Fact, Fiction, and Pleasure
As gateway to the book’s arguments, this chapter broadly explores the shadowy history of the roman à clef and its intersection with the collection of narrative innovations we now call modernism. Because the roman à clef depends upon an unstable mixture of fact and fiction, it presents a unique set of critical, aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological challenges. This has often led readers and scholars to dismiss it as mere ephemera, but this chapter argues that modernist writers drew on its unstable structures in order to launch their own thoroughgoing critique of literary realism. Understanding modernism thus requires us to take the roman à clef seriously and this chapter develops a pragmatic, social theory of genre criticism to locate it squarely within a larger history of narrative. Doing so, however, reveals that the roman à clef has an uncanny agency of its own and thus cannot be easily constrained either by the authors who invoke it or the critics who attempt to understand its complex workings.
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