Suppose you are a chess-playing professor at a distinguished law school, raised in the heart of the African-American haute bourgeoisie, publicly active as an evangelical Christian, and famous for combining a strong sense of black solidarity with ambivalence about affirmative action. Suppose, in short, that you are Stephen L. Carter. Now suppose you write a mystery novel whose protagonist, Talcott Garland, is a chess-playing professor at an eminent law school, raised in the heart of the African-American haute bourgeoisie, an active Christian, ambivalent about affirmative action, and given to extensive ruminations on the state of what he calls “the darker nation.” You run the risk that, at least among people who write reviews, the book will be taken as a roman à clef. Your hero’s skeptical views of the federal judicial confirmation process, contemporary black political leadership, and white liberals will likely be assumed to be your own, especially if these views seem consonant with opinions you have yourself expressed. And some readers will seek to infer your views—the views of the Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter—about topics on which you have not so famously delivered yourself, from the curious function of student-edited law reviews to the bizarre intricacies of law school politics.
Nor, alas, will it necessarily help to write an author’s note asserting flatly that your book is “not a roman à clef on law teaching, or on the bizarre process by which we confirm (or fail to confirm) Supreme Court Justices, or the tribulations of middle-class black America, or anything else,” particularly if this denial comes at the end of the novel. Carter’s extended disclaimer—at three pages it counts as a note only by the standards of a law review—is, so to say, the fine print to the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law’s compact with his readers, excusing him from responsibility for any implications they may draw, while acknowledging that some will probably draw them anyway.
Though Carter is a freshman novelist, he is a well-established scholar and commentator, the author of half a dozen nonfiction books about some serious matters: American race relations, the integrity of the judiciary, religion and the state. Among these books are Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), the best-selling The Culture of Disbelief (1993), The Confirmation Mess (1995), and, most recently, God’s Name in Vain (2000), and they have established Carter as a robust defender of moderate politics and of religious values in public life, one who takes issue with both liberal and conservative orthodoxies. In insisting that his novel is not a roman à clef, then, Carter is not merely protecting himself from misreading, but sparing his readers the burden of looking for heavy hidden messages about the world beyond fiction.
That burden has lain heavily upon black writers in particular. For decades, many readers have approached fictions by black writers as if they were, in the first instance,…
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