What does the world need from a writer?
The work. That is all that is important. Without it, nothing else matters: interviews, photographs, movie versions. It is the work that lies at the core of our relationship.
What does the writer need from the world?
A room of her own. Which means time, space and privacy.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claims to have discovered the name of the writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante. He claims he was justified in doing this, because “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books.” But in what way does that mean she has relinquished the right to her privacy? No one has a right to invade someone’s property unless a crime is taking place.
Privacy is essential for writers. It may be mental isolation rather than physical — some like to write in coffee shops, some prefer the cork-lined study — but wherever she is, a writer must be able to be alone with her work. This is not just a question of concentration; it can be a question of creation. Being alone with your work is essential to making it.
For female writers, privacy is particularly important. Jane Austen famously whisked her pages under the blotter when someone came near, to avoid scrutiny. Virginia Woolf wrote about being unable to write about the life of her body. “The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more.” The creative process is mysterious. No one knows how it works, but everyone knows that the fear of scrutiny, present or future, can stop it dead.
The Italian writer who calls herself Elena Ferrante addressed this issue by writing under a pseudonym. In her new book, “Frantumaglia,” a collection of letters, fragments and interviews that publishes next month, she discusses the need for privacy. “As long as one writes only for oneself, writing is a free act by means of which, to use an oxymoron, one secretly opens oneself.”
In her novels — the Neapolitan quartet that includes “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of the Lost Child” — Ferrante writes about a community in which women are “corrected” through violence, to prevent transgressive behavior — such as talking back. Having ideas. Committing the sin of pride.
Violence is still today a common strategy used to control women. In the world of literature, physical violence is rare, but another kind of correction is in play: a long-standing bias against women’s work. Despite all of our consciousness-raising, this is still the norm. It’s evident in the VIDA reports, in gender counts of prize lists, reviewers and books reviewed. The bias is widespread and often unconscious: The fact is that the cultural process is asymmetrical. Men do not read books by women; women read books by men. The fact is that men’s works receive more attention than women’s works, and what should we learn from that?
One thing female writers learn is not to expect much. They have internalized the belief that men’s writing is better than women’s. Some women try to write like men, some accept the fact that whatever they write will be inferior. If you think that whatever you write will be dismissed, it’s hard to continue. Scrutiny can stop a writer dead.
Writing is an act of courage; with each word, a writer flies in the teeth of the howling storm. This is especially true for women: Our society is set for a male default.
Ferrante’s decision to write under an assumed name is not a whim. She is not being coy. She is not trying to defraud her public. Instead, she is taking seriously the risk of intrusion. Most writers understand the importance of privacy that this allows her. Deep anonymity is the room of her own, a refuge in every dimension of time and space. Here, she not only has the freedom to think of the words and set them down, but she also has the freedom not to meet anyone’s knowing gaze after they have read the words. Because the two presences — the writer and the writing — are inevitably considered together. They are like translucent shapes that we set one upon the other. We consider them simultaneously, the pale form of the life laid on top of the work, as we look to see whether the outlines conform. Knowing the identity of the writer changes our understanding of the work, making us into voyeurs as well as readers.
Elena Ferrante (for that is her real name, regardless of the private identity of the woman who uses it in public) has created a body of work that stands alone. This represents an entire world, made up of language, family, gesture, emotions, politics and culture. This work has created her own identity. It’s not necessary to know her face. We know who she is: the writer of these books.
Journalists feel a responsibility to expose secrets to benefit the public good, but Gatti has not benefited the public in any way. No law was being broken, no fraud perpetrated. Ferrante has always been honest about her pseudonym. In fact, since this privacy may be essential to her work, Gatti may have actually destroyed the conditions necessary for her to produce it — which would be the very opposite of benefiting the public good.
Ferrante chose the protection of concealment, closing herself into a solitude that permitted her to write in absolute candor. There, in that inviolable space, she could say what she wanted. She could choose the words and record the truth about what a woman is. It’s hard to admire the man who chose to violate this place.
Roxana Robinson’s most recent novel is “Sparta.” She is president of the Authors Guild.