Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228
When does a book seem publishable to you?
When it tells a story that, for a long time, unintentionally, I had pushed away, because I didn’t think I was capable of telling it, because telling it made me uncomfortable. Again, in the case of The Days of Abandonment the writing freed the story in a short time, over one summer. Actually, that was true for the first two parts. Then suddenly I began to make mistakes, I lost the tone. I wrote and rewrote the last part all that fall. It was a time of great anxiety. It doesn’t take much to convince yourself that you’ve forgotten how to tell a story. I didn’t know how to get Olga out of her crisis truthfully, as truthfully as I’d narrated her falling into it. The hand was the same, the writing was the same, there was the same choice of vocabulary, same syntax, same punctuation, and yet the tone had become false. For months I felt that the preceding pages were beyond my abilities, and now I no longer felt equal to my own work. It made me bitter. You’d rather lose yourself than find yourself, I thought. Then everything started up again. But even today I don’t dare reread the book. I’m afraid that the last part has only the appearance of good writing.
Do you think this anxiety of yours has something to do with being a woman? Do you have to work harder than a male writer, just to create work that isn’t dismissed as being “for women”? Is there a difference between male and female writing?
I’ll answer with my own story. As a girl—twelve, thirteen years old—I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me. That phase ended after a couple of years. At fifteen I began to write stories about brave girls who were in serious trouble. But the idea remained—indeed, it grew stronger—that the greatest narrators were men and that one had to learn to narrate like them. I devoured books at that age, and there’s no getting around it, my models were masculine. So even when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men. I didn’t want to write like Madame de La Fayette or Jane Austen or the Brontës—at the time I knew very little about contemporary literature—but like Defoe or Fielding or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Hugo. While the models offered by women novelists were few and seemed to me for the most part thin, those of male novelists were numerous and almost always dazzling. That phase lasted a long time, until I was in my early twenties, and it left profound effects.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.