Italian Journalist Sets Out To Unmask True Identity Of Author Elena Ferrante
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Elena Ferrante is the pen name of an Italian author of seven books, including the popular Naples Quartet. It's about a girl from a rough neighborhood and her improbable rise to literary success. Now a reporter has written an article that reveals, he says, Ferrante's true identity. It first appeared in The New York Review of Books. And a lot of editors, writers and fans are not happy about this attempted outing. That list includes Dayna Tortorici. She's co-editor of the literary magazine n+1. I asked her if the reporter who wrote the article was just doing his job.
DAYNA TORTORICI: Well, it's an interesting question. So Claudio Gatti is an investigative journalist who writes, I believe, for a business newspaper in Italy. And his previous subjects include Silvio Berlusconi, JPMorgan Chase, big corporations who have done something wrong, and he is uncovering a certain kind of scandal. And so he comes to the writing with that same attitude, which is I think partly what annoyed a lot of readers of his piece.
My feeling about this is novelists are not politicians. The integrity of their work does not depend on the perfect alignment of what they say and who they say they are and what you might uncover about them if you are a journalist, nor are they memoirists who have an obligation to their work and to their readers to be who they say they are.
MCEVERS: So she's not a politician.
MCEVERS: She's not a memoirist. She's a novelist. And you write that we shouldn't want so much from novelists. What do you mean by that?
TORTORICI: There's a tendency to read books as a way to better understand the author. There's a kind of psychoanalytic bend to this. But an author is not an analysand, and we're not shrinks. And that's not the point of books. By removing herself, I think Ferrante was interested in what that opened up for other readers, different ways that they could read the novels. So...
MCEVERS: You know, it's funny hearing you say all this. I feel guilty as charged as an interviewer.
MCEVERS: I mean I have an interview on this show today where I'm asking a writer what in this book comes from your life, and what doesn't come from your life? And like, how can we sort of parse out the two?
TORTORICI: I should clarify that I don't think it's a crime to read biographically or even a bad interpretive practice. But this has become the default way of reading, and so I think a little bit of resistance to that is healthy.
MCEVERS: You know, there have been so many writers in the past who have either hidden their identity or remained out of the public eye. Of course we can think of lots of dudes who've done this - Mark Twain, Stephen King as Richard Bachman, Thomas Pynchon. Being a reclusive woman is a little bit more rare, yeah?
TORTORICI: Yeah. I think there is a double standard for women writers in which they have to be, like all professional women, pleasant, accessible. There is an emphasis on their physical appearance that men do not experience. You can even see this with a novelist as gifted and popular as Zadie Smith. You'll read a review of Zadie Smith's novel and invariably there will be an enormous picture of Zadie Smith.
TORTORICI: So I think her decision to not participate in that whole process of publicity was a way of taking herself seriously as an author and saying, no, you will give my books the same level of attention and respect that you give to men.
MCEVERS: Do you think it was kind of inevitable that this was going to happen? I mean, like, once you're a writer like this, who becomes this well-known, you know, especially in the time of the internet, for better or for worse, someone's going to come and try to figure out who you are.
TORTORICI: Yes, I do think it was inevitable. I was hoping that it would last a little bit longer and come about by different means. But I also think that an age in which there are so few mysteries - it was really nice to have one and to hold out the possibility that an old, outdated arrangement of literary fame could still exist, that you could have a certain degree of privacy and yet reach the public in this way.
Really the surrender of privacy in exchange for publicity is unprecedented. I think the idea that this is normal and we should, you know, instead of giving her an exceptional set of conditions, drag her down to the ones that we all live in...
MCEVERS: Oh, right.
TORTORICI: ...Is very sad. I think more writers should have the privilege that she was able to have.
MCEVERS: Dayna Tortorici is a co-editor of the literary magazine n+1. Thank you so much.
TORTORICI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.