October 5, 2016
And Elena Ferrante would have gotten away with greatness if it weren’t for you meddling kids
by Ryan Harrington
As a culture, we build up female celebrities, politicians, and public figures of any kind, only to turn heel and tear them down — often with glee. We chalk this up to the starlet buckling under pressure, or rotting from overexposure. Please do read Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck on this urgent topic.
In the book, Doyle pays special attention to female writers who willfully obscure their identities, perhaps to avoid this very treatment:
And so it is that the history of women’s written speech is littered with lacunae, dodges and feints around personal fame — women who’ve used male or androgynous pen names (Currer Bell, George Sand, George Eliot, J. K. Rowling) or who have relied on at anonymity (Jane Austen’s novels, published under the byline “A Lady”; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published by “Anonymous”), or who simply didn’t publish at all (Emily Dickinson, writing hundreds of poems and stuffing them in her desk drawer, where they stayed until her death). So it is that the “singer-songwriter” genre — the one art form that is pretty much explicitly dedicated to putting a person’s voice and perspective out there, embodied and audible, in public — has such an odd habit of losing track of its female practitioners. So it is that women to this day attempt muthos with trepidation and tactical defenses.
This past Sunday, the New York Review of Books published an article claiming to reveal the identity of the bestselling, beloved, and famously pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Investigative journalist Claudio Gatti used financial records to identify an Italian translator (and the wife of one of the previously suspected Ferrantes) as the genius-in-hiding.
The literary community has not responded favorably to this reveal. Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell called it “abhorrent as well as self-defeating.” In N + 1, Dayna Tortorici wrote that Ferrante’s anonymity was a refreshing retreat from the noise of biographical criticism, now ruptured, and that “it’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to ‘out’ a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.”
Ferrante’s fellow bestseller Jojo Moyes added simply:
Only criminals deserve to be unmasked, if they have consciously sought privacy. Badly done, @nybooks.
— Jojo Moyes (@jojomoyes) October 2, 2016
On Monday, the Columbia Journalism Review published an interview of Gatti by Pete Vernon, in which the journalist, asked whether he has any regrets, says:
Absolutely not. None whatsoever. All the people that hate me for what I wrote are bad people, and I don’t mind the fact that they hate me. If Elena Ferrante ends up hating me, I would be sad because I respect her. I like her. I like her work. That’s the sad part, but I don’t regret anything.
He goes on to justify his investigation on the grounds that Ferrante has published supposedly autobiographical material in a forthcoming-in-English autobiographical book called Frantumaglia, parts of of which may prove false now that we know who Ferrante really is. Gatti claims to have no idea how the revelation of Ferrante’s identity could change a reader’s experience of her novels. And he doesn’t see the reveal as part of the trainwreckificiation of beloved women, as he didn’t know upon starting the hunt whether a woman was indeed behind the pseudonym.
It’s hard, though, to not hear some gendered expectations in the conclusion to his interview: “I’ve proven that there is no autobiographical information in any of her books. How can the ability of Ferrante to capture the inner lives of women in any way require her to be shielded from the public sphere?” Perhaps a shield is the only way this woman saw to sustain fantastic creativity for years without the public trying to wreck her.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.