The Guardian

Elena Ferrante pours scorn on speculation she could be a man

The Italian novelist, whose real-life identity is a well-kept secret, says in email interview that female authors continue to be confined to a ‘literary gynaeceum’

Elena Ferrante books

The elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante has said that women writers tend to be shut “in a literary gynaeceum” by the books industry, even though “we know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men”.

In a wide-ranging interview conducted by email with Vanity Fair as she publishes the fourth and final novel in her acclaimed Neapolitan series in English, Ferrante, whose true identity is known to only a handful of people, addressed speculation that she could be a man, or even a group of men.

“Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’; what it produces could not possibly fake male potency,” she wrote to Vanity Fair.

“The truth is that even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum. There are good women writers, not-so-good ones, and some great ones, but they all exist within the area reserved for the female sex, they must only address certain themes and in certain tones that the male tradition considers suitable for the female gender.”

Ferrante added that when a woman’s writing falls outside the categories that have been assigned to women, particularly when there is no author photo of a woman provided, then the immediate jump to the writer’s identity being male is made. “What if, instead, we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes?” she asked. “We know how to think, we know how to tell stories, we know how to write them as well as, if not better, than men.”

Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the conclusion to her story of the friendship between two Neopolitan women, Elena and Lila, is out this week. Her previous three novels about the pair, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, have sold around 100,000 copies in the UK and half a million in the US since they were first released, in 2011, according to her publisher. There was little immediate fanfare.

“I’d sent out millions of galleys in advance, but there was nothing,” said Daniela Petracco of Ferrante’s English-language publishers Europa Editions about the release of My Brilliant Friend four years ago. “It was a complete disappointment, I couldn’t believe it had happened.”

But then a piece in the New Yorker by James Wood sparked interest in Ferrante, and sales began to trickle in. Petracco estimates they now stand at around 1.2m worldwide, with 27 translation deals set to send this even higher. “I expect the 100,000 in the UK to have doubled by the end of the year,” she said. “Sales are growing every day. It’s wonderful.”

Petracco said that only Ferrante’s Italian publishers, and Europa founders Sandro and Sandra Ferri, know the author’s real name. If Ferrante’s interview with Vanity Fair is anything to go by, this is not going to change.

“I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what,” she told the magazine.

“I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books,” she said. “Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”

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