On Sunday the NY Review of Books exposed a secret which had been closely held for over two decades.
Ever since the first novel by Elena Ferrante was published in Italy in 1992, and especially since the sensational success of the four novels that make up the Neapolitan quartet (2011-2014), there has been much speculation about the writer’s identity. Until now, there were never any photos and almost nothing has been known about her. Yet she has been an oddly public figure in recent years, granting numerous interviews through her small Rome-based publisher, Edizione e/o, and gathering together a volume purporting in part to outline her family background, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,which will be published in the United States on November 1.
But after a months-long investigation it is now possible to make a powerful case for Ferrante’s true identity. … (editor’s note: which we will not mention here )
Publishing is having its Nakamoto moment, and many are not happy. There’s an ongoing discussion on WriterUnboxed, and TheBookseller has gathered commentary from Twitter (The Passive Voice has also picked up the story, but the post only has two comments at this time).
Speaking as a journalist, I can understand why this story is newsworthy; this is less a story on the level of finding out Robert Galbraith was JK Rowling than if we were just finding out today that the author of the Harry Potter books was a woman named Joan Rowling.
I would want to know, and so would many Harry Potter fans.
But would we really benefit? Would knowing the background of the author really add anything to what the author said or wrote?
In some cases, the answer is yes. If the pseudonymous Data Guy had been identified early on, his day job would have helped establish his credibility. (His identity is still a secret, though – possibly the most widely known secret in book publishing.)
Similarly, when book blogger Jane Litte was revealed to be a lawyer who had also deceived the author community while writing under the pen name Jen Frederick, it gave us a better understanding of who was running the Dear Author blog.
But the same is not true for Ferrante. As Lili Loofbourow explained in a tweet storm yesterday, labels are frequently used to cut down women:
Do you see her point?
I can see it in how the NYRB defined the author not by her work but by who she was married to, what she owned, and who her parents were. Ferrante’s work is no longer standing on its own, which was the whole reason she maintained the pseudonym for so long.
The pseudonym was part of the work.
Let me say that again: the pseudonym was part of the work.
The Ferrante identity was as much a part of the novels as the Banksie identity is a part of that artist’s creations, and that makes the piece in the NYRB less a revelation of a secret than a hack job of literary criticism.
It destroyed the work which it was purportedly trying to review while at the same time offering no enlightenment or analysis.
Ferrante was reduced from an enigma to a collection of facts, and I frankly don’t see why this piece was published. This story is like if someone had reduced the Mona Lisa to an equation which defined the curve of her smile, and in doing so physically destroyed the original work.
Yes, that equation is interesting on a technical level, but it is still a poor trade off.
image by Kríttik’l Kápch?r (CH)