Katie Roiphe is worried that people are reading What I Loved all wrong. She cites a New York Observer writer who carefully explicated all the similarities between the life of the author, Siri Hustvedt, and her protagonist. Roiphe seems to think that, mere coincidences like dates and biographies aside, it is an act of "sordid literary sleuthing" to feel that a novel about an academic (married to an artist) whose stepson is involved in a drug-related murder bears any relationship to the real life of a poet and novelist (married to a novelist) whose stepson was involved in a drug-related murder. Roiphe goes on to complain about the reception of her own family’s novels and notes that "in the mid-‘50s, when Mary McCarthy wrote her novel A Charmed Life, reviewers took her to task for myriad weaknesses, but not for the mere fact of writing about her ex-husband, Edmund Wilson." This is rather amazing. I know from The Morning After, Roiphe’s feminist-slamming book about date rape, that she earned a graduate degree in English at Princeton; it is a mystery why Roiphe, possessed of a Ph.D. in literature, refuses to mention the roman à clef. The best-known practitioner of the form in English is probably Thomas Love Peacock, whose novels generally starred slightly disguised versions of his Romantic friends. The "key" to the novel, the guide to which characters are which, may be obvious. Everyone knew that Primary Colors was about Bill Clinton, even when the book’s author (journalist Joe Klein) remained anonymous. When Samuel Johnson published Parliamentary debates as "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput" to avoid legal restrictions (the most common reason for the use of the roman à clef is to evade laws or libel suits), the key was transparent to anyone with a moderate knowledge of English politics. Guessing that "Walelop" was Robert Walpole did not take a genius. On the other hand, the key can be quite obscure. I’d be hard-pressed to say which characters in Mary McCarthy’s most famous novel, The Group, represented which of her friends from her Vassar days, but with a little research I could probably find out.
In fact, bringing up McCarthy in an essay complaining about the public’s tendancy to read too much fact into one’s fiction is rather astounding. McCarthy was a serious woman of letters who swam in deep intellectual waters, but as fiction The Group has aged into pointlessness. Novels about the slowly decaying lives of WASPs have as much or as little appeal as they ever did, but the salacious details that made The Group a best-seller — lesbians at the Seven Sisters! — hardly seem as naughty as they did forty years ago. Instead, what makes it interesting is the way McCarthy shamelessly mined her friend’s lives for material. As one essay (on McCarthy and embarassment; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be all online) notes, her college friends had little trouble identifying themselves, and they didn’t have any "[speculations] about the autobiographical underpinnings of the book:
"When we heard that Mary was writing The Group," Vassar ‘33 classmate Helen Kellogg Edey recalled, "Rosilla Hornblower, Maddie Aldrich, and I said, ‘Oh, God, we’re going to be absolutely ripped apart.’ We took it for granted. We knew it was going to be a bitchy book. […] The thing that made us mad and still makes me mad is that we were absolutely clearly identifiable"
McCarthy was an insightful, brilliant, vituperative critic, but as a novelist she was no great shakes. Her novels tended to be first and foremost meditations about Mary McCarthy and those around her, even those who would rather have been left out of it. Her second novel, The Oasis, about a leftist Utopian settlement, featured a character based on her former lover, Philip Rahv, whose portrayal so offended Rahv that he sought to have publication of the book halted.
Roiphe writes, "Novels should be read and loved and hated for what they are, not for what they are ‘thinly veiling.’ Let those who want to read tabloids read tabloids. And let writers worry about their own personal lives." But if Hustvedt weren’t interested in writing a novel based specifically events from her life, why mimic them so closely? I know very little about Hustvedt’s husband, Paul Auster, and I know absolutely nothing about Hustvedt. Roiphe is right that the game of discovering who is who can be tedious. The Mary McCarthy of Mary McCarthy’s novels is probably an essentially fictional beast, and for most books it would be a boring parlor game to discuss who the "real" characters are. But the roman à clef invites such investigations. It would seem fair game to discuss whether the Allan Bloom analog Ravelstein, the title character of Philip Roth’s roman à clef about the late academic and cultural conservative, bears any resemblence to his real-life counterpart. Figuring out who was who in Primary Colors was half the fun (the other half was guessing whether George Stephanopolis wrote it).
Has Roiphe been accused of making her characters hew a bit too closely to some of her friends and colleagues? Her objections seem to be essentially scolding; it’s not right, she tells us, to discuss the ethics of writing a thinly veiled account of one’s relative’s run-ins with the law; good readers understand not just that authors are not their charaters but that all characters bear no real resemblance to anyone, living or dead. Roiphe may be right that we’ve built a cult of the memoir around novels, but I’m sure her reading would come as a great surprise to Mary McCarthy, who repaid friends and enemies in her novels, and to Helen Kellogg Edey, who saw herself in one.