Take, for example, horse-loving Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of New York Mayor/mogul Michael Bloomberg, who just released the second book in her series about a young equestrian with a Wall Street billionaire father. Hmm. Then there’s the former Mrs. Billy Joel, Katie Lee, whose novel Groundswell features a young woman who falls in love with a surf instructor after a difficult divorce. (Publicists for both Bloomberg and Lee say their clients’ books are works of fiction, but readers may jump to a different conclusion.)
The list hardly ends there. Reality stars Lauren Conrad, Nicole Richie and even Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi have published novels inspired to varying degrees by their lives. And much like the shows that have made these women household names, their books tap into society’s seemingly endless appetite for the pseudo-real. You get an idea of what the truth is, but it’s heavily glamorized and then crammed into stock “storylines.” Readers don’t seem to mind. Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy, a bildungsroman set against the blinding lights of reality TV fame, spent a combined 59 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Says Farrin Jacobs, Conrad’s editor at HarperCollins, “People like to see behind the scenes and feel like they’re getting the real story.”
There’s nothing new about that. According to Sean Latham, the author of The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef, fictionalized tell-alls became popular in the seventeenth century and often focused on intrigues at court or within the Catholic Church. These romans (that’s French for novel) were often sold with a clef (or key), a separate document that exposed the real-life identities of certain characters. The keys were often published anonymously, and for good reason, as exposing a king or pope’s immoral behavior was considered a criminal offense. “You could be executed,” says Latham, the Walter professor of English at Tulsa University and editor of the James Joyce Quarterly.
If some were killed for it, others were celebrated. In her critically acclaimed biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman noted that Georgiana, a fashionably flamboyant British aristocrat, wrote about her life in a roman à clef called The Sylph (a bestseller for its time). “She felt trapped by her marriage, and couldn’t believe what was happening to her,” says Foreman, adding that although the tome was published anonymously in 1778, many in Georgiana’s circle knew she wrote it.
Flash forward a couple hundred years to the rise of chick-lit and books like Bushnell’s Sex and the City (based on her dating column for The New York Observer), The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (about her stint as one of Anna Wintour’s beleaguered assistants), The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (two former Upper East Side nannies) and Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes (chronicling the author’s glamorous friends). These literary confections reinvigorated readers’ desire to glimpse into the rarefied worlds of haute fashion and high society. It wasn’t long before readers of Bushnell’s column figured out that the notorious “Mr. Big” boyfriend was actually based on Ron Galotti, the then-publisher of Vogue. A spate of other tomes, all written by Manhattan insiders, followed in their best-selling wake: Karen Quinn’s The Ivy Chronicles (about coaching preschoolers for private school entrance exams); Bridie Clarke’s Because She Can, which was rumored to be about Clarke’s former boss, Judith Regan; and Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled (about a fashion-obsessed teacher/tutor on the Upper East Side).
There’s no doubt these books are fun to read and try to decipher who’s who in real life. But are they art? “The novel tries to set itself up as everything the roman à clef is not,” says Latham. A novel, unlike a tell-all, is entirely invented or imagined by an author; whereas a roman à clef acts almost like a “parasite,” cribbing from the real world. “It suggests that the author isn’t all that talented,” says Latham. “They have to steal and sort of cover up and make their book look like a novel.”
That’s one point of view.