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The Sexist Big Reveal

Anonymity allowed Elena Ferrante to make art in a misogynistic world. A male journalist took that away from her.

"misstery" by Mario Mancuso, licensed under CC BY 2.0

When I first heard yesterday that Elena Ferrante’s legal name may have been revealed, I thought it was because she died. This thought entered my sleepy head in part because I misinterpreted a friend’s tweet on the matter, but also because I couldn’t immediately imagine under what other circumstances that information would come to light. Ferrante is internationally beloved for her novels, especially the Neapolitan series; while I knew some people were unimpressed by her work, I’d heard of no one who wanted to hurt her. Outing her or doxxing her or whatever you might prefer to call it, was so clear and unnecessary a violation that I still can’t see it as anything other than an attempt to do her harm.

Claudio Gatti himself, the journalist who announced her identity across four international platforms—including in The New York Review of Books—is hard pressed to explain why he undertook this “months-long investigation” into the real estate and financial affairs of a Rome-based translator who appears to have a more generous income than translation provides. He cannot claim any ethical impetus. He has uncovered evidence of no wrongdoing in spite of his bizarre consultations with a lawyer about potential “tax advantages” she and her husband may enjoy. The best he can offer is that Ferrante’s “books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable.”

This is not a reason for his actions; it’s not even true. Just look at the shocked and wounded responses to the NYRB’s article on Facebook and Twitter; her fans did not want this. As numerous angry readers pointed out in the wake of the article’s release on Sunday, reclusive male authors have long been respected enough to be left alone. The New York Times praised the hermitic J.D. Salinger for “elevat[ing] privacy to an art form.” And, though Nancy Jo Sales went on the trail of Thomas Pynchon in her 1996 feature for New York magazine, she stopped short of revealing his actual location, and closes the piece by reinforcing the link between his “integrity” and his preference for privacy. These men’s bids for relative anonymity are not taken as coy dares, but understood as indications of their sober and pure commitment to art, which accordingly should not be challenged or transgressed.

There is perhaps a sticking point here; Pynchon and Salinger used their “real” names and Ferrante does not. It was her pseudonym that left open the door for the insultingly stupid rumors that her books were the work of a man, or several men, but Gatti only claims to confirm the truth of what Ferrante and her publishers always maintained: that she is an Italian woman. Why this needed external confirmation from an invasive stranger remains unexplained. But there is no pretense that her use of pseudonym masked a case of dishonest deception—as was true of, say, J.T. Leroy, the persona assumed by a woman who pretended to be an abused boy writing memoir about his outrageous life as a child prostitute.

Assuming Gatti’s theory is true, nothing has been accomplished by revealing Ferrante’s “real” identity. He cannot explain why his piece exists because he believes his sexist animosity towards Ferrante’s success is justification enough. The piece reeks of entitlement and equivocation. Gatti claims the “financial clues speak for themselves,” which both begs the question of why they need to be publicly highlighted and elides his role in turning “clues” into evidence. He immediately seizes upon the translator’s marriage to suggest—as so many disgruntled and confused men before him have—that Ferrante is not the sole author of her own work and perhaps a man is responsible after all. (Of course a woman alone could never write books as imaginative and forceful as hers.) This is a claim made richer in irony by his preceding complaint that previous attempts to out Ferrante lacked “concrete evidence.” His evidence for raising the possibility of her phony authorship seems to be simply that she happens to know a man.

He finds her “oddly public” for one who would like to keep her legal name unknown because she occasionally grants interviews and because, at the urging of her publishers, she released a book that doesn’t accurately depict her personal history. He’s particularly impressed with his ability to cite Ferrante’s own words, which appear in the book itself, confirming she will not actually reveal her background. (In a letter to her publishers making clear she is committed to her privacy, she says she finds lies “useful. . . when necessary.”) By admitting she isn’t going to tell us about herself, Gatti reasons—and please hear the heavy air quotes around that word—Ferrante has “relinquished her right to disappear.” Instead of finding this admirably self-effacing, her reticence to speak on herself becomes an act of hubris that merits punishment and correction. What it means to say that creative women “relinquish rights” when they insist on their privacy is that women are not allowed to participate in the public sphere and simultaneously set boundaries.

The gendered angle of this exposé is impossible to ignore, especially for anyone who has read Ferrante’s work itself. In her novels, men often brutishly quash the best opportunities that arise in the lives of women close to them. Though the bulk of the Neapolitan novels are set in decades recently passed, the dynamic they depict between men and women is very much alive. As Ferrante put it when an interviewer for the Financial Times asked why there are “few positive male characters in [her] books”: “I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority … male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us.” This move by Gatti, NYRB, and the other complicit publications is an attempt at putting a woman in her place. As Katherine Angel writes, it arises from “a belief that women never have a right to privacy … and an urge to deliberately destroy an artist’s and a woman’s attempt to create conditions for sanity in a misogynistic world.”

Gatti’s defense of his piece continues to echo the most chilling claims of men who physically violate a woman while claiming the resisting woman wanted it and had it coming. On the BBC, he reiterated his conviction that readers have “a right” to know about her personally by virtue of purchasing her (fictive) work. He then added, “Most importantly, I believe that Ferrante and her publishers agree.” Ferrante and her publishers reiterated numerous times, including directly to him when he sought comment for his article, that she did not want her legal identity confirmed. This is one man deciding his desires are so imperative that they more than negate the wishes of others—they remake the will of others to align with his own.

What’s most overlooked in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s article is what my friend Meaghan observed in her tweet; Ferrante’s anonymity was a precondition for her work. She’d even said that if her pseudonymity were compromised, she would stop publishing. Many men admire and enjoy Ferrante’s work but it is acutely significant to women. Article after article has welled with relief and gratitude and incredulity that our generation has a writer of her skill who delves so devotedly into the depths of female friendships, bodies, motherhood and other blood relations.

But Gatti and his accomplices decided that no matter how widely appreciated or critically lauded a woman’s work, it is ultimately expendable. For them, what’s worth more than some of the finest writing the world has known is a moment to remind a successful woman that she still must play by society’s misogynist rules. It’s possible that the Neapolitan novels’ concluding lines will now serve as the tombstone for Elena Ferrante’s writing career. As the narrator Lenu says while reflecting on her separation from her most cherished childhood friend: “Now that Lila has [been] seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”