In the past week, book news has been dominated by a single story: that of the unmasking of notoriously private Italian author Elena Ferrante.
In case you have missed this story, here are the basics. Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist. In the past few years, her Neapolitan quartet of novels has received widespread attention and acclaim (the last was nominated for a prestigious Italian book award), so that Time magazine named her one of the one hundred most influential people on the planet in 2016.
Famously, from the start of her publishing journey Elena Ferrante has been determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’
Elena Ferrante fans – and there are many – have long accepted that her true identity is not theirs to know; they enjoy her books, not her public persona. They also, in their droves, respect her artistic decision and right to anonymity. Some creatives are even very inspired by her example, in a world where creator has fast become more a commodity than that which is created.
But then, last week, the New York Review of Books published an exposé by an investigative journalist ‘outing’ Elena Ferrante, detailing whom he believes she actually is (I won’t even include the assumed name here, because it is irrelevant and, more to the point, disrespectful).
No doubt the New York Review thought this would be a discussion-provoking article, but it was not prepared for the massive backlash from people all around the world who were outraged by this invasive reporting and defended vehemently the author’s right to anonymity. The Times Literary Supplement put it best: ‘He thinks he has put us out of our misery, but no-one really wanted to know the identity of Elena Ferrante.’
Here are my thoughts on this incident:
- All people have a right to privacy, and when a person has set clear boundaries, it is wrong to cross those boundaries.
- A writer – and, indeed, any creative – is not public property. The TES likened this journalist’s exposé to that of a corrupt politician. A politician is a public servant and thus in that sense is public property and may be scrutinised and of course exposed for bad behaviour. But a writer who has done nothing but silently write is not open for exposure.
- In revealing the author behind the pen name, the journalist has ruined some of the pleasure for readers. ‘Anonymity gave Ferrante’s readers a hard-to-define pleasure – it left them with a precious space in which to fantasise about her’ (BBC). Psychoanalyst Fiona Sinclair told the BBC: ‘We all have a tabula rasa when we read a book, a private world that we create, and Ferrante doubled this effect with her anonymity… Her anonymity was generous, allowing her readers the freedom to imagine her as both the protagonist and the author.’
- How must the author herself feel? How violated? Will this affect her ability to write more novels? ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,’ she had told The Guardian. She had told Vanity Fair, ‘I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.’ What right has a journalist to cause that pain?
- Is this act, as many are saying, one of ‘masculine aggression, meant to take Ferrante down a peg’ (Digg)?
- I wonder how much investigative work the journalist, now famous, will get be offered now. Sadly, I expect the answer is ‘plenty’.
What do you think about this news story? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.