The Moral Hazards of the Roman à Clef

I recently woke from a troubled sleep with the realization that I have a problem: the novel I’ve been working on for over two years may be unreadable. I don’t mean that it can’t be read, or read pleasurably; I’m not that modest. I mean that I’m worried that it shouldn’t be. And therein lies the conundrum for writers whose fiction attempts to emulate real life: how much of it, and the people in it, are you allowed to appropriate for your selfish artistic purposes?

My book is undeniably a roman à clef in the broad, modern sense that it is “a novel about real life, overlaid with the façade of fiction,” as Wikipedia defines the genre. In its antique origins, the roman à clef was literally a “novel with a key,” wherein the characters represented real people in the real world in a one-for-one equation, renamed to avoid libel claims and other unfortunate reprisals.  

That’s not the case with my novel. Really. Though the protagonist is a lawyer like me, and lives in a small town not unlike the one I live in, and is married to a woman who bears a strong resemblance, in personality and appearance, to my wife, he is not me, nor she my wife. As Evelyn Waugh asserted in the epigraph to his own roman à clef, Brideshead Revisited, “I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.”

An author’s denial that he or she is plagiarizing directly from life is particularly unconvincing when the narrative takes the first person. My novel started out in conventional third-person omniscient voice, but over multiple drafts evolved into the first person, which seems more engaging and immediate, but also implies overtly that autobiography is afoot.

And of course it is an autobiography; just not mine. Only if you’ve attempted to write fiction can you know the oddly independent life that your characters assume. I know what my protagonist, Conrad, looks like, how he walks and what he likes to eat, and while we share a number of strands of personal biography (like me, he went to Columbia Law School and lived in New York and San Francisco), he isn’t me. He has a stubborn, inviolable existence separate from mine, and as I was writing his story in what I heard as his voice, I was rarely able to predict, much less dictate, his thoughts or behavior. The same is true for the other characters; as I imagined them, I pictured not a single person I know. They were new to me, creatures in their own right.

But the problem persists that a reader of this book, especially one who knows me, will be tempted to assume that Conrad is me, that his wife is my wife, and that each of the others in the novel’s cast of characters stands for someone in the real world, who they will be tempted to try to identify no matter how firmly I proclaim (which I do) that they are all composites or inversions or outright inventions. Moreover, it’s undeniable that, in crafting my characters and their situations, I’ve stolen some strands of DNA from people I know and some actual events from their and my lives. And with that theft comes a certain moral responsibility.

Our novelistic pantheon is replete with examples of authors who pillaged their friends’ and families’ lives for material in the name of art, and made a good living at it. John Updike ruthlessly mined his own private life for scores of stories published year after year in the New Yorker and read by all the world. His friends knew without question that they were reading about themselves, and his wives were repeatedly held up, not always flatteringly, to the verbal x-ray of Updike’s meticulously detailed prose.[1]

James Salter (source of the epigraph for my novel) purloined the lives of a family of his Hudson Valley neighbors as the template for his masterful novel of domestic manners, Light Years, including such details as the décor of their home and their actual or imagined marital infidelities. The real-life couple on whom his protagonists were based could not help but recognize themselves in the novel, were hurt by it, and eventually divorced, like the couple in the book.[2]

At what point does a writer’s efforts to render his personal reality with as much fidelity as possible become mere voyeurism? When do the artistic liberties he takes with the facts of others’ lives become a betrayal of them?

My wife, who has read bits of my book, is personally offended, for instance, that Conrad’s wife dies in the first chapter, and that he later (much later) takes up with another woman, or tries to. My wife is perhaps an overly literal thinker, but she can’t be blamed for wondering if this arc of the story represents some morbid fantasy of mine. And why should she have to? What right do I have to permit, however unintentionally, the inference of parallels between the lives of my characters and those of my family and friends? Why not confine myself to writing science fiction, novels with plots and characters so outlandish that no one could possibly mistake them for real life?

I could answer that there’s too much science fiction already, and too many novels that rely on cross-cultural exoticism, and too much slavishly plot-driven narrative, and not enough attention paid to the ordinary, quietly glorious, nakedly plotless lives that many of us are privileged to lead, despite all, in this country in this time, and that that’s what I was trying to honor with this imperfect little novel.

But there’s no perfect answer to these questions. I felt compelled to write this book, and there are parts of it that I’m very proud to have written, but I don’t believe that creativity takes precedence over civility and discretion.  I don’t believe that my “vision” absolves me from tact. Even if it were the next great American novel (not too much risk of that), and even if it was written with every intention of uplifting the reader’s spirit (which it was), would it be worth a single hurt feeling or prurient speculation? The power we have as writers is real, and should be carefully deployed. Maybe we need fewer novels, and more self-censorship.

So maybe this novel should stay safely on my computer, or in some physical form that I can keep close track of. Maybe it’s meant to be a good learning experience, an excellent two-year writing seminar, and nothing more. Maybe it was always meant for an audience of one.


1. See Adam Begley, Updike (2014).

2. See Nick Paumgarten, “The Last Book” (The New Yorker, August 15, 2013).


2 thoughts on “The Moral Hazards of the Roman à Clef

  1. Pingback: On Talking My Clothes Off in Public | Mortal Coil

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