I’ve never had a problem with the form of fiction known as the “roman à clef” (French for a story that needs a key). Generally, knowing the key will make the story more relevant but not knowing the key is perfectly okay, assuming the fiction is well-written. How many readers have enjoyed Anthony Powell’s A Dance To the Music of Time [see also] without knowing the sources of Powell’s characterizations? As the years go by, those real-life personages are becoming sufficiently obscure so as to make knowing the key even less important.
I am, however, now concerned about what is being considered a roman à clef. Look at this list from Wikipedia:
- Le Jouvencel (1466) is based on the life of Jean V de Bueil, companion of Joan of Arc
- The novels of 17th century French writer Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701)
- The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621) by Mary Wroth is considered to contain significant autobiographical elements
- Glenarvon (1816) by Lady Caroline Lamb chronicles her affair with Lord Byron (thinly disguised as the title character)
- Virtually all of the novels of Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) presuppose a knowledge of English intellectuals and currents of thought of the time
- The Blithedale Romance (1852) by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a fictional account inspired by, but not specifically depicting, Hawthorne’s experiences at the Brook Farm experiment
- Ruth Hall (1854) by Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis) describes Fern’s own struggle to become a successful newspaper columnist, and puts her family (including her brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis) and two of her early editors in a most unflattering light
- The Lady of Aroostook (1879) by William Dean Howells depicts Emily Dickinson’s romantic engagements with several men
- Röda rummet (The Red Room) (1879) by August Strindberg presents thinly disguised depictions of intellectuals of the period
- The Green Carnation (1894) by Robert Hichens is based on the relationship between Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas
- Buddenbrooks (1901) is a portrayal of Thomas Mann’s family and of society in Luebeck
- The protagonists of both Tonio Kröger (1903) and Death in Venice (1912) are representations of Thomas Mann
- The Seething Pot (1905) by George A. Birmingham is based on the citizens of County Mayo
- The Fiery Angel (1908) by Valery Bryusov depicts the real-life triangle of black magic, obsession and love between himself, Andrei Bely and Nina Petrovskaya while describing a story of witchcraft in 16th century Germany
- Ann Veronica (1909) by H. G. Wells is based in the real relationship between H. G. Wells and Amber Reeves
- The Moon and Sixpence (1919) by W. Somerset Maugham follows the life of Paul Gauguin, especially his time in Tahiti
- Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923) and Those Barren Leaves (1925) by Aldous Huxley are all satires of contemporary events
- An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser is based on the murder case against Chester Gillette, reported as People v. Gillette, 191 N.Y. 107, 83 N.E. 680 (1908)
- Nigger Heaven (1926) by Carl Van Vechten is set during the Harlem Renaissance in the United States in the 1920s
- The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway is a disguised account of Hemingway’s literary life in Paris and his 1925 trip to Spain with several known personalities
- The Benson Murder Case (1926) by S. S. Van Dine, the first in a series of detective novels featuring detective Philo Vance, was based on the unsolved murder of bridge expert Joseph Elwell, who was found shot dead in a room locked from the inside, minus his toupee, in physical circumstances duplicated in the novel
- Big Blonde (1928) by Dorothy Parker, details her descent into alcoholism.
- Point Counter Point (1928) by Aldous Huxley includes easily detected portraits of Huxley’s friends D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry
- Roman à clef is one of the many dimensions of Orlando: A Biography (1928) by Virginia Woolf
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque is based on what he perceived to be a soldier’s experiences during World War I
- Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe
- The novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957)
- Tender Is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts acquaintances of Gerald and Sara Murphy in the 1920s
- Entirely Surrounded (1934) by Charles Brackett observes several thinly disguised members of the Algonquin Round Table coterie while they are guests of Alexander Woollcott at his Neshobe Island retreat in Vermont
- Mephisto (1936) by Klaus Mann. Mann’s brother-in-law, the actor Gustaf Gründgens, was so offended by the main character Hendrik Höfgen (based on Gründgens himself) that the novel was banned after a libel case
- Animal Farm by George Orwell includes characters who represent specific people in the history of the Soviet Union
- Power Without Glory (1950) by Frank Hardy is an unveiled and highly critical account of the life of Australian businessman and political figure John Wren (referred to by Hardy as John West). Hardy, a socialist, blamed Wren for what he saw as the corruption of the Australian Labor Party during the early 20th century. Hardy was sued for criminal libel for having depicted Wren’s wife having an affair
- Broderie Anglaise (1953) by Violet Trefusis represents her lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West and Vita’s with Virginia Woolf in the form of a heterosexual romance She also weaves the affairs of her mother, Alice Keppel, with Edward VII into the book.
- On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958) by Jack Kerouac
- The Ugly American (1958) by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, a book that criticized American foreign policy in Southeast Asia prior to the Vietnam War. The book uses the fictional country of Sarkhan in Southeast Asia that closely resembles Burma, but is meant to allude to Vietnam, as the setting and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed.
- The Carpetbaggers (1961) by Harold Robbins is a fictionalized version of the early Hollywood exploits of Howard Hughes and actress Jean Harlow
- The Idle Warriors (1962), Kerry Wendell Thornley’s novel based on his old acquaintance from the Marine Corps, Lee Harvey Oswald
- The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath, her semi-autobiographical novel, detailing a young girl’s attempts at suicides and her mental breakdown
- Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life is a fictional biography of William Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess first published in 1964
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) by Hunter S. Thompson, a fictionalized account of Thompson’s trip to Las Vegas in a drug-induced haze
- The Company (1976) by John Ehrlichman, a fictionalized account of Nixon administration involvement in events leading to the Watergate scandal
- A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick, a fictionalized account of Dick’s experiences in the 1970s drug culture. Dick said in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw”.
- The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) by Philip K. Dick, a fictionalized account of last years of Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike and people close to him
- The Lords of Discipline (1980) by Pat Conroy, supposedly about the integration of the first black cadets into The Citadel. The accuracy of the events depicted within is vehemently denied by other alumni who attended at the time
- Vasily Aksyonov’s Say Cheese (1983) recounts in a fictionalized form the story of the Metropol anthology by Soviet writers, the first project of its kind not subject to censorship
- Queenie (1985) by Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander Korda and the actress Merle Oberon. In the novel, Queenie Kelley, a girl of Indian and Irish descent, is based on Oberon, who went to great lengths to disguise her mixed-race background
- Dominick Dunne’s novels depict various upheavals in high society, with many prominent persons among the casts of characters. Among the novels and respective cases alluded to are The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985) (the shooting of Belair Stud owner William Woodward, Jr., by his wife Ann Arden Woodward); An Inconvenient Woman (1990) (the Alfred S. Bloomingdale/Vicki Morgan affair and ensuing scandal); and A Season in Purgatory (1993) (the Michael Skakel/Martha Moxley murder case). Dunne’s last work, “Too Much Money”, published posthumously (2009), is a quasi-autobiographical thinly veiled roman à clef. He became reluctant to use real names after he was sued for defamation in the Chandra Levy matter. Interestingly, Dunne comes out of the closet through the protagonist in this book
- Postcards from the Edge (1987) by Carrie Fisher describes her substance abuse and often-strained relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds
- Story of My Life (1988) by Jay McInerney implies that the cause of protagonist Alison Poole’s “cocaine-addled, sexually voracious” behavior is her father’s abuse, including the murder of her prize jumping horse. McInerney has stated in interviews that Poole was based on his former girlfriend, Lisa Druck, later known as Rielle Hunter
- The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien is considered a truthful if knowingly distorted account of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War and subsequent methods of coping with war’s aftermath
- Stephen Fry’s The Liar (1991)
- Primary Colors (1996) about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, published anonymously but later confirmed to have been written by Joe Klein
- Windswept House: A Vatican Novel (1996) by Malachi Martin is a fictionalized account of conflict within the Catholic faith and within Vatican City; Martin claimed: “To speak in percentages, roughly 85% of the fictional characters mirror real people, and roughly 85% of events in the book mirror real events, except those which are obviously mythic”
- Mona Simpson’s A Regular Guy (1996) is a fictionalized version of the life of her biological brother, Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs
- The Untouchable (1997) by John Banville is a fictionalised biography of Anthony Blunt.
- Part 1 of TiHKAL: The Continuation (1997) by Dr. Alexander and Ann Shulgin continues the fictionalized autobiography begun in PiHKAL (Part 2 is non-fiction)
- Ravelstein (2000) by Saul Bellow is a fictionalized memoir of his friendship with Allan Bloom. His Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is about his friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz
- The Devil Wears Prada (2003) about a woman constantly bullied by her boss while working as an assistant at a fashion magazine. Although author Lauren Weisberger worked as an assistant at Vogue magazine, she denies that the book’s antagonist, Miranda Priestly, is modeled after the magazine’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour
- 2666 (2004) by Roberto Bolaño, which places the hundreds of real rapes and murders in Juárez, Mexico, in a fictional border-town in the State of Sonora (west of Juárez)
- Descent: An Irresistible Tragicomedy of Everyday Life (2004) by Sabrina Broadbent, about the end of her marriage with Michael Winterbottom
- Lunar Park (2005) by Bret Easton Ellis is partly a ghost story and an autobiographical novel describing his early years of fame and difficult relationship with his father
- The Washingtonienne (2005) based on author Jessica Cutler’s affairs with various men while a congressional intern in Washington, D.C.
- Empress Bianca (2005) by Lady Colin Campbell was pulped after objections by Lily Safra’s lawyer; it was republished in a revised version
- The Ghost (2007) written by novelist Robert Harris in which the character of Adam Lang is loosely based on Harris’ friend, former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Director Roman Polanski turned the book into the movie The Ghost Writer, in which the character is played by Pierce Brosnan
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie, detailing the decision of the protagonist to go to an all-white public high school in an off-reservation town
- The Society of Judas: A Novel (2009) by Charles T. Murr
- Hollywood, which chronicles the author Charles Bukowski’s experience in Los Angeles during the filming of the movie Barfly
- The Insider, the former Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s first novel looks at the political career of its protagonist Anand who rises to become the Prime Minister of the country. The novel chronicles politics in independent India, especially in the state of Andhra Pradesh whose capital, Hyderabad, is fictionalised as Afrozabad
Let’s look at a couple of those entries. First, The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy. Despite the controversy over the accuracy of the depiction of the events at The Citadel, aren’t all of Conroy’s novels loosely based on experiences from his life and the low-country he grew up in? Is this really a roman à clef or is it just, as they say, loosely autobiographical? If a novel—an extended fiction—is loosely based or grows out of the author’s experience, does that automatically make it a roman à clef? How about Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar?
Is Primary Colors, despite it’s silliness, still a roman à clef or is it a political satire based loosely on real people but not necessarily historically accurate? Did you know that The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham is based on the life of Paul Gauguin? Was it ever a secret? Did the reader need a key?
How about Animal Farm by George Orwell? One of literature’s more approachable allegorical novels is considered a roman à clef? Are all allegorical works now to be considered romans à clef?
Or the broader question: is any fiction that is based on characters or events from real-life to be called a roman à clef? Doesn’t this entry sound suspect, if not ridiculous:
All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque is based on what he perceived to be a soldier’s experiences during World War I
Based on what the author perceived to be a soldier’s experiences? Don’t we usually refer to this as by the more appropriate term, FICTION?