Before the Italian novelist known as Elena Ferrante’s first book, Troubling Love, came out in 1991, she told her publisher she would do no public appearances, accept no awards, and submit only to the minimum interviews, in writing. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” she wrote at the time.
Ferrante’s books certainly have no need of her: The latest, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, published in the U.S. earlier this month, achieved a critical mass of attention (essays in the New York Times and an interview, of sorts, in Vogue) without a single publicity photo. “Elena Ferrante,” in fact, is widely assumed to be a pseudonym. But what about her books’ readers? Do we really have no need of the author?
I’m asking because Those Who Leave — the third book in her Neapolitan series, which centers on the story of a friendship between two women — sent ripples of anticipation and speed-reading through my circle of female friends unlike anything I’d seen since Harry Potter. Elena Ferrante gets it, I heard over and over, meaning that Ferrante depicts same-sex admiration and competition — the mysterious alchemy by which your best friend makes you simultaneously more like her and more like yourself — with such depth and precision that it feels like a relief. In the span of a summer, it seemed, Ferrante was anointed a literary girl-crush: A female writer who describes the female experience so intimately and so vividly that the reader feels like she could (and should) know the writer personally.
But it was strange to experience the collective discovery of a female writer without the ritual swapping of biographic morsels. Like all crushes, the literary girl-crush feeds off mundane, concrete details furnished in profiles, Q&As, memoir-ish essays, and social media. At various points in a woman’s reading life, she is liable to have latched on to Sylvia Plath’s “platinum summer” makeover, Joan Didion’s packing list (leotards and bourbon), or Nora Ephron’s restaurant-quality meatloaf — in addition to their memorable lines and characterizations.
I’m aware that the superficiality of these factoids undermines one’s readerly cred: I saw Rachel Kushner had a ‘64 Ford Galaxie 500, so I bought a ‘64 Ford Galaxie 500. And I know, intellectually, that the factoids’ availability is the product of a media landscape that expects authors to sell themselves first and their work second — an expectation that, for female writers, can mean the response to work and author both is laced with sexism. (Think of the personality-focused criticism that greeted Patricia Lockwood’s poems and Emily Gould’s novel, or of readers asking Merritt Tierce if her husband had read her sexually frank novel.)
I can’t help myself, though. The status quo has given me my appetites. I can’t imagine not knowing that Marisha Pessl rewards herself for writing with cupcakes and that Claire Messud shares an email address with her husband, James Wood. My Elena Ferrante books have been inhaled, dog-eared, loaned out, and warped by water. Now I want to know how Ferrante’s house is decorated. What does she wear when she writes? Who looked after her children? Does she drink? Does she smoke?
And who’s to say these are strictly trivial questions? As frustrating as it is to see women subjected to personal scrutiny men might not face, it’s equally frustrating to see whole realms of daily life — clothes, cooking, romantic relationships, child care — dismissed as insultingly frivolous, when women are the ones disproportionately obliged to care about them. I’ve wound up feeling that the surface-level trappings of the literary girl-crush represent something more than lifestyle inspiration: They’re an auxiliary point of access to the author. Is that so far-fetched? Zadie Smith — who favors High Street fashion and takeaway samosas, I have read — has said that when she was a student, she agreed with Roland Barthes that the author was dead. But as a writer, she wrote in the essay collection Changing My Mind, “I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.” Doesn’t that make my authorial girl-crush on Smith another facet of the same hunger for connection?
Still, I can’t resent Ferrante’s refusal to satisfy our curiosity — and it doesn’t seem like others do, either. As far as I know, no Ferrante devotees have trekked to Naples to physically stake out a connection with her consciousness, like the fanboys who hound fellow-recluse Thomas Pynchon. It makes sense that female fans would sympathize with the unsparing judgment facing public figures who happen to be female and respect her boundaries.
There’s also the possibility — floated by Ferrante herself — that the novels’ very existence requires anonymity. “The most difficult achievement is the capacity to see oneself, to name oneself, to imagine oneself,” she told Vogue. “If in daily life we use ideologies, common sense, religion, even literature itself to disguise our experiences and make them presentable, in fiction it’s possible to sweep away all the veils — in fact, perhaps, it’s a duty.” Without spoiling any plots, it bears mention that the anxiety of exposing one’s self and one’s loved ones through writing is addressed in Ferrante’s fiction. Who would trade the candor of the Neapolitan novels for obligatory observations of Ferrante picking at her salad (or, alternately, devouring her cheeseburger)?
Ferrante’s secrecy opens the door to speculation that she may not be a woman, and some in Italy believe she is a pen name for the male novelist Domenico Starnone. But for female readers, the books themselves shut it. One simply knows that she is a woman: “I can’t imagine it could have been written by a man,” says Ann Goldstein, her translator, when we spoke last week. Goldstein herself has never met Ferrante, and she says the speculation about Ferrante’s identity has dropped off with the release of Those Who Leave. It’s as if the character Elena’s emotional landscape cultivates a sense of intimacy with the Ferrante even without the usual biographical fodder. Without confirmation, belief that she is a woman elevates the girl-crush to a question of girl-faith.
It’s also the difference between the “true reader” and the mere fan, according to Ferrante. “The true reader,” she wrote in a 2003 interview, “… searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”