I've just finished reading Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift and, in reading the reviews afterwards, discovered that it's a roman à clef (which has been defined as "a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction"), with the narrator based on Bellow himself and the character Von Humboldt Fleisher based on Bellow's friend and mentor, the poet Delmore Schwartz.

The novel has given me a useful angle on how I might approach either of two ideas for a novel I've been kicking around, each of which could borrow heavily from my real-life experience. I'd previously considered taking pains to change the details of characters and events so that no real person could be identified, but after reading Humboldt's Gift I'm attracted to the idea of making a couple of the principal characters more transparently recognisable.

However, I'm concerned about the risk of being sued for defamation if the real-life person recognises themself in the novel and is unhappy with how they're treated.

Are publishers less likely to be interested in the roman à clef because of that risk, especially if the author is (currently) unknown?

  • Hi Chappo. Questions that describe your entire project and then list multiple difficulties you are having with it are not a good fit for our Q/A format. They invite rambling discussion rather than focused answers. There are three distinct questions here, some of which already have answers here. Please take a look for answers to each of your questions. If you don't find them, then ask the questions separately. Thanks!
    – user16226
    Nov 17, 2017 at 12:15
  • @MarkBaker: I’ve edited the question so that it only asks about one issue. Is it now ok for the hold to be removed? Nov 18, 2017 at 2:25
  • I've reopened this, but I would urge you to search the site for the word defamation and see if any of the existing questions and answers on the subject answer your question. writers.stackexchange.com/search?q=defamation. If so, please close this yourself and link to the answer you found. If not, please add an explanation of why these other questions don't contain the answer you are looking for.
    – user16226
    Nov 18, 2017 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


Are you more concerned about whether or not you’re novel will anger real-life people (I.e the government & the Royal family) or if your publishers won’t agree with it? Because I think that the genre is acceptable, even if the publishers tell you that there is a risk of being sued you can get an editor to change it slightly, but it’s very unlikely that those people you refer to will read the book themselves or see themselves in it

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