By thinly disguising actual persons and events, the roman à clef blurs boundaries between imagination and reality. Information transmitted through an ostensibly fictional medium can mislead readers into correlating fictional characters with actual people. This correlation directly affects those about whom romans à clef are written. Benevolent portrayals rarely breed conflict, but negative ones often incur lawsuits.
Under U.S. law, a successful defamation action requires reputational damage caused by the defendant’s intentional or reckless publication of a false statement of fact about the plaintiff. A successful invasion of privacy action requires the defendant’s publication of private, embarrassing facts about the plaintiff. A successful infliction of emotional distress action requires the defendant’s extreme and outrageous conduct, causing severe emotional distress to the plaintiff. Each cause of action illuminates the internal paradox of the roman à clef: The plaintiff essentially argues there is too much (true or untrue) fact in this fiction. The defense asserts the work in question is fiction, not fact.
While libel law softens fear of litigation by constructing rigorous liability standards, fear of an adverse verdict, of basic litigation costs, of reduced productivity, and of the reputation- tarnishing effect of a civil suit can be great. Such fear arguably leads to stifled creativity, heavy editing, and refusals to publish. Such self-censorship inhibits unqualified freedom of speech and the press. The question becomes whether such a chill on expression is acceptable.