I ran across this article, which raises some interesting literary questions.
How do we differentiate between:
Roman a clef
…and do we need to?
Frankly, I don’t care which genre a work falls into, but it is vitally important to me to have a work presented in a “truthful” light, in terms of the relationship between the author and the content. This ties in with the concept of plagiarism: When authors present their work as one genre when it really is another, they are being fraudulent.
To take a recent example: James Frey and his Million Little Pieces was presented by him (and his publisher) as fact; we now know he took wholesale liberties with the truth. Thus, the book cannot be called a memoir. And it is a fraudulent presentation to the readership. His story, with his sad little embellishments (come on, did anyone really believe a dentist would administer root canal treatment with no sedation? Really!) would not have been as compelling if presented as fiction. But I do think his story without the pathetic dramatization would have been just fine as a memoir.
The lines are fine, but they are lines nevertheless. We need to differentiate between memoir (a particularized focus on memories, feelings and recollections) and autobiography (recalling one’s own life and times), between a roman a clef (telling the tale the way the author would have liked it to have gone) and autobiographical fiction (a novel based on the life of the author). Readers and writers need to be able to make the distinction between “fact” and “remembered fact”, “fiction” and “fictionalized biography.” Maybe some books straddle the line (is The Bell Jar autobiographical fiction, roman a clef, or both?), but even these books should be measured against some sort of literary parameters.
For some reason (perhaps the high premium we place on entertainment?), we are a society that tolerates the stretching of truth, misinformation, straw-man arguments, and plain old flying in the face of scientific fact – particularly in the guises of verbal arguments. Maybe we simply don’t have the critical faculty to be able to separate wheat from chaff. The James Frey affair, among other recent literary brouhahas, makes me think we still hold the printed word to a higher standard than we accept from our politicians or corporate executives. I think that’s a good sign. It’s a starting place, anyway.