THE BLOG

Elena Ferrante Wasn't "Asking For It"

Impolite sentiments die hard. We can't, today, in most company, suggest that a rape victim was "asking for it." But it's not like men just realized that women don't work to deserve certain horrible fates. The "asked for it" defense hasn't vanished, it's just been sublimated.

So while a man can't publicly link a woman's moral character to her skirt length, a male journalist can assert, in a prestigious publication, that female novelist Elena Ferrante basically asked to be doxxed by daring to write novels under a pseudonym.

"By announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown," writes Claudio Gatti, in the New York Review of Books. "Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity."

Ferrante's incriminating sentiment was, "I resort to [lies] when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures." Who can blame her, when just being a woman in the world invites a referendum on every fibre of your self-presentation.

From this, and several similar statements in other interviews, Gatti cobbled together his quest to out Ferrante. To take the stated desires and self-defensive mechanisms of a woman at their exact obverse is a classic move of the put-upon male. No means yes.

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Ferrante's persona-shield let her evade the publishing gossip, and biography-centered criticism to which modern female writers are subject. She could sidestep discourses on who deserves to write what, motherhood, how many espressos she drinks in the morning before hitting her daily word count. At a time when identity is currency, she retained financial independence by making her own a black box.

How ironic that this affair unfolds in the heart of continental Europe, where privacy most approaches a sacrament and the "Right to be Forgotten" is asserted earnestly. For every such societal impulse, there are equal, opposite, inconvenient feelings that find an outlet in baroque plots like this one. The wheel of progress does not turn only forward.

What I'm really trying to forget is color photograph of the proposed "real Ferrante" that ran high up in the NYRB blog post. Something amazing about Elena Ferrante is that she created her self entirely through words in an obsessively visual era. The novel today is a protest form, for it tells a story without filmic or photographic aid when life itself seems to exist in and for those media. Ferrante protected the textual primacy of her novels by denying them so much as a headshot. She even castrated her books' covers of any explanatory power by choosing deliberately kitschy images that foil extrapolation. One wonders how Gatti's article was greenlighted by NYRB editors, but the decision to run her photo seems in special bad taste.

Gatti is a coward, but his action is a symptom of the protracted death of toxic masculinity. These men, everywhere, are acting out in face of an uncertain future. (Just turn on the TV.) Surely if this particular man had not committed to doxing Elena Ferrante, some other man would have. Her hermetic persona was the most ingenious gambit available to a woman writer today, and perfect things are unstable.

Which is why his work is ultimately trivial; errata. Ferrante is not a person, or even a writer; she is an author. Even if it were revealed that Elena Ferrante were really, say, a doctor in Brazil, a robot, or Angela Merkel, it would not make a dent in the corpus of her authorized interviews and published fiction.

Gatti is a coward, but he is not exceptional; Ferrante is exceptional. What he did is so boring that it's a cliché. A woman asserts something as clearly as possible. And a man tells her, no, this is what you really meant.