Leave Elena Ferrante alone

Image via NPR.
Elena Ferrante’s books have been on my mental “To Be Read” list since they first started attracting widespread attention a couple years ago. I knew two things: they were apparently wonderful and the author’s name was a pseudonym.

I couldn’t have cared less about the latter. It was the quality that was the attraction.

But not for journalist Claudio Gatti, who spent several months trying to track down Ferrante. His possible success has the literary world in a tizzy.

Some observers are upset with Gatti for his investigation, which — to me, as well — does seem intrusive. And since Ferrante is apparently quite different from the main character in her books, there’s also some chatter comparing her ability to write as someone else to the controversy of “cultural appropriation” in literary circles, which hit a high (or low point) after Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at an Australian book festival.

Last bit first. This is an ongoing debate, and yes, the literary world is as full of privilege and tribalism as any other creation of humanity. But to prevent fiction writers from “try(ing) on other’s hats,” in Shriver’s words, seems foolhardy. If a writer gets it wrong in attempting to describe the experience of another, particularly other ethnic groups, the public will know right away — especially in the Age of Twitter — and the book will be judged accordingly.

But fiction isn’t memoir: J.K. Rowling is not a wizard, Pat Barker was not a World War I physician and Samuel R. Delany isn’t … well, Delany is actually a lot of things, and why should he pick one identity?

There is the risk that your novel will be isolated based on your tribe. (Or, if you’re part of the dominant culture, maybe not.) It’s terrible. But it’s also no reason not to try to try on other hats. If you do it well, you may become a more empathetic person.

Now, the Ferrante unmasking: I wish this weren’t a big deal. I still don’t care who Elena Ferrante is as long as she can write. But there’s a long history of trying to get to the writer behind the book, whether it’s J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon or the former Anonymous, Joe Klein.

Identifying Anonymous was a Washington parlor game, so it became a scavenger hunt for the nation’s press. But why the determination to intrude on the lives of Salinger and Pynchon?

I wonder if it speaks to some kind of denial of what most of us think of as a basic human need: attention. We may criticize Kim Kardashian for her endless camera hogging, but it works. The woman has tens of millions of social media followers and more money than she knows what to do with (besides take pictures of it). Yet, have a writer (or performer — Daniel Day-Lewis has deliberately gone off the celebrity-industrial grid for years at a time) decide to keep his or her private life private, and suddenly everybody wants a piece of them.

As Pynchon told CNN, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists … meaning, doesn’t like to talk to reporters.”

Who can blame him?



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