Alfred University News

Letter by emeritus professor Ben Howard published in Times Literary Supplement

A letter by Benjamin Howard, Emeritus Professor of English at Alfred University, is featured in the current (March 29) issue of the Times Literary Supplement (London). Howard’s letter discusses Truman Capote’s controversial “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966) and its author’s claim to have invented a new literary genre.

As Howard explains, “In the spring of 1966, when I was a senior at Drake University, I reviewed In Cold Blood for the Times-Delphic, the school newspaper. Freshly back from a year of study at Leeds University in Yorkshire, England, I dismissed Capote’s specious claim as ‘so much twaddle’. But two weeks ago, I came upon a review in the TLS praising In Cold Blood and describing it as ‘one of the seven granite blocks’ on which the genre of ‘creative non-fiction’ was founded. That review prompted me to write my letter.”

In Cold Blood recounts the horrific murder of a farm family in Kansas in 1959. In his letter Howard notes that “the Herbert Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, four of whose members were brutally murdered, was violated first by the killers and subsequently by Truman Capote, who turned the innocent victims of Perry Smith and Robert Hickock into characters in a sensational work of fiction. In Cold Blood brought fame and a small fortune to Capote; the surviving members of the Clutter family received nothing. It is one thing to report, soberly and accurately, on a tragic event. It is another to shape that event for one’s own purposes and to claim license to do so under the rubric of ‘creative non-fiction.’”

Long regarded as one of the premier journals of its kind, the TLS first appeared as a supplement to the Times in 1912 and became an independent publication in 1914. The Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once called it "the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse, and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak”.