Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Most writers of fiction are interested in anonymity. If they aren’t tickled by the thought when they sit down to write their first books, they get to that point after the first couple have come out. Writing is solitary, private, inward, and involves something close to complete control; even when there are losses of control or agency, they’re of the sort that a writer has, most of the time, chosen for herself. A story escapes the creator’s intention, or conks out, and although it might not be what the writer wanted, it’s still up to her to make the final call about what to do, or not to do.

The publication process, everything that happens around the business of getting a book into print and out into the world, is close to the opposite of that. It’s full of accidents and misprisions and external demands; it was like that twenty years ago, and has got much worse. I remember when my first book came out that it was like being an employee of my own invention: vice-president in charge of publicity. The mixture of control on the page and this chaotic, frenetic subordination to the publication process was and is bewildering. I’ve never got used to it and accept that I never will. Instead, rather than try and make it into a coherent process, writing-and-publishing-a-book, I think of it as two entirely distinct activities, requiring entirely different attitudes and mental habits. I enjoy the first and regard the second as part of the job. I often wonder what it would be like not to have to do any of the publishing part, to hand over the text and walk away. It’s a fantasy not so much of anonymity as of refusing the publishing process.

There are writers who do that. The first great refuser in contemporary literary culture was J.D. Salinger. The gigantic success he encountered turned the worldly figure who’d grown up on Park Avenue into a tormented recluse living behind a crocodile-infested moat in New Hampshire. (There were persistent rumours that Salinger continued to be prolific in these hidden years, and was writing a gazillion-pages-long series of works about his beloved Glass family. If he was, though, we’d surely have seen something of them by now.) Ian Hamilton, a friend of this paper, was interested in the life before Salinger’s great refusal, and set out to write a biography of those early years. In the course of his research he found a cache of letters that Salinger had written to friends, and had been donated to libraries. He used the letters in the first draft of his book. Salinger sued. The letters were his copyright so he won. Hamilton rewrote the book, paraphrasing what he’d learned. Salinger sued again on the basis that the paraphrase was too close to the wording of the original, and won again. Hamilton rewrote the book again, and that’s the version which came out.

This was once a famous literary scandal, mainly forgotten now, and I remember at the time thinking that Hamilton’s project was perfectly reasonable, since he’d written about Salinger’s life when he was out in the world, and then left him to mind his own business. The thing which changed my mind about that was a photograph of Salinger, taken by two snappers who had stalked him around his rural retreat, and published on the front page of the New York Post in 1988. The look in Salinger’s eyes in the picture is one of complete horror. You can see that this, the act of having his privacy violated, being photographed against his will, is about the worst thing he can imagine happening to him.

The photograph changed the story for me: Salinger’s self-banishment wasn’t a preference or a whim, it was an existentially critical act of self-protection. I came to think that, like and admire Hamilton though I did, he shouldn’t have written that book: that if someone needs privacy that badly, and hasn’t done anything wrong, we, collectively and individually, should let them have their space.

Sometimes the culture manages to do that. Thomas Pynchon is another famous recluse, not someone who grew sick of the publishing process and walked away, but someone who never took part in it. From a far distance, Pynchon’s identity seemed as mysterious and indecipherable as the Antikythera mechanism. When he won a National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow he sent a comedian to accept it in his place. Who could he be, this postmodern shaman, this titan of the sentence, this reborn Joyce, this genius, this enigma? Answer: some bloke who divided his time between California and Manhattan, was married to his agent, and whose identity was well known to anyone in the industry with an interest in the question. He kept his secret not through professional-grade anti-surveillance techniques but by making it known that he wanted his secret kept, and having that wish respected. What’s interesting is that he was allowed his refusal.

The case of Elena Ferrante is, or was, a little like that of Pynchon. She made the choice simply to write her books while saying no to all the other side of it. As she put it in an interview, ‘I have not chosen anonymity. My books are signed. Rather, I have withdrawn from the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their books by lending to them their author’s expendable image.’ I’ve asked Italian literary types about her more than once, and always got the same response, along the lines of a) everyone except clueless foreigners knows perfectly well who she is and b) by the way there are lots of other Italian writers who are just as good, it’s just that they aren’t known abroad because [insert conspiracy theory here]. I’d say as many people knew who she was as knew who Pynchon was, and yet she was allowed the conditions she set for her work. Until she suddenly wasn’t.

As a reader, this is disappointing for many reasons, one of them being that it might well make it harder for Ferrante to write. The lesson of that Salinger photo is that the psychic importance of privacy can be very high. It’s clear from the novels that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a constructed identity rather than a person ambling around Naples who decided to make up a pen name and become a great writer. There’s a discussion of the subject in the third of the Amica geniale novels, translated as Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, where Elena (the character) begins to talk about the Pygmalion myth, and the question of ‘fabricated’ or constructed literary identity. This is a pretty clear hint that Elena isn’t, as it were, Elena. Added to this is the great importance Ferrante has given in email interviews to the freedoms given her by her non-appearance.

Pseudonymity and privacy are what enabled these works to be written – but it’s also the case that by doing her work like this Ferrante has made an important point about the way the media acts to undermine the autonomy of art. As she put it in her Paris Review interview, ‘I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero.’ The new ‘revelation’ confirms that – though even Ferrante couldn’t have conceived that the thing she wanted to keep to herself would be splashed as front-page news in four languages simultaneously.

Let’s not pretend there is no gendered component to this. There was an unmistakable element of ‘Gotcha!’ in the story written by the journalist Claudio Gatti. It’s as if pseudonymity and privacy on the part of a prominent, successful woman writer were somehow an affront to cultural norms. This at a time when anonymity and pseudonymity have never been more pervasive and more toxic and more dominated by misogyny. That, in fact, is what anonymity, that idea so tempting to so many writers, has become in contemporary society: a tool for empowering and magnifying misogyny. Tens of thousands of men using anonymity to berate, abuse and threaten women online? A daily reality. We as a culture are fine with it. A woman writer using pseudonymity for creative reasons? Put an end to that right now. Who does she think she is?