Specifically, I was annoyed by the recent Electric Lit piece, “Why Do We Care Who the ‘Real’ Elena Ferrante Is?” Here we’re brought up to date on the latest speculation about the anonymous Italian author’s true identity. The central question of the piece, though, is why “we” would even try to find out who this writer “really” is when ‘Muricans are too boorish too even name an Italian author, much less care about what they write.
Why am I annoyed? Because this question of identity and biography is so worn and so old and so thoroughly-discussed that it’s not worth discussing anymore. Back in the 1960s, Roland Barthes wrote his thing about divorcing the text from the author and not letting authorial intent or biography influence our reading of a text. I’ve always found this argument bogus, because it’s like saying that a novel descended fully-formed from the heavens and can (and should) be understood only in terms of itself. Um, I’m sorry but can we really understand Hard Times without understanding Dickens’s England? Can we really appreciate Beloved without its historical context? NOPE.
But all of that aside, what’s with this question “Why Do We Care Who the ‘Real’ Elena Ferrante Is?” Why wouldn’t we. We’re humans, and humans are curious. Ever seen Star Trek? You know all those four-year-olds who follow you around asking “why why why why why”? Well, we never really grow out of that. We’re nosy and like to get all up in each other’s business. Why is that so hard to understand?
I mean, look at our obsession with J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. We want to know whyyyyyy they didn’t want to show themselves and be social and whatever. Even Harper Lee has been called “reclusive” even though she never hid from anyone. She just lived a simple life and didn’t seek the spotlight. But To Kill a Mockingbird has had such an impact on so many people, that we want to know all we can know about her. Because human curiosity.
So let’s stop worrying about why people want to know this or that, and just talk about what makes Ferrante’s novels so compelling. She’s said that she wants to remain anonymous, and people don’t care and want to know who she is anyway. It’s a draw. Let’s move on.
(first posted on Book Riot 3/18/16)