It's naive to think that authors can repell their readers' curiosity about themby Rob Sharp / October 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
A friend of mine, who will remain fashionably anonymous, remarked yesterday that this week’s Elena Ferrante furore—the Italian novelist, author of the Neapolitan quartet, who has fiercely guarded her true identity was apparently unmasked by the New York Review of Books—was a cousin to the “Streisand effect.” The phenomenon is named after the singer’s 2003 attempt to suppress pictures of her Malibu house, thus drawing even more attention to it. Tell everyone to stop looking, and they only look more.
The horse that is Elena Ferrante’s identity has well and truly bolted, but even at this early stage of the cycle of revelation, backlash, and backlash against the backlash we might suggest some interesting details emerging about the public sphere and the relationship between writers’ identities and their craft. We might also highlight that to scholars, at least, information about an author is no bad thing.
The hysterical reaction in some quarters to Ferrante’s so-called “doxxing” is producing more heat than light. Books are largely read by a culturally elite group, the same people who commission think pieces, invest their cultural capital with importance. Journalists writing about this phenomenon fuel it, and to be honest, as we condemn the article that caused this mess, we are also profiting from it.
The question of Ferrante’s unveiling is chiefly a privacy issue, and not as clean cut as one might initially suspect. The author’s apparent real identity had been reported previously, and was still only speculated on in the NYRB. The lack of confirmation from Ferrante’s publisher means that we still don’t know the truth, though the commentariat’s reaction seems to suggest otherwise.
Ferrante has a right to privacy, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no doubt that Claudio Gatti’s article was an intrusion, but other articles have strayed into similar territory. Ferrante, we now strongly suspect, is a public figure making millions from marketing an invented identity, and it is naive to think she would escape scrutiny. Admittedly, a feminist analysis of Gatti’s article has some merit—a man unmasking a female novelist in a triumphalist manner. Yet the same could be said for the subsequent think pieces: their portrayal of Ferrante as a victim is patronising and problematic, and going on very little information.
On the one hand, it is easy to disconnect an author’s intentions from the interpretation of their text. Linguistics tells us that words are enough. Even to the casual reader, the notion that Ferrante’s real identity will affect our reading of her work has been overstated. On the other, Ferrante’s insistence in interviews that “books have no need of their authors” is debatable, and presupposes we read literature without that sometimes important knowledge. That leads to an uncomfortably premeditated outcome, since artists must know they cannot control our reading experiences; it is our right to approach them as we like. There is also a strong argument to say that an artist’s real identity supplements our enjoyment, cementing our bond and understanding. Why else would we spend time reading literary biographies?
Furthermore, if Ferrante is to become a serious subject of scholarship—with all the benefits to culture a fuller understanding brings—such speculation over identity and authorship is inevitable: not just Harper Lee and George Eliot but Shakespeare and Homer. Are these figures worse off for the compelling debates that have sprung up about their work? History tells us a great artist’s wishes only count for so much, often ignored or bulldozed through: Virgil, Mahler, Nabokov, Hardy, Kafka. What of the second half of Gogol’s Dead Souls? Would the world be a better place with the full range of Larkin’s letters or Byron’s burned memoirs?
There are many lenses through which to view events this week. At present which one we choose only reveals our own narcissism, hypocrisy or unrestrained emotion, projections of ourselves on to Ferrante’s blank canvas, extrapolating from interviews she admits may be fictionalised themselves. The author has been exposed by a system her anonymity was designed to avoid, but through her revelation she lays that system bare for all to see. In that sense, by writing about ourselves, we are fulfilling Ferrante’s wish: her existence is still truest in her text.
READ: A REVIEW OF ELENA FERRANTE’S NAPLES QUARTET