HBO recently announced its decision to bring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels to the small screen, signaling even greater heights for the quartet of bestsellers. The series of books, translated from Italian and written by a pseudonymous author, includes My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.
The groundbreaking success of these novels did not come as a surprise to Carole DeSanti, who has championed women’s original voices in literature throughout her editing career at Viking Penguin. In the following interview, she examines why and how this series of novels has turned reading and current notions of “authorship” on its head. Ferrante fans and curious readers can join DeSanti for an in-depth exploration of the Neapolitan books during the Aspen Summer Words writing conference and literary festival this June.
The Neapolitan novels seem like unlikely bestsellers. What do you think accounts for the unanticipated success of these books?
So much of what is “anticipated” or touted in the world of popular books turns out to be less than satisfying, and sometimes real originality is rewarded, reader by reader. The best bestsellers, in my view, are those created by word-of-mouth and the pleasure we take in sharing what resonates with us. These are the books that stand the test of time. What I think we respond to in the Ferrante novels is their stark truthfulness — in the sense of the author’s fidelity to the emotional lives of her characters over the arc of days and years. And with that, her ability (which is masterful) to locate and bring forth an epic drama that unfolds over a lifetime. In terms of the two women at the center of these novels this reaches a depth not before seen in fiction. Their world is an easy one to enter, but then the scope grows and grows.
From your perspective as a reader, what do you love about these books?
So many things! Bringing a place, Naples, so alive — from Vesuvius looming over the city to a brilliant young girl furiously making beautiful shoes when she’s not allowed to stay in school. From a cup of coffee in a pastry shop with a bedeviled history to the way a writer creates her voice, renounces it, and circles back again to re-making it: fiercely loving, full of struggle, tender and brutal all at once. But it’s the ever-spiraling, conflicted, ultimately extraordinary feminism in these novels that most touches me. That difficult, ultimate, affirming-of-being, but in a feminine context. I’ve just never read anything like it. I don’t think it’s ever been done. And it’s about time.
From your perspective as an editor, why are these books significant in the publishing landscape?
In publishing we’re living in a moment of great worry and concern (warranted or not) mostly because of digital technologies and the pace of change. What the popularity of these novels suggests to us — confirms, really — is that what we come back to, again and again in literature, is strong and steadfast, regardless of all of the things we worry about in the industry. One way these novels are significant is the way they transmit nuanced emotion over time and place and bring to light what we have not yet seen or examined. This is a quality peculiar to literature. It’s not going to go away, and from time to time is proved anew. So, many in publishing had to sit back and take notice. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but in the publishing of these books, Europa reminds us that we can still befriend our deepest passions as well.
Can these novels be compared to any other books that have come across your desk over your editing career?
Absolutely not! I have worked on some wonderful books, but these novels stand apart which is why I am championing them as a reader. To survive, literature must be a joint project among writers, publishers, and readers. I would love to have worked on them, but I’m grateful that others had the wisdom and foresight to do so.
Why do you think the anonymity of the author has caused such a stir?
Well, again, it goes against the grain. We have a culture of literary celebrity that has become entrenched. What the anonymity of “Ferrante” tells us is that there is something about the unknown-ness of the author that allows for something that we value even more than what songs she has on her playlist, whether she writes in a nightgown at midnight or jeans on the weekend, or what she happens to enjoy when she’s not at her desk. All of that trivia that authors and publishers (and all have done it, sometimes with the best intentions) have tried to merchandise. Ferrante’s anonymity has reversed the received wisdom and inspired us in doing so. She has said, quietly, “this is what I need to preserve my voice and its integrity.” We appreciate its result. We see that it is valued by others. To authors, I hope Ferrante has sent a new message: You don’t have to do it that way. Find your own way. That’s what she did. It took a long time and, I’m sure, great faith.
You are known as a champion for new voices and diverse points of view in literature. Do you think these books have helped to widen the scope of what publishers might be willing to consider? Will we start to see more translations, or books centered on women and female friendship?
I can only hope that it’s the start of a kind of corrective movement in writing away from the cult of self-publicity and onto a new and interesting path to authenticity. What I really wish for is that her work will allow writers — men and women — to feel more empowered to do what is truly their own. Of course, Ferrante’s novels are about the blurring of boundaries, how we borrow and re-make continually from those we love and envy and compete with, and I would love to see us more boldly claim those influences too. She has thrown open a door to many new wings of literary endeavor, should we choose to venture in.
What might Readers’ Retreat participants expect to get out of this session that they might not otherwise glean from an independent reading?
My experience of reading these novels is that I was bursting with the need to talk about them, and I’ve heard that from others, too. I think it is because they speak to us so intimately, but are also highly social — showing us so many interrelations and co-creations, how we make and un-make one another, find and mirror each other – in all kinds of ways. What is it about these novels that feels so different, and so important? What do they crystallize about this moment in history, especially for women? I want to hear what others have to say about this. I’m eager to know it all!
Carole DeSanti is Vice President, Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, and the author of a novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.