’s female experience. He sheds any impartial authorial responsibility, stating:

            ‘The last thing I want to mention is just… the sexual abuse claim. I just want to point something out.’

            ‘Here we go,’ said Heather…

            ‘It’s not necessarily malicious, checking on your child. That’s all,’ I said.

            ‘I don’t really care what you think. He wasn’t checking on her, he was doing something.’

            ‘How do you know, Heather?’ I asked.

Carelli is the historian of Penance, whose ‘definitive’ text is pervaded by contextual, misogynist, and entertainment-making bias

Despite this pervasive unreliability of the narrator, the book repeatedly refers to itself as the ‘definitive book on the case’. Characters hand over their testimonies not only because they trust Carelli, but also because they trust the form of the book. Jayde states, ‘I said I’d talk to you… just because people will at least have this book as a reference… If anyone wants to write about it or make another podcast they’ll at least read the book first.’ When confronted with the reporter in the epilogue, Carelli suggests that people trusted New Journalism in the 1960s because ‘I think people had more respect for the authority of the writer then,’ but now, Carelli’s text has taken the same place as the biased podcasts and fanfics. Perhaps Clark is suggesting that all media reacting to true, devastating circumstances is tainted by the mouthpiece through which it is shared – a hierarchy cannot exist where there is a collective lack of integrity. Clark expresses a similar belief to critic Hayden White, who states that every recount of history is a creative act, being shaped by the bias of the historian’s ontology. Carelli is the historian of Penance, whose ‘definitive’ text is pervaded by contextual, misogynist, and entertainment-making bias.

Carelli places New Journalism and his prose ‘sketch’ of Joni’s murder at the top of the aesthetic hierarchy of true crime media. Fictional filling-in-the-gaps is necessary to his understanding of life: the classical fictional constructs of organisation, resolution, beginning-middle-end, are a necessary pacifier for understanding the unpredictable. Pushing Carelli into the role of problematic and unreliable narrator, Clark is asking us to question the packages in which we receive the media we consume. 

Image credits: Faber and Faber via

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