My new serialized novel Hell and the Sea has some people in a tizzy. Ok… that may be exaggerated. It has a few people in a tizzy. Ok, maybe two people. In the spirit of being meta and because of my love of irony we’ll call these two people Ernest and Phillip. Anyway, the overwhelming majority of people who know about this book, and 100% of the people with the temerity to contact me about it, have loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. (So far… it’s only 3 chapters in.) But not Earnest and Phillip. Ernest and Phillip are really pissed off. The root of the problem is that some people get involved with literature when they don’t know anything about it. That’s not a condemnation. We’re all ignorant of some things, so I’m here to clear things up.
The Roman à clef novel is a long-used and traditional technique in literature. Some of the greatest classic books in all of literature are Roman à clef. So instead of me pretending to make up a new definition, let’s just use Wikipedia since that is the tool most of the people chose to use to educate themselves when they heard the term for the first time:
“Roman à clef (French pronunciation: [ʁɔmɑ̃ a kle], Anglicized as /roʊˌmɒnəˈkleɪ/), French for novel with a key, is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the “key” is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction. This “key” may be produced separately by the author, or implied through the use of epigraphs or other literary techniques.
Created by Madeleine de Scudery in the 17th century to provide a forum for her thinly veiled fiction featuring political and public figures, roman à clef has since been used by writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Victor Hugo, Blaise Cendrars, Phillip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis, Naguib Mahfouz, and Malachi Martin.
The reasons an author might choose the roman à clef format include satire; writing about controversial topics and/or reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to charges of libel; the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone; the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject; avoiding self-incrimination or incrimination of others that could be used as evidence in civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings; and the settling of scores.
Biographically inspired works have also appeared in other literary genres and art forms, notably the film à clef.” ~ from Wikipedia.
The list of classic Roman à clef novels is actually really, really long. Here is a good list of classic Roman à clef books from Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/roman-a-clef
There are literally hundreds of reasons an author might choose to write a Roman à clef book. Books as widely different as The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson have used the mechanism to tell engaging tales that have a root (some bigger than others) in stuff that really happened. Probably one of the most famous Roman à clef books is Primary Colors which is about a Bill Clinton campaign written by an insider. The one thing Bill Clinton was smart enough to do when Primary Colors came out was this… he didn’t scream and whine about it. He laughed about it. Because to scream and whine indicates that the fiction book is probably true. I mean, who gets worked up about a work of fiction? And the funny thing is that Primary Colors was primarily true, but nobody cared because it was an interesting book made into a movie and everyone just got on with their day like nothing happened.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a Roman à clef!
The technique is also often used in film… Rum Diary is a film à clef based on a novel Hunter S. Thompson wrote when he was 22 years old. The movie Casino is based on a real guy and the casino is the Stardust.
So, like I said, there are literally hundreds of reasons an author might want to write such a novel. For the unclever, let me give you some off the top of my head using some real examples:
- Because the book is about a guy running for president who might decide to have you killed.
- To keep from getting sued by people, especially if its true and you don’t have any proof.
- To write a fantastic novel about something that really happened… say a vacation with your friends where a few people acted like assholes, but the story was interesting enough to tell anyway.
- To define a particular event, historical epoch, or interesting period in a way that could be more true and interesting than if it was done as a biography.
- Because gangsters will kill you if you named names.
- Because the author has a particular lifestyle that was not readily accepted at the time it was written.
- To be gracious to people who were in the factual events and who may have acted poorly or who the author has no intent on personally attacking.
- To have a story turn out more like the author would have liked, or to use the story as metaphor to make a larger point.
- Because the story unveils wrongdoing against very powerful people.
- Because the personalities are not important! The story is the thing.
Phillip K. Dick is reported to have said that everything that happened in A Scanner Darkly is stuff he really saw in the drug culture of the 70’s. Other novels using this technique may be 85% factual, with some details fudged or changed to help the story. Detail changes (other than just character names) may be changed in many different ways… locations may be altered to better fit the narrative; Characters may be changed or composited in order to keep the story focused; Some characters may be introduced in order to bring in an element to the story (either true or false) that will help tell the tale. Hemingway believed that a fiction story could tell a truer truth than a factual story, if the story can be told in a way that eliminates distractions, heightens certain truthful elements, and compacts the story in a way that allows the reader to see what really happened without being bored or confused.
This is the important part:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The point is… it doesn’t matter. It’s a fictional story. Do with it what you want to do. It just doesn’t matter. Some really great books and films are based on this technique. It’s really a foundation stone of literature and educating yourself on how literature works is a good thing.
Of course if you suspect you (or a friend) may be a character in a Roman à clef, there are several ways you can react:
- The Bill Clinton method: Laugh it off. If you get pissy about it, people will suspect it is true. Also, do this even if it is true. Especially if it is true.
- The Cool Guy method: Be glad someone is writing a book about you. It’s actually pretty flattering, and frankly most people live and die and never have themselves immortalized in a book.
- The High School Drama method: Throw a tantrum to your tiny clique. Try to get other people to hate the author by sending out emails that are more fictional than the thing you are mad about. Unfriend the shit out of people! Whine on Facebook via aggressive vaguebooking. Pretend there is a war going on! (This works better if you can get one or two people to keep saying there is a war going on, even if there is no war going on.) I’m talking about Ernest and Philip here. <—- Roman à clef. Also, use the term “thinly veiled fiction novel,” because the people you are talking to will probably not know what Roman à clef means and it sounds more dispicable.
So… now you know what Roman à clef is! You have increased your literature knowledge today and it didn’t cost you a penny. Unless…
You really want to know what I’m talking about. Then you’ll go sign up to get the Hell and the Sea chapters as they come out so you can figure out what the hell is up!