Is it acceptable to pair "portray" with "to be"? As in
The novel portrays life to be a...
Would it be better to use as?
You can certainly get away with "portray to be", but it's klunky to my ear.
"Portray" and "illustrate", as well as "depict", "paint", "draw", "limn", "sketch", all retain something of their origin in creating a picture. (So, for that matter, does "picture" itself as a verb.)
How many of these would you use with to be? I would use as with all of them.
But of course these things evolve. "Imagine" once belonged this semantic club, and still maintains a sort of emeritus membership in it; but it rarely visits, preferring to spend its time in the company of tonier words like "conceive", "perceive" and "discern", which couple freely with be.
Perhaps "portray" will move there, too. You get a vote.
May I suggest that what is actually being asked, or should be asked, is just how the choices will "play" within the realm of literary license.
Yes, it is probably true that your natural inclination is to use the (subtler), portray...to be, perhaps for no other reason than provincial aspects of your upbringing and associations. But, whether or not such is the case (most people would usually not be aware...) your natural (original/native) inclination seems to prefer the more complex usage: also, incidentally, the one with more, and more dynamic, literary potential.
On the one hand, portray...as... and portray...to be..., in the more or less strictly-present-tense setting, can can be deemed as (or deemed to be) more or less equivalents, with only nuanced difference, the distinction being that the "as" version is most affirmatively in present tense while the "to be" version is...no, I meant to say, would be also in present tense but in a more "infinitive", more anticipatory sense. To declare in the former manner would be affirmatively stating a known fact; while the latter imparts more so the possibility, as opposed to the actuality, of a present fact. It is kind of like asking the difference, what is distinctive, respectively, as between saying "I do that" and saying "I'd do that."
Enter now the additional prospective interpretation of your (own), portray...to be... version: where the present tense predicate (portray) refers to a future object (life to be [meaning: a condition of life as it will be but now is not; or a life not yet in existence]). As you can see, the infinitive (to be) usage does seem to open more possibilities, so could be seen as "giving license" to a greater range of possibility for literary and dramatic effect.
So whichever your choice becomes lies largely on your, and its, intended meaning and impact; as well as on the envisaged reader who will be impacted--that and the plot and theme, if a work of fiction or as otherwise applicable.
Probably best will turn out to be your own first instinct--make it your writing: revealing--not concealing--yourself (yes, even if a person given to dramatic expression...such as, for example, many of "southerner" persuasion or background), as opposed to attempting to adhere to an artifical standard for the sake of supposed (but not actual) grammatical perfection.
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