From time to time, instead of creating characters, writers have kidnapped real people and imprisoned them in novels. In the last century the preferred method was to write a roman à clef. You collected a group of relatives, acquaintances, friends, and enemies, gave them new names and sometimes different physical traits, and told a story about them, often one with parallels in life. Sometimes the author of a roman à clef also appeared in it, more or less disguised: Thomas Mann as Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Mary McCarthy under many different aliases in many of her stories and novels.
Sophisticated readers enjoyed discovering the real people behind the (often rather transparent) disguises, exchanging this knowledge with friends, and occasionally revealing it in print. Other readers did not make these identifications, but as time passed, their ignorance was corrected by critics. There was even a British book-length guide to all this, Who’s Who in Fiction, where you could learn, for instance, that D.H. Lawrence and several other acquaintances had become characters in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, and that Lawrence himself had portrayed Katherine Mansfield and her husband in Women in Love. As time passed, the keys to the roman were turned faster and faster. Wised-up book reviewers, for example, almost immediately informed us that Saul Bellow had based the troubled poet in Humboldt’s Gift on his friend Delmore Schwartz, and the right-wing professor in Ravelstein on another friend, Allan Bloom.
Today the roman à clef is not so popular. Instead, in many successful novels, the methods of literary abduction are less subtle. Their authors do not look among their friends for characters, or disguise identities—they use real names and events, though sometimes with considerable flexibility. Of course, stories about celebrated historical figures have been popular for centuries. Henry VIII and his wives, for instance, have been the stars of hundreds of works of fiction, drama, and opera, many of them bad and some, like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, excellent.
Recently, however, writers have started producing novels in which other writers, under their real names, are central characters. Unlike the casts of the old roman à clef, they are always dead. They are also almost always very famous, or related to someone famous. (Books purporting to reveal the unhappy stories of the wives and mistresses of celebrated authors are especially popular.) The advantages of this method are clear: the writer both avoids lawsuits and attracts attention, since everyone today seems to want to read about celebrities, especially if they are promised intimate, ideally shocking, details of their lives and loves.
There are problems here, though. As readers, we often unconsciously feel that we have already met the great writers who appear in these novels, through their books. We know how…
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