More importantly, does it matter?
Elena Ferrante is an unlikely literary superstar. She has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her Neapolitan novels (the three pictured above, plus The Story of the Lost Child), which is unusual enough these days for literary fiction. More exceptional is that fact they are works in translation (Ferrante writes in Italian) and that their author has remained resolutely anonymous. As the popularity of the four books has grown, so has the international obsession with Ferrante’s true identity.
Now, according to the New York Times, a university professor in Naples, Italy, has deduced that Ferrante is another Italian professor, a woman who shares biographical details with one of the book’s two main characters, Elena. (The professor in question denies it, and so does Ferrante’s publisher.)
I have read all of Ferrante’s work at this point, inhaling each book as it is released in America. I am in awe of her talent and her fierce evocation of strong and difficult women. Few writers have been able to delineate as provocatively the friendships of women, which can be as essential (often more essential) than romantic relationships. I did, admittedly, Google around to try and figure out who she is, but gave up pretty quickly. What did it matter, really?
There are no confirmed photos of Ferrante and no author photo on any of the books, so for some time there were rumors that she was a man. This made me laugh. The books are so deeply female, though in no way pandering. Ferrante’s characters are often angry, unlikable, contradictory, mean. They have complicated feelings about children and motherhood, sometimes disliking both. The feeling, I guess, was that a real woman would never be able to admit or write such things. Or perhaps it was that how a woman writes or what she writes about is somehow prescribed and if she doesn’t do it in the predictable female way then “she” must be a “he.” Ferrante, in a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair, emailed her thoughts about this: “What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes?”
Here’s another question: Why isn’t it enough to say that Elena Ferrante wrote these novels, without knowing precisely who she is? She has very clearly stated that she prefers her privacy, that it would be painful to reveal who she is, and that she sees only anxiety in notoriety: “I am fully represented by my books.”
A friend suggested that the “mystery” was fabricated to drive up sales. I don’t buy it. Furthermore, I find it admirable that a person who could be airing her opinions on Twitter, or schmoozing with international literati, or sharing her favorite restaurants in Naples on Instagram, or doing any of the other self-aggrandizing marketing assists demanded of the successful these days, has decided it’s not for her. For some people, success is about attention, and that has always been the case, whether you’re talking about Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Lena Dunham. I would love to have dinner with any of them.
But the space to create is different for everyone, and I admire Ferrante for liberating herself from the pressures increasingly imposed on people—to share no matter the desire or the cost to personal happiness or preference. Yes, the media needs to fill the ever deeper hole with articles about this literary mystery, but there are plenty of celebrities, writers, and wannabes happy to hawk their next whatever. Why not leave Ferrante alone?