The outing of Elena Ferrante and the power of naming
Elena Ferrante is one of our greatest living writers. She has also, for two and a half decades, been publishing under a name that is not her own: Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym.
No one knew who the "real" Elena Ferrante was until this week, when a journalist who, perhaps in an eager bid to make a name for himself, tracked her down using financial records and seems to have exposed her real identity. (I will not reveal the name he suggested here.)
There is much disagreement over whether this was a reasonable thing to do. On one side are those who believe the recent success of Ferrante's books (she is the author of seven novels, including the four celebrated "Neapolitan novels" that have won her worldwide acclaim) makes her a public figure worth exposing. Her extraordinary sales figures make her real name newsworthy, they argue. On the other side are those who believe Ferrante's rejection of personal fame amounted to a conscientious objection to the way we receive literary art, and female literary art in particular. I am in the latter camp.
Why does this literary tempest in a teapot matter? What's in a name, after all? What does it mean that she refused to be named, and instead named herself? This is not a clear instance of a woman taking on a male pseudonym (like George Eliot) or using initials (like J.K. Rowling) in order to circumvent a sexist literary marketplace. Ferrante just chose a different Italian woman's name. Why do this? And why is it a big deal for her to be exposed?
Ferrante has explained her decision in interviews. Initially, she published under the pseudonym out of fear. "Timidity prevailed" in her early days, she says. Later, she developed some hostility toward an industry that "doesn't pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author's reputation." This struck her as a devaluation of the literature. "It's not the book that counts, but the aura of its author," she says, and "if the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors."
And "if it's not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image."
For Ferrante, that image-peddling was toxic, not just to her, but to the work. For her, the pseudonym became a principled form of resistance to celebrity authorship, the publishing industry, and the way women are received there. She sees a real and poisonous relationship between literary marketing and literary work: "The demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art," she says. And if the priority is the art rather than catering to an industry that commercializes the person producing it, one should clearly do the former because it enables the artist to function: "What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me," she has said.
Once I knew that the completed book would make its way into the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume — as if the book were a little dog and I were its master — it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself. [Elena Ferrante]
Her point is quite clear: Attaching her real name, and, by extension, her real body — her appearance, her biography, her history, her relationships, her contacts, her family — would, in this particular literary landscape, subordinate her work to the story of her person. Naming happens to women differently than it does to men. And names matter.
It's impossible not to consider the importance of names and naming during this election season — particularly when you have a candidate who baptizes his political enemies with silly names and profitably rents out his own. Naming is powerful, and it's worth thinking about it carefully. This is why I've been advocating for the project of naming Donald Trump's rhetorical moves and producing a taxonomy of the effects he produces. It needs doing for reasons I hope are obvious: For all that Trump's stagecraft is stunningly effective, it's also pretty easily reducible to its component parts once you take the trouble to parse it. If you can see how the trick is done, it loses its power. (More on the Trump Glossary concept here and here.)
That I even had to point out the need for this worries me; it shows how impoverished our language is when it comes to naming specific male behaviors, and how much the absence of a word for a particular behavior or rhetorical move limits our ability to control its effect on us. Names activate certain social scripts; the absence of names allows certain tendencies to flourish, undetected and unchecked. Our contempt remains confused and general. We flail and pelt Trump with labels like "racist" that are far too generic to do him any real harm.
Consider, in contrast, the language we have for Hillary Clinton. Clinton should not "cackle" (yes, we have a word for our specific distaste for the way certain women laugh). She shouldn't hector or nag or be bossy. (Look at how many words we have to name — with nuanced particularity — how unpleasant women are when they tell us to do things.) We have a thick taxonomy with which to diagnose and disarm women (catty, flirt, tease, bitch, to name a few), whereas our taxonomy of specifically male obnoxiousness is so slim that I had to ask for one to be built.
Naming matters because it disarms. Our culture has been exceptionally thorough at naming women's "tricks." To a fault, perhaps.
We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology's early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren't their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.
Only recently have men — who have historically been the namers — begun to have their behaviors anatomized and named in turn, and it has been a fight every single step of the way. Why? Because some discover, when it happens to them, that naming is unfairly reductive! It isn't objective at all; if anything, it strips people of their complexity, their subjectivity. "Mansplaining," to take a controversial instance, aggressively misconstrues men's well-meaning contributions, some argue. It is unthinking and dismissive. (Unlike, say, "nagging," a term that reduces a woman's repeated expressions of unhappiness to its effect on the irritated recipient.)
It is obvious, I hope, that nagging is at least as reductive as mansplaining — more so, perhaps — and that women have lived with the automatic invalidation the word nagging achieves for generations.
This is all to say that these men are right: Naming is reductive. Naming affects how you'll receive a thing and the prestige and authority you grant it. (Call a film a comedy and it'll never see an Oscar.) And women have been named and dismissed for much, much longer than men. As a culture, we have much more experience naming and reducing women — and their aspirations, and their behaviors, and their authority. So much so that doing it becomes a kind of reflex. Names do not contain truth; they activate scripts.
Elena Ferrante gave herself a new name to index her debt to the great women writers who came before her (Elena Ferrante is an homage to the Italian novelist Elsa Morante), but also to force the author's name to stay within its proper bounds. To prevent the scripts we have for women writers from attaching her writing to her person, drowning out her actual work.
One byproduct of the linguistic asymmetry between male and female behaviors is that there are dozens more scripts by which female participation in the public sphere can be invalidated. One of the most available scripts condemns the woman who is too public by specifying that she is too available sexually (the slut) or too fame-hungry (the attention-whore). Neither term lets her participation in public life be understood as anything other than venal and self-serving. But what the latter term does, more or less, is pathologize a woman’s desire to make a name for herself.
And we are so quick to reduce female artists to their names. That is, to identify how their artistry is infected by self-interest, to tarnish their artistic efforts with the horrible, calculating language of "branding." When a woman speaks, there's a knee-jerk impulse to focus on how exactly she might be operating in bad faith: The question is less what is she saying? than how does saying it benefit her? What base desire for attention does it gratify?
Elena Ferrante short-circuited that reflex. She couldn't be writing great literature "for the attention" because she refused to accept any. She hacked a system that pathologizes female bids for greatness. She made the work the point. She sidestepped every dumb reductive tendency we have by making herself unreachable.
In so doing, she did us a favor: Her work's reception couldn't be distorted by the personal irrelevancies that plague female artists, for whom narcissism and self-indulgence are the cardinal sin. By making herself invisible, she dispensed with a litany of stupid doubts and questions. True, she introduced some new ones: Was she really a man? Was that why she was hiding? (These sorts of theories are usually motivated by the script that says no woman could create something this great. You can hear the italics. Did Ferrante really make all that up? Is she really that brilliant and meta? Or is this just THINLY VEILED MEMOIR?)
This last is key.
Memoir, you may have noticed, has lost considerable prestige as it's become feminized. There are plenty of reasons for this (some memoirs are very bad, and there are a lot of them!). But here's a big one: Male confessions are coded artistic, philosophical, and experimental. Women's are coded as brave, conventional, and unworked. Myths of male and female "genius" follow our dumb scripts for male and female life. Men fashion their lives and stories. Women survive them.
This has consequences for how we think of male and female artistry. At best, we seem to think women bleed what happened to them bravely onto the page. At worst, they're over-sharing or "doing it for the attention."
In the secret and silly ranking systems that define literary prestige, the novel is better and more artful than the autobiography, which is in turn better than the memoir. (Notice that Bruce Springsteen's memoir, out this week, is marketed as an autobiography — there's a reason for that. "Writing your life" sounds more active, artistic and masculine than passively "recording your memories".) It is telling that Knausgaard repeatedly calls his work autobiographical, but insists it is an autobiographical novel — a higher form, in other words, than mere memoir. It is literary, crafted, worked. And the publishing industry has rather reverentially accepted this designation of his in a way they did not when Sheila Heti — who wrote the experimental autobiographical novel How Should A Person Be: A Novel From Life — attempted to carve out exactly that space for her work.
Ferrante, by contrast, repeatedly and firmly calls her books novels; that has done nothing to stop many from describing them as "thinly veiled autobiography" — this despite knowing next to nothing about the woman.
Knausgaard and Ferrante were twin publishing phenomena. Knausgaard was able to name his own genre and rise above it; Ferrante's novels were (despite their author's anonymity!) in continual danger of being "downgraded" to mere memoir. Knausgaard could occupy his name without being reduced to it. Ferrante could not.
It's a testament to our scripts about female bad faith, incidentally, that the journalist who outed Ferrante did so on the grounds that her forthcoming book Frantumiglia (which he calls an autobiography — she does not) contains what he calls lies about her life. “[She] wrote a book that is supposed to be autobiographical and was full of false information,” he complains. This, he says, is why her privacy was fair game.
It’s remarkable, isn't it? First the charge was that her fiction was really just autobiography. Now the charge is that her autobiography is really just fiction.
This is a toxic soup for a writer who wants her novels to be received as the literary creations they are rather than the distorted tell-alls we suspect them to be. For us to receive Ferrante's work as the exquisite stuff it is — in this culture, at this time — she had to disappear and get out of its way. "The biographical path does not lead to the genius of a work," she has said, "it's only a micro-story on the side." But when it comes to female creators, we all too easily let that micro-story overwrite the rest. We are so programmed to look for the stupid stuff (How hot is Ferrante? Does she have an ex-husband? Who is he? Are the daughters from the novels real and what do they think of their mother's writing?) that we would've missed its greatness.
Not that some people haven't groped around for scripts with which to reduce her to her most venal motives anyway. Many speculate that even her very pseudonymity was a ploy, a brilliant marketing campaign. (There's that script, the calculating woman just doing the thing for profit, whetting people's appetites to nefariously increase her sales. That Ferrante! Cynically self-promoting by refusing to self-promote!)
It is easier to believe that a woman writing 25 years ago predicted that four books she'd write decades later would become bestsellers — if she cunningly refused to use her real name — than it is to believe that she deemed it important, for artistic reasons, to remain private.
Ferrante's pseudonymity was certainly an act of self-protection, but it was also a gift to her readers. She inoculated us against the urge to reduce her work to her appearance and family and biography. She resisted collecting the accolades, awards, and million strokes to the ego. She held out against every drive that impels us to obsessively check our Likes. When we called her a genius, she remained hidden still. She wanted "to concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies." She preferred the name she chose because it reflected her literary commitments and kept her personhood — and all the dismissive scripts female personhood brings with it — separate from the work.
But that was all for nothing, because some guy decided it was necessary to name her.
I wouldn't call such a thing "violent." I might call it shallow and short-sighted and stupid and small. That said, I suspect Ferrante will be fine. She may not write anymore, and we may have that enterprising journalist to thank for that. But hopefully, she will. Hopefully, we've had enough time to experience her work in the vacuum she insisted on without letting it get too infected by the retrograde scripts that will swarm it now. The more urgent project is figuring out how to produce new ones.