Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Fuss Over Ferrante

The biggest news in books so far this year is the apparent unmasking of Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume that wrote the acclaimed "Neapolitan quartet". All kinds of accusations, especially misogyny, were lobbed at the unmasker, investigative journalist Claudio Gatti.

Speaking to The Guardian, Gatti justified his reveal, published in the New York Review of Books, based on something she said about lying on occasion in an autobiographical essay, which he says nullifies "her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.

"Indeed, she and her publisher seemed not only to have fed public interest in her true identity but to have challenged critics and journalists to go behind the lies. She told us that she finds them 'healthy'. As a journalist, I don’t. In fact it is my job to expose them."

So Gatti saw Ferrante's success, fuelled partly by her anonymity, as a challenge? Would he like to take on, say, the pseudonyms profiting from writing boilerplate "romance" novels out there?

Author anonymity can be effective as a marketing gimmick, and it's not as insidious as Gatti makes it sound like in this instance. Certain schools of thought suggest that since Ferrante's so popular, people - particularly her readers - have the right to know the truth about her.

Do they? And what if people know who she is and whatnot, what does it change?

The Atlantic wonders whether readers these days ask too much of authors. The desire to learn all there is about where a book comes from - thought processes, writing processes, influences and aims, among others - comes, I feel, from a wider culture where the provenance of a product is an important part of the consumer's identity.

Another aspect is that certain readers do feel the author owes them something for all the money they spent on him. But what else is the author obligated to do for his readers besides writing good books?

Just look at how fans harped on George R.R. Martin to finish his Game of Thrones series - presumably before a Robert Jordan scenario kicks in.

One example is an artist who felt bad he'd let someone down because of his busy schedule. Many authors and artists don't have the means to entertain their audiences' sense of entitlement all the time and on demand.

So, no.

I don't really care who Elena Ferrante is, and neither should you. I don't consider her identity as one of "modern literature's most enduring mysteries" - what does that even mean? How much does the author's name matter when one reads a book?

And I believe that, yes, we sometimes ask too much of authors, as The Atlantic seems to suggest:

We ask so much of our authors — to make things, yes, but also to be things for us — and the "we" is generally more powerful than the "they." Many writers, pragmatically, are introverts. Many of them would prefer, if they had their way about it, not to go on TV, or the radio, or your cousin's podcast. Many don't feel the need to write Franzenian op-eds in the Times. Many don't want to go on Oprah, or to be on Twitter. Many would prefer not to be brands, or performers, or public speakers, or indeed public figures, with all the freight of expectation that accompany them. Many would prefer to focus instead on doing the thing that is so very hard to do well, and that few can do as satisfyingly as a writer named — still named — Elena Ferrante.


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