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Leave Elena Ferrante Alone

There's no good reason to make a best-selling author the subject of "investigative journalism."

Europa Editions / The New Republic

At long last, the identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante — bestselling pseudonymous author of the Neapolitan Novels — seems to be confirmed. And yet, we don’t know much more than we did the day before. A mystery is solved, but why?

In an investigation published in the New York Review of Books (as well as French, German, and Italian outlets), journalist Claudio Gatti used financial documents to convincingly peg an Italian literary translator as the hand behind Ferrante. It’s not surprising that someone could track her down in such a manner; that much money always leaves a paper trail. Compared to Gatti’s past subjects like the Oil for Food scandal or the machinations behind the 2008 financial crisis, this is low-hanging fruit. A little investigative journalism and the lid pops off.

One of the reasons Gatti is able to make such a convincing case is that he’s misusing his tools. A good investigative journalist could probably prove without a shadow of a doubt that their neighbor was having an affair or that the teenager down the street is growing a pot plant in the backyard, but uncovering those stories would not be correct applications of his training, even if the rest of us wanted to read the gossip. The Translator didn’t commit any crime by covering her tracks as Ferrante, she simply kept her authorship private.

The journalistic significance of the Ferrante story looks obvious on its face: People are understandably curious about who exactly is responsible for these books. We’re running around like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting looking for the genius janitor Matt Damon. Finding things out is exciting! But Gatti’s reporting has not collapsed the public identities of Ferrante and The Translator; he doesn’t even make them one person in his article. Elena Ferrante will remain the author, and for most of us the woman behind Ferrante will go from an Italian lady whose name we don’t know to an Italian lady whose name we can’t remember.

The search for Ferrante’s real name was originally stoked by fears that, since her identity unknown, she might well be a man. This never made any real sense—the Neapolitan Novels would be a world-historical achievement in the male exploration of women’s interior lives; Occam’s Razor says the books were written by a woman instead. Still, it would have been a real mean trick, and many readers felt just a tad uneasy. Ferrante addressed the rumors head-on in an email interview with Vanity Fair in August of 2015, with reference to the “literary gynaeceum” in which women writers are locked. Doing that (and other interviews) was responsible, a generous act of reassurance for her readers. If there was ever news value in unmasking Ferrante’s pseudonym, that should have put an end to it.

Gatti seems to suggest that, if there’s little value of this revelation to most of us, literary critics stand to gain a lot. Many critics have read the Neapolitan Novels as largely autobiographical, which is apparently not the case. Knowing The Translator’s identity opens up new avenues of thought and analysis for scholars. However, there’s little doubt in my mind that in the long run the pseudonym would have collapsed. Ferrante’s Italian publishers at Edizione e/o have been solid stewards, even persuading Ferrante to grant interviews and put some of the wilder theories to rest. Scholars work with books over centuries; I don’t believe the study of literature needed Gatti’s help.

Why did some readers still want Ferrante to pass a sex verification test? No one tells Banksy he has to reveal himself or we’ll all assume he’s a women’s collective. Gatti writes that Ferrante, “in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books” because she announced her intention to lie and mislead about her identity if asked. It’s not at all clear how one follows from the other, and her right to disappear behind the book is real even if it’s not enshrined in law. To report on a private person without invitation isn’t just unseemly, it’s poor journalism.

Journalists are tasked with more than reporting stories. Each piece is also a balancing act, where writers and their editors weigh the public’s legitimate interest against the consequences for their subjects. Not everyone gets it right. If you’re dealing with an uncooperative source as Gatti was (compared to your neighbor who is happy to talk to the local paper about her award-winning chili recipe), there’s a higher standard. Unless they violate the social trust by, say, harming someone, or there’s an overwhelming public need to know, it’s best practice to just let it go. The Translator remains—for most journalistic intents and purposes—a private person. We got Elena Ferrante; what makes us feel entitled to more?