What’s in a name? The literary world has been irritated and dismayed in equal measure this week by the revelation that a journalist has pursued and tracked down the true identity of an Italian storyteller.
Elena Ferrante is an award-winning novelist, immensely popular both in her own country and abroad. She has produced half a dozen novels, the best known of which, The Story of the Lost Child, was nominated for the Strega Prize. She has published several short stories and had two of her works made into films, but perhaps her most unusual achievement is that she has managed to keep her identity a secret since her first novel was published twenty-five years ago.
Ferrante has been well known in literary circles for her decision to keep the personality of the author out of the whole process of promoting her work. This has led to much idle speculation, and the usual handful of conspiracy theories, but in general the reading public has been content to take the work offered and be grateful. Now it seems that the writer’s days of anonymity may be over.
This news has been met with considerable frustration by the many writers who understood her need for privacy. The idea that you can give of your best without selling yourself is a glorious one that, in this age of mass media and 24 hour communication, might have been considered a pipe dream if we didn’t have an example in Ferrante. And the reason given for this intrusion? Public interest.
It has been argued that because the writer is so successful it is in the public interest for her true identity to be made known. It’s an argument that shows a confusion I’ve met before; a thing can be in the Public Interest and therefore of benefit to the public, its need for revelation outweighing the costs incurred, but this news is simply of interest to the public, and its revelation is in no way beneficial to us or more importantly to the author. To chase a person who has repeatedly expressed a wish to remain anonymous at best shows a considerable lack of empathy and at worst is simply cruel.
The news has been further compounded by the involvement of The New York Review of Books who chose to break the story. This has led to much muttering and the widespread feeling that they have let the side down. It’s difficult to judge here, many journals given the same information and the knowledge that the author fully intended to publish his findings somewhere, may have chosen to take the bait, who can say? I’ve been left feeling slightly disappointed in them. Quite frankly, I expected better. Ferrante wanted us to find her in her books and not to search for her on social media.
So, where do we go from here? I hope that all reputable journals and forms of press will decide to allow Ferrante her peace. It would be idiocy to chase her for comment. I hope that she benefits from an increase in book sales and refuses to pick up the label of victim – there is always someone willing to hand us a box bearing that label. I also extend this advice to those who have taken to being horrified on her behalf, be angry at the thoughtlessness shown and be disappointed, but don’t be disheartened, and don’t pick up the box. I genuinely hope that people choose to ignore the work of the journalist who has behaved in such a poor manner and instead find a new and deep respect for the work of Elena Ferrante. As for me and my house, we have taken to calling her Rose, whose work by any other name would be as sweet.
Rachel Stirling is an independent reader, writer and reviewer. She has a background in psychology and a love of both literature and art. She has worked with a great many writers and poets and an equally large number of publishing houses. She is often to be found online at Stirlingwriter.com or on Twitter @Stirlingwriter On her best days she reviews poetry at sabotagereviews.org