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Why ruin the fun?

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It seems a category error to expose a pseudonymous novelist as if you were acting in the public interest; to adopt the tools and language of investigative journalism, go through someone’s financial records and harass their family in order to ruin an authorial position that has been almost as interesting as the author’s novels themselves. There’s no value in revealing Elena Ferrante’s ‘true identity’ (as Claudio Gatti claimed to have done yesterday). What’s interesting about her anonymity depends on its being sustained; it’s a creation, as well as a political proposition, that has engendered a conversation about literary making rather than dismantlement and confession. In an age of autofiction, when so many protagonists take their authors’ names, the idea that the author, too, is a literary creation extends the fictiveness out of the books and into the world. Why ruin the fun?

It’s embarrassing to work this hard just to put fictive names onto real people, and immoral to make it so boring to read (‘In Italy, an apartment can be registered under the sole name of one member of a married couple regardless of whether the money comes from that person or his or her spouse. As a tax lawyer explained to me…’) But most of all it’s a failure to see what the real question is – not the one that ‘Ms X’ is an answer to. The biographical instinct is an attempt to understand how the trick of fiction works, because, when it does, it constantly recedes before our reach. We don’t answer the question of a work of art by knowing that the author likes oranges.

The writer known as Elena Ferrante – or perhaps the character of Ferrante, if she has walked that far from the page – has spoken eloquently on this subject in interviews and pieces, giving her thoughts on the role of the writer, the morals and ethics of anonymity, the assumptions of the market, the position of women in society, the separation of life and art. More than anyone else in recent times she has resisted fiction’s autobiographical turn and pulled the argument back in the direction of imagination and inventiveness; restoring to the relationship between the author and the art some of the subtleties and refinements, the shadings and strange veilings, that make novels work in the first place. Her anonymity has been a protest against those who can no longer read books as works of fiction. What’s interesting about novels isn’t that they imitate life, but that the ways in which they perform reality aren’t the ways in which real reality works. Writing, but especially fiction, is about selection and transformation: it doesn’t make sense to think it a ‘shame’, as Gatti does, that Ferrante hasn’t given us a picture of her ‘real’ mother, who sounds so ‘unique’. A person we meet walking down the road is unique but a person written is only as unique as the writer has power to make them. Who would say that Ferrante has failed to animate her characters?

Another riddle: When is a scoop not a scoop? I don’t need to know who Ferrante is because I already know. I never felt like she was hidden: her mind has been on my mind. I’ve walked her thoughts and seen what she has chosen to show me; I am her intimate friend. And the more she writes the more I know the shape of her artistry. All dead authors are pseudonymous: we cannot know their person. But we see their patterns and performances; we learn their subjectivity. The living mind of a novel is a character in itself. My Ferrante has long dark hair, and I can see her now, with a green string bag, shopping for oranges. She hasn’t looked up; she doesn’t know I’m watching.


  1. MorganT says:

    Well said. Elsa Ferrante wrote the novels of Elsa Ferrante. Proust said an author is he or she who speaks to us from the page, there is no “real” person hiding behind the work who needs to be uncovered.

  2. Mona Williams says:

    Walking one night through the Amsterdam red-light district, I heard a couple of American teenage boys shouting their exciting discovery: “Hey! This guy’s a cop! Right here! Plain clothes!”

  3. UU-ant says:

    I blame the literary-critical obsession with ‘life-writing’ and biographical criticism of all kinds. Bring back formalism, I say.

  4. j.mallalieu says:

    Elena Ferrante has been very famous for several years but the people who must have known who she was remained quiet, showing taste and tact and a respect for a person’s right to play literary games if they so please. Now a journalist has exposed her and ‘made his name’.

    The poet Pessoa used false names to great effect, not so much to hide himself as to forget himself, not to gain more fame, but to lose his original ‘pessoa’, or ‘persona’, and enjoy having a new one. The right of a person to lose their own identity ought to be protected, even if their pen name is the construct of a husband-wife team.

  5. gkchesterton says:

    I have bad news, Roland Barthes communicated with me in a séance and took back everything he ever wrote.

  6. outofdate says:

    Really? ‘We don’t encourage vulgar curiosity here.’ Christ you people…

  7. When I began writing for the New Yorker I thought I would use an assumed name “Jay Amber”-“Bernstein being the German for amber.I learned much later that Leonard Bernstein signed some of his youthful compositions L.Amber. My reason was that I wanted to keep separate my physics life and my writing life. Since I eventually wrote a good deal about physics this did not make much sense. William Shawn our editor said my proposed assumed name was alright with him but that I would regret it. I never found out since I used my own name. But if someone wants to use an assumed name leave them alone.

  8. David Campbell says:

    I’ve enjoyed my image of Ms Ferrante as a bonny-legged Neapolitan matron. Oddly though, I find myself enjoying her even more, now I know who she is. I had a similar experience on learning that Henry Handel Richardson was a woman.

  9. Binky says:

    I’m waiting to hear how John Ray Jr., Ph.D. and his friend, Charles Kinbote feel about all of this.

  10. Doris Fine says:

    Pen names are traditional in several Asian cultures, along with pet names and other monikers. But they are not concealed, as Ferrante’s was. It’s more her rationale than her use of the convention that is puzzling and possibly disturbing. Any guesses?

  11. chuwka says:

    I hate to be bothered about the true identity of the pseudonymous creator of beautiful works.. as the anonymous writer puts it…’what’s interesting about anonymity is it being sustained, it is a creation as well as a political proposition…

  12. immaculate says:

    And if it turns out that Elena Ferrante is a man? Will he get the Rev Toby Forward treatment? (See LRB 4 February 1988)

  13. Thomas Jones says:

    Some of Ferrante’s own thoughts, from her Paris Review interview last year:

    ‘It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs.’

    ‘Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story.’

  14. Timothy Rogers says:

    Ferrante’s comments are witty, learned, and illustrative of the fact that a good offense is the best defense (not that she needs to defend her choice of using a pseudonym). Her sentence that begins with “Literary truth …” seems to imply that formal perfection yields the best apprehension of our reality (social reality, non-social reality, who knows?). This is arguable, but it has nothing to do with the issue of the “cult of personality” that embraces certain writers. Using a pseudonym obviously does not work to suppress the cult. Who are the “experts”? Critics at large or members of the professoriate who hold creativity to be inferior to theory-driven interpretation? Writers write, readers read, critics criticize – the division of “labor” is clear, and each cohort has its own self-interest to defend, though readers may be out to merely pass the time in a congenial and educational way. When they are exposed to lit-crit battles that arouse writers and critics to a furious pitch, they are probably amused by the tempest-in-a-teacup aspect of the whole business. I know I am.

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