The Exposure of Elena Ferrante: A Writer-on-Writer Attack on Free Speech

The opportunistic words of one writer will mutate, and perhaps cripple, the literature of another.

La Frantumaglia cover detail

The Italian journalist Claudio Gatti has caused controversy this week, with the publication of an article that claims to reveal the true identiy of the celebrated novelist Elena Ferrante.  Published in English on the New York Review of Books blog, and simultaneously in German, Italian and French, the article sets out the evidence Gatti has found that points to a particular woman, who he names.1

Anonymity and pseudonymity are often a pre-requisite for freedom of expression.  Whistle-blowers usually need to keep their names away from whatever they have told journalists, lest they lose their jobs or even their liberty.  This is the main reason why English PEN, for whom I work, campaigns so vigorously against draconian surveillance laws and for better protections for those handling journalistic material.

But anonymity enables more than just public interest journalism.  It also allows certain types of writing to happen.  Ten years ago, I condemned the Sunday Times for exposing the identity of the woman who wrote the blog and book Girl With A One Track Mind:

If ‘The Girl’ were to interact with people who knew about her writings, the entire nature of the relationships she experiences would change beyond all recognition. Her comments on hitherto anonymous lovers would become unethical and impossible, since a fairly wide circle of people would know who they were. Anonymity is crucial, and the blog cannot work in any other way. This fact is obvious to anyone who has ever read the blog, and will be apparent to anyone who buys the book.

The author herself agreed with me: “Not many others seem to have grasped that I wanted to uphold others’ – as well as my own – privacy”.

Another good example of anonymity facilitating freedom of expression is Culture Clash: The Life of a British Bangladeshi Muslim Girl in London.  She speaks honestly and passionately about her life in a way that is valuable to her and to her readers: some of whom will be in precisely her situation, suffering the same constraints and anxieties.  There is no way she would be able to write the blog under her own name… At least, not the same blog.

Elena Ferrante is an enormously talented writer.  Her books are enjoyed all over the world.  But Gatti’s exposure could mean the end of all that.  Katherine Angel explains why this might be so:

Ferrante has spoken eloquently about the reasons for her anonymity: about “the creative space that absence opened up for me”, about the “complete freedom” that is required in order to write, about the disobedience that might be necessary in order to pursue one’s work. …

Anonymity for Ferrante is a condition of the work’s existence in the first place.  For her, an awareness of the authorial self, and its potential co-optation in the media, inhibits writing, which for her “must never lose sight of truth as its ultimate goal.”

So to expose Elena Ferrante could mean the destruction of her artistic raison d’etre.  A damming of the creative stream, and an unwitting act of censorship.

Claudio Gatti is a journalist, and it is this fact that makes me most uneasy.  The Ferrante exposure is a writer-on-writer attack.  Sitting in the English PEN office, interacting with all the British writers who stand up for the free speech rights of their fellow word-smiths around the world, the intrusion evokes particular kind of sadness.2 PEN holds that writers should support each other, because when one of us casts off the fetters and honestly exercises our right to free speech, we are all enriched. Today it looks like the opposite has happened: the opportunistic words of one writer will mutate, and perhaps cripple, the literature of another.

1. I choose not to repeat the name of the person Gatti says is Elena Ferrante… but I have linked to the English version of his article.  I imagine most people will see this as contradictory, but I do not.  In this blog post, I choose to respect Ferrante’s obvious wish to remain anonymous.  But I also choose to acknowledge that a curious reader is only a Google search away from the revelation itself, and also to uphold another principle: that we should be unambiguous about identifying things that we criticise.  I’ve written about this before.  Failure to link out can lead to conflation, elision, sloppy arguments and misinformation.

2. For the avoidance of any doubt, this blog post is not an English PEN statement. These are my personal opinions, published on my personal website.

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