Roman à clef

primary colors

Roman à clef [raw-mah na kle] (French for ‘novel with a key’) is a phrase used to describe a novel about real life, overlaid with a facade 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 (a phrase, quotation, or poem that is set at the beginning of a document) or other literary devices.

Created by French writer 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 Victor Hugo, Phillip K. Dick, and Bret Easton Ellis.

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. It also provides an opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone, or an opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject. A roman à clef may also be an attempt at avoiding self-incrimination or incrimination of others that could be used as evidence in civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings. Lastly, it might be used in the settling of scores. Biographically inspired works have also appeared in other literary genres and art forms, notably the film à clef.

Notable examples in the genre include ‘The Bell Jar’ (1963) by Sylvia Plath, her semi-autobiographical novel, detailing a young girl’s attempts at suicides and her mental breakdown; ‘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; and ‘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.’

‘Primary Colors’ (1996) about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, published anonymously but later confirmed to have been written by Washington D.C. journalist Joe Klein. ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ was a novel (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.

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