JEANNE BONNER VISITS THE SALONE DEL LIBRO TO LOOK BEYOND FERRANTE
June 7, 2017 By Jeanne Bonner
Long before arriving this month at the Salone del Libro, an annual book fair in Turin that’s Italy’s largest, I was asking myself this question: where are the great Italian women writers?
I’ve been reading Italian fiction for two decades but this particular question has motivated much of my reading since I discovered Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series of books, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Her emergence, for me, was like a wakeup call, particularly since she’s created female characters who seethe with ambition, anger and longing. Women with wandering, industrious minds who choose their sexual partners with abandon. Yes!
I want to find more of these female characters, which are particularly well-wrought when created by a woman. So where are the great Italian female writers, doing justice to this topic and genre, and countless others?
Well, in fact, there are many fine Italian women writing fiction and nonfiction today. But other than la Ferrante, few of them appeared on Italian best-of lists at the end of last year or roundups of up-and-coming authors. I know—I scoured the year-end best-of lists, the mid-year versions and a few other lists, too. I also thumbed through suggestions on services like Audible.
Italian women writers, of course, do emerge from these searches—but they never constitute the majority of the writers suggested, or even simply half. Perhaps it sounds like a pedestrian observation or a problem well-known to everyone. But I’m reminded of political protest signs I’ve seen this year: We’re still dealing with this?
It bears mentioning that best-of lists often have currency only within a clubby world of type-A literary folks who keep score on everything.
Yet such lists are a mirror for any society (they also constitute a handy guide for readers and serve as primers for book fairs—more about this shortly). And it is telling that a few of the lists of top Italian books of the year, or recommended reading for the summer, include no women at all!
To wit, the cultural magazine Panorama, one of Italy’s largest weeklies, published a list earlier this year of the ten best Italian novels of the 21st century so far, and included a single woman: Michela Murgia’s Accabadora.
While women are mentioned prominently in places like the magazine Il Libraio and the blog Sul Romanzo, in most roundups, best on best, you’ll find three out of ten spots going to Italian women authors (and sometimes the lists are mixed with foreign authors—notably, foreign women authors at times fare better than Italian women). On its website, the giant publisher Italian Mondadori, for example, includes Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Margaret Mazzantini on a list of top contemporary Italian authors, in addition to Ferrante.
(The same math is at work in this year’s Strega competition, in which three individual women have cracked the list of twelve finalists, including author Wanda Marasco; a fourth woman, who is a co-author, has also been nominated).
This phenomenon is unsettling because the question behind these lists wasn’t how many copies of the books were sold, but which were the best? After all, even prominent male authors of literary fiction and nonfiction sell poorly, reflecting the market’s taste.