I don’t care very much about the actual identity of Elana Ferrante, the author, most famously, of the quartet of Neapolitan novels. But when the journalist Claudio Gatti published a long piece in the New York Review of Books suggesting that Ferrante is, in fact, not an exact clone of her characters, he kicked off a conversation that is a useful tool for exploring some of the tensions between big, prevailing ideas in debates about the politics of literature.
There’s nothing particularly of-the-moment about attempts to find the person behind the pseudonym, or to penetrate the hermetic seal of privacy that some authors have tried to place over their actual lives. Joyce Maynard gave readers an inside look at J.D. Salinger in “At Home In The World.” Speculation about Thomas Pynchon’s identity and character has persisted for decades. And Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” became a best-seller in part because of the idea that it would offer at least some insight into what the famously reclusive author had been thinking for all those years after she published “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But the attempts to determine Ferrante’s real identity, and the reaction to her unmasking do feel particularly tied to current debates about culture and on the left more broadly, a stew of questions about privacy, gender, authenticity and cultural appropriation. And to a certain extent, the story gets at contradictions between a number of these strongly-held positions.
To start at the end of that list, this literary kerfuffle comes at a moment of intense debate about cultural appropriation, and more specifically, whether authors have the right to create characters from communities not their own, and what their obligations are should they choose to do so. The poet Adam Kirsch has already filed a brief arguing that Ferrante’s writing is an argument in favor of that sort of creative empathy, of what can happen when authors reach beyond their own identities and experiences.
To flip that idea around, though, the rawness of Ferrante’s writing about gender and class probably invited this particular iteration of the inevitable drive to investigate Ferrante’s identity.
Part of Gatti’s defense of his investigations into Ferrante’s life is that she has admitted to lying at various points in her writing, and thus “has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books.” While this idea is rather anti-creative, it’s also in line with many debates we’ve had about identity and who has the right to explore it and claim it.
Ferrante is hardly Rachel Dolezal, attempting to live as a person of a different race and to claim positions of influence on the basis of racial identity. But debates about cultural appropriation do seem to imply that authors have to come prepared to defend their bona fides. And if Gatti’s conclusions are correct, Ferrante’s actual life and her subject material don’t precisely match up (which, of course, is not the same thing as saying the books are bad, or fail to capture something true and powerful about that intersection of gender and class).
“I suspect part of what’s going on, below the surface, is disappointment in who Ferrante has turned out to be,” wrote Noreen Malone in New York Magazine. “She’s not a self-taught peasant who has lived closer to the bone than the rest of us. For all the intimate femaleness of her work, she may or may not have asked her Naples-born husband to (at the very least) fill her in on some of the details of life there. She’s an intellectual, and a novelist, not a Knausgaardian diarist. She is not a literary or feminist pinup upon whom you can project your wildest fantasies.”
The critics Lili Loofbourow and Aaron Bady have mounted eloquent defenses of Ferrante’s right to privacy, or more specifically, to separate out her identity as an actual person from the novels that made certain audiences so hungry to learn more about her so that her work could be read for itself.
I don’t particularly disagree with them, or with Malone and Kirsch, but it does strike me that there is at least some tension here, if we’re to try to develop an overarching theory about what’s desirable in publishing.
The space Ferrante created with her strict insistence on anonymity did keep the Neapolitan novels from being fed into the buzz-saw that consumes so much fiction by women. More broadly, this is also a tactic that could allow more authors more space to write about people whose experiences are not their own. If, say, Adam Johnson, the author of “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel about life in North Korea, had retreated behind a pen name that might have implied to readers that he was Korean, or behind an identity anonymous enough for readers to project the idea that he was writing from personal experience, the reaction would have been volcanic. Absolute privacy for authors and attempts to include more women and people of color in the publishing industry by marketing their perspectives as authentic are not neatly compatible values.
I don’t know how to reconcile these concerns, much less how to rectify decades of inequity in the publishing industry and in our conversations around literature. But until those solutions arrive like a bolt from the heavens, it’s probably worth a moment of sober reflection. Gatti’s guess about Ferrante’s identity don’t really change her, or her novels. The only thing that shifts is us.