The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef

The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef

The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef

The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef


The Art of Scandaladvances a relatively simple claim with far-reaching consequences for modernist studies: writers and readers throughout the early twentieth century revived the long-despised codes and habits of the roman A clef as a key part of that larger assault on Victorian realism we now call modernism. In the process, this resurgent genre took on a life of its own, reconfiguring the intricate relationship between literature, celebrity, and the law.

Sean Latham summons cases of the novel's social notoriety-and the numerous legal scandals the form provoked-to articulate the material networks of reception and circulation through which modernism took shape, revealing a little explored popular history within its development. Producers as well as consumers used elements of the controversial roman A clef, a genre that challenges the idea of fiction as autonomous from the social and political world. In turn, this widespread practice provoked not only a generative aesthetic crisis, but also a gradually unfolding legal quandary that led Britain's highest courts to worry that fiction itself might be illegal. Modernism sat squarely, for a time, between literature and the law.

With skillful close readings aided by extensive archival research, Latham illuminates the world of backbiting, gossip, litigation, and sensationalism through chapters on Oscar Wilde's trial, Joyce's Ulysses, celebrity salons, and Parisian bohemia. Original, colorful, and perceptive, The Art of Scandal both salvages the reputation of the roman A clef form and traces its curious itinerary through the early twentieth century.

Seeking out the best new interdisciplinary work, this series explores the cultural bearings of literary modernism across multiple fields, geographies, symbolic forms, and media.


In The Art of Scandal, Sean Latham investigates the obscured history of the roman à clef in the last years of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, and identifies an important counter-discourse running underneath our traditional narratives of modernist institutions and aesthetics. the book promises to redress an imbalance in current scholarship: a symptomatic blindness created by the ideology of aesthetic autonomy that underpins so many stories about modernism. Indeed, Latham’s attention to the forgotten role of the roman à clef isn’t finally the most important contribution made here; rather, it’s the way that restoring the roman à clef to our histories of modernism makes us reconsider the hegemony of the separation of fact and fiction, life and representation, that is foundational in so much of our thinking. The Art of Scandal is an intelligently argued, brilliantly researched, in some ways quiet book that has the potential to send important ripples throughout the modernist studies community. Among many other admirable qualities, it makes outstanding use of archival materials, especially those at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and the special collections at the University of Tulsa. This book, then, which asks us to reconsider our facile segregation of fact from fiction, is itself built on a solid bedrock of literary fact.

Latham argues that “the scandalous boundary between fact and fiction” troubles the entire history of the novel. One can witness a kind of oscillation: early novels legitimate themselves based on a fidelity to “fact” (Gullliver’s Travels, famously, purporting to be a true firsthand account happily discovered by its editor), whereas the modernist novel, in spite of its heavy indebtedness to realism (think of the encyclopedic realism of Ulysses, about which Joyce boasted at every opportunity . . .

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