Why ruin the fun?


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.


  • 3 October 2016 at 9:04pm
    cufflink says:
    What does anonymity in writing fiction free up? Or indeed supress? Why should a distant disclosure of this produce a Kantian category error? Is fiction no longer to be exemplary as to its living factuals but merely in its conclusions be a mereological sum of set fictional possibilities? This is what imagination is now coming to and not just in fiction.
    Where experience informs there should we find an exactitude that relates to real circumstance and does not engender any sequential postulation that blocks out a mature following purpose in gimmickry.
    This escapist new fiction will go on and arising from this will emerge a reaction of an assumption of new responsibilities that will incorporate a wider social ethic returning matters to more specific and concrete realisations.
    This is heavy weather to cloud Elena Ferrante's notable abilities but the release of the identity should help and clear the air.
    I'm bound to say though that Anonymous writes a crisp blog and I have in mind a name to put to it - but I won't.

    • 4 October 2016 at 6:07pm
      micheyns says: @ cufflink
      Heavy weather indeed! I have tried, but utterly failed to understand your drift. Call me thick.

    • 5 October 2016 at 2:43pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ micheyns
      Cufflink, with those formidable third and fifth sentences, has not cleared the air on matter of authorial pseudonyms. It is also not obvious what particular air is cleared by discovering Ferrante’s real name (what makes her real name “real”, I suppose, is that this is how she is known to her friends and family, and that is probably the name on her paychecks, and the checks she writes to pay the bills, and how her person is documented for various mundane purposes). Not having read any of Ferrante’s writing, I can’t comment sensibly on why she chose to “distance” herself from her books in this way. Rather than the existential hi-jinks about identity beloved by some members of the literary professoriate, there are several very commonplace reasons why an author might choose this path. The first is pecuniary - IF a book written under a pseudonym either sells well or is a critical success in higher lit-crit circles, the mystique factor may kick in to spur sales of further works. If it fails and the secret is kept, that’s also a good result from the author’s point of view. Talk about vulgar!

      Is cufflink stating that after several decades of “postmodernist fun” involving identity games (much of which is more of a chore than fun to read), there will be a swing back to naturalism or realism in fiction? The usual “pendulum swing” in literary taste? It happens all the time. In Weimar Germany, following close on the heels of symbolism and expressionism, there was a reaction in the mid-1920s (in all the arts) that was called “die neue Sachlichkeit”, especially concerned with the nasty social realities that characterized European life that came to the fore with WWI and its aftermath; this was the “new objectivity” (though John Willett, who wrote a good book about it, thought that “new matter-of-factness” or “new sobriety” might capture its meaning better – in any event, this kind of writing aimed at a fuller description of the outside world at the expense of downplaying the writer’s “sensibility” about that world). There was a second round of this in the US with the “New Journalism” that started in the mid-1960s and produced both “observer-participant” topical essays (“non-fiction”) and “non-fiction novels”. This mini-movement was certainly a reaction, but to whom, or what was not always clear.

      I’m in agreement with cufflink’s skepticism about the question of how writing under a pseudonym is alleged to “free up” a writer’s identity (maybe I’m getting him wrong). Usually such identity-mongering and critical maundering results in some kind of therapeutic jargon about what’s happening. Like cufflink, at the moment yours truly is writing under a “blog pseudonym” (one which I inherited from one of my sons, who toyed with Facebook when it was new and soon discovered that it was a waste of time); as far as I can tell it’s had neither liberating nor constraining effects upon my blog comments or my real identity (the old man with a name that allows him to drive a car, vote, pay taxes, etc.). My motive is simple: leave as few internet footprints as possible (paranoia? perhaps; in reality I doubt if anyone really cares). Playing with the exterior markers of identity (e.g,, suddenly spiking and dying your hair, piercing your body, getting tattoos, wearing idiosyncratic garb, speaking like a coarse drill sergeant or like Louis XIV in conversation) doesn’t change it either – it merely puts up a front designed to irritate or baffle specific others in your life whom you wish to irritate or intrigue. Identities do change over time (due to experience and the vicarious experience known as education), but this is really incremental and agglutinative, not “fluid”, that poetic term that some commentators seem to love. It’s fine to call this kind of mental and emotional formation a “constructed identity”, but having such a nice term for the process does not obviate its commonplace nature. If you go to a high-school reunion and run into someone you haven’t seen in fifty years, you may very well be surprised by what he or she has done in the interim and what opinions he or she now expresses – but you will still recognize them as “X” or “Y”. Even after a person loses all aspects of former personality (the part of the self that counts in making a recognizable individual) due to an accident or the ravages of any of the several diseases of aging, he or she is still “X” or “Y” to those who know (knew) them, just a very “defective version” of their former selves. (This is akin to how we feel about the corpses of those we knew in life, and our knowledge of the fact that a corpse is just a hunk of lifeless matter doesn’t really overcome our feelings about this).

      Nobody actually knows what’s going on in somebody else’s mind at a given moment, but most people actually have a pretty good idea – anyway, in our social reality, it’s their/our behavior that counts (or should count). This behavioral record (and our ability to make predictions on its basis) is the “real identity” of ourselves and others that we deal with constantly. This does not mean that we shouldn’t take another person’s intentions into account when evaluating their behavior, including their writing. “Anonymous”, by the way, seems meant to be one of those clever, self-reflective pseudonyms that tell us something about its wielder (though I agree with his/her point in the piece - what's the real harm in such literary games?). Biographical curiosity about writers may or may not be a distraction, but it’s not going away any time soon, and this tells us as much about readers as about writers.

  • 4 October 2016 at 12:33am
    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!"

  • 4 October 2016 at 9:49am
    UU-ant says:
    I blame the literary-critical obsession with 'life-writing' and biographical criticism of all kinds. Bring back formalism, I say.

  • 4 October 2016 at 10:47am
    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.

  • 4 October 2016 at 11:25am
    gkchesterton says:
    I have bad news, Roland Barthes communicated with me in a séance and took back everything he ever wrote.

  • 4 October 2016 at 1:56pm
    outofdate says:
    Really? 'We don't encourage vulgar curiosity here.' Christ you people...

  • 4 October 2016 at 3:29pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    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.

  • 4 October 2016 at 5:11pm
    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.

  • 4 October 2016 at 7:13pm
    Binky says:
    I'm waiting to hear how John Ray Jr., Ph.D. and his friend, Charles Kinbote feel about all of this.

  • 4 October 2016 at 8:36pm
    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?

  • 5 October 2016 at 5:29am
    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...

  • 5 October 2016 at 8:23am
    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)

  • 9 October 2016 at 9:14pm
    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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