Reading lists

5 books for… unmissable literary gossip

This year, Martin Amis will publish an autobiographical novel featuring depictions of Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin (amongst others). Here we round up five other fictional feats that got tongues wagging in the literary world.

Ah, yes, the roman à clef – that most juicy of literary genres that blends fiction and biography, and often paints a thinly veiled portrait of real people, gossip and events that are meant to fool nobody.

Writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence and Truman Capote deliberately unleashed elements of the roman à clef (literally, ‘novel with a key’) on their public, with sensational - and sometimes damaging - results.

And now Martin Amis is entering the game with an autobiographical novel inspired by his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer in 2011. Inside Story will chronicle the writer’s romantic affairs, the death of his polemical friend and the 9/11 attacks, as well as the many other ‘vibrant characters who have helped define’ him.

But while we wait for that to come out in September 2020, here is a selection of other works of semi-autobiography that got the literary world talking.

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)

When Silvia Plath died by suicide in 1963, her husband Ted Hughes became reviled in certain circles as the callous spouse who left his wife for another, contributed to her mental health struggles and mismanaged her estate and legacy. Birthday Letters was his riposte.

Published 35 years after her death – and largely addressed to her – the collection of poems paints a harrowingly intimate portrait of their relationship, from the first time they met in 1956 (her eyes were ‘a crush of diamonds, incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears.’), to their marriage, to her death (‘You were the jailer of your murderer-/ Which imprisoned you.’)

It's not strictly a roman à clef because it's explicitly about Plath. But rarely has any collection of poetry merited front-page articles on national newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic – it was the literary sensation of the 1990s. It’s his side of the story, and a very powerful one at that. What a shame, one must admit, that we’ll never really know hers. 

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