Anonymity, Truth, and Authenticity: the Ferrante Papers

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I’ve never read Ferrante – never had the time – but I do want to, now more than ever. I haven’t looked much into the revelations about her “real” identity, though – not because I don’t care, but rather because the media brouhaha that arose out of this made me want to respect her wish for privacy even more.

I’ll admit that I do believe in knowing about the author when I’m reading a book. The limits of an approach that is basically all about the text, and nothing but the text – so that taking into account biographical or historical elements, in short replacing the text within its context, is seen as heresy – are self-evident, even though this approach still exists and has its champions. Yet, the fact remains that the text, or any cultural artifact for that matter, never exists independently of its context. And while the Author may be dead (but Nietzsche did say that God is dead, and look how that turned out), and intentions don’t matter, positionality sure does. While there is no biological premise on which to differentiate writing, there is a sociological one: factors in our education and environment impact the ways we apprehend and write the world. It’s not your chromosomes, but the response to them, that shapes the way you write. Knowing how the author is positioned within society, then, does bring up important issues of credibility and legitimacy. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white American man who pilfered and distorted the stories he recounts, yet it continues to be seen as a window into a certain culture.

It’s a fine line to tread between linking the author’s politics and positionality to the works and overwhelming the critical reading with biographical information. Whether Ferrante identifies as progressive or conservative will inevitably have repercussions on her writing. This doesn’t mean that knowing or not who Elena Ferrante actually is must radically change the way we read her books. She has been praised for her rich, complex, and nuanced portrayal of female relationships, something sorely lacking in mainstream fiction. Had Elena Ferrante turned out to be a man, this would have been interesting insofar as it would have shown identification is possible in an unusual direction. (After all, as Junot Diaz once touched on in an interview, men are not encouraged to identify with women, seeing them rather as mysterious and alien to them, while the reverse is not true.) If Ferrante is a woman, then she continues the tradition of women writers writing spectacularly well about other women. Both lenses are interesting; if her gender remains unknown, other types of analysis can come into play.

Numerous analyses have already been published about Ferrante’s identity, and its unveiling. Many of them have woefully missed the point. In particular, some, running short of anything actually intelligent to say on the topic, have tried to frame this in terms of the dictatorship of political correctness in our contemporary culture, claiming that great imaginative writers are nowadays plagued with horrible accusations of “cultural appropriation” if they dare write outside of the bounds of their experience. This framing misses the point spectacularly, in addition to churning out the usual conservative rhetoric that refuses to understand how concepts like “political correctness” and “cultural appropriation” actually work. When Yi-Fen Chou was revealed to be a white American man who took on a Chinese-sounding penname (and a female one at that), this wasn’t an act of imagination that sought to transcend race. It was a calculated move to instrumentalize tokenism and racial dynamics in the literary world, appropriating assumed experience in order to gain fame (for what had been, as a reminder, a poem that had been rejected scores of times). In that case, the use of a pseudonym was a deceitful attempt at cashing in on a different identity, not a perfectly reasonable wish to remain out of the spotlight.

My main gripe with the whole affair is two-pronged. First, the framing of the revelation in such sexist terms. Of course Ferrante must be a woman – her novels are so sentimental. Of course Ferrante must be a man – the historical breadth of her novels is simply amazing. Second, the avoidance of a discussion centered on journalist ethics. Should the journalist who revealed Ferrante’s identity have catered to what can appear as the rather tyrannical demand for “truth” on the part of readers, at the expense of the author’s wish, especially considering the author is a woman? Was this investigative or tabloid journalism? Where does our thirst for – and, some would argue, right to – truth and a richer reading experience end, and where does the author’s preference for, and right to, anonymity begin?

It’s not like Ferrante is the first author to express a wish for secrecy; nor is she the first author on whom we have (or had) no certain biographical information. Ever since people started writing, archives have been erased, destroyed, fragmented, so that our access to past lives, especially of those who had no reason to be in the spotlight and thus lived and died without anyone bothering to record a trace of them, has never been complete. What has changed then? Would this affair have been as “scandalizing”, had Ferrante given basic biographical details about herself? Had we known her real name and a few facts of her background, would that have quenched our thirst for details?

Or is the onus on Ferrante, for still holding onto the fantasy of anonymity in the Internet era, and for claiming to refuse fame while still benefiting from her – let’s face it – enormously lucrative writing enterprise? By being catapulted into fame, by no longer being an invisible writer toiling in the shadows with no recognition, did she forego her right to secrecy and privacy (although the two concepts have been continuously muddled)?

I don’t stand with, or against Ferrante on this one. If the cat’s out of the bag, so be it. Let’s respect her wish for privacy, acknowledge that some secrecy has vanished, and let’s not spin a valid discussion about anonymity and positionality into plain old gossip.