December 11, 2019
Women writers dominate Italian lit market in wake of Ferrante Fever
by John Francisconi
One of the decade’s best publishing stories is the breakout success of pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante. She received the James Wood seal of approval, brought international flavor (and likely some much-improved food) to America’s typically hermetic book club groups, inspired a literary fever, and endured repeated attempts at uncovering her true identity.
My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of her Neapolitan quartet, hit American shores in 2012, and the force of her writing—particularly her characters and her vivid evocation of place—is still inspiring readers and writers across the world.
The New York Times credits Ferrante with being partly responsible for a renaissance of Italian female writers.
“Once we were more reluctant to write about certain topics, fearing they could be labeled as ‘women’s stuff,’” said Veronica Raimo, author of the novel The Girl at the Door, an exploration of marriage, pregnancy and sexual assault allegations that was translated into English this year. “There was this idea that stories told by women couldn’t be universal. But that’s changing.”
Not all of Italy’s new crop of women writers are being translated into English, but the work of several independent publishers (Europa Editions, to be sure, but also Open Letter Books, Transit Books, New Vessel Press, and Other Press, to name a few) is an encouraging sign for English-language readers.
Still, some critics complain that the prose in Ferrante’s books lacks the linguistic flexibility and flair of her male counterparts.
“To put it bluntly, women writers tend to be less self-referential, because they’re less used to thinking of themselves as the center of the world,” said [Daniela] Brogi, the contemporary literature scholar at the University for Foreigners of Siena. She said women developed literary language to make themselves better understood—and incidentally, easier to translate—because they were so often ignored. It was a condition, she said, that Ferrante had eloquently coined as “smarginatura,” or, roughly put, being pushed to the margins.
John Francisconi is the Direct Sales and Operations Manager at Melville House.