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Guest post: "The unmasking of Elena Ferrante shows women writers can't win"

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MumsnetGuestPosts · 05/10/2016 11:37

How much of yourself should you reveal when you are writing? The answer, of course, depends on whether you are male or female.

If you are male, it doesn't really matter. You are the default human being and all experiences about which you write – regardless of whether or not you have actually had them – will be universal.

If you are female it is more complicated. Reveal too much about yourself and you are not a real writer at all, just an over-sharer, wallowing in the petty specifics of a non-male life. Don't reveal enough and you are suspect, manipulative, a tease. Either way you can't win.

Elena Ferrante, author of the Neapolitan Novels, chose to write under a pseudonym because she said it removed her from "all forms of social pressure or obligation" and stopped her from feeling "tied down to what could become one's public image". Unlike female authors who use male pen names, she was still identifiable as a woman – but as a woman who could only be judged by her works, not her background, her appearance or her personal life.

I don't imagine there's a woman alive who can't see the attraction in this. It is rare that women get to occupy public space without the tiniest details of their lives being held up for scrutiny. One sees this, for example, in the current US presidential campaign, in which the affairs of Hillary Clinton's husband are deemed more newsworthy than the actual misdeeds of her male rival. Men are permitted to have private lives because their presence in public life is taken for granted. For a while, Ferrante managed to beat this unfair system, defining herself solely by her written words, denying onlookers the chance to trawl through her biography and use it to devalue her work.

On Sunday the New York Review of Books published an article by the journalist Claudio Gatti, claiming to reveal Ferrante's true identity. According to Gatti, this was perfectly acceptable because "by announcing that she would lie on occasion Ferrante has […] relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown." In other words, she shouldn't have led the reader on. As far as Gatti is concerned, she was asking for it.

When a male author tells half-truths or plays with facts we don't call this 'lying'; we call it 'being postmodern' and consider it very clever indeed. When a woman does the same, cleverness suddenly becomes deviousness. If she was never prepared to give us the whole story, then she should not have told us anything at all. Gatti describes Ferrante as "the very first person to violate Elena Ferrante's privacy." It is an absurd statement to make, rooted in the belief that a woman must be either wholly invisible or public property.

The same male entitlement leads to women being told that if they don't like abuse on social media, they should deactivate; if they don't like being victims of revenge porn, they shouldn't take photos of themselves; if they don't like having their body ridiculed on the cover of Closer, they shouldn't do anything that could remotely lead to them being considered famous. It is a way of controlling women by limiting the space they will dare to claim for themselves. And it happens to all women writers, including mummy bloggers, mocked for their focus on the personal – because that's not real life, just 'mummy stuff' – while simultaneously accused of being dishonest or smug. The problem here is not what women write, it is that they write at all.

"Women," wrote Ferrante in an email interview with the journalist Deborah Orr earlier this year, "still encounter an enormous number of obstacles":

"They have to hold too many things together and often sacrifice their aspirations in the name of affections. To give an outlet to their creativity is thus especially arduous. It requires a great deal of motivation, strict discipline and many compromises. Above all, it entails quite a few feelings of guilt."

A female writer should not have to struggle through all this and then, once she has produced something amazing, have to contend with male journalists telling her what else it is their 'right' to know. Women's stories are complete in themselves, with the boundaries they choose to give them. All else is irrelevant.

OP posts:
MatildaOfTuscany · 05/10/2016 15:14

Thank you, Victoria. I think I agree with pretty much all of this. I don't see Gatti's actions as any different from some online keyboard warrior who gets their jollies out of doxxing women. And it's tragic that Ferrante says she may stop publishing her work as a result.

EvansOvalPies · 05/10/2016 15:37

Agree too, Victoria. Claudio Gatti defended himself under the cloak of 'investigative journalism'. To my mind, an investigative journalist explores criminal and underhanded wrongdoings. This should not include someone who wishes to write novels whilst at the same time, remain anonymous. Men also write using a nom de plume or pseudonym. Has Mr Gatti outed any of them, I wonder, under the guise of 'investigative journalism'? In fact, that would still be equally wrong, as, anyone wishing to provide an art or service to the public whilst remaining anonymous and retaining their privacy should be entitled to that right. So if he outs anyone under his investigative journalism role under such circumstances is wrong. I was seething when I watched the news reports and his interview.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel · 05/10/2016 16:21

'online keyboard warrior who gets their jollies out of doxxing women.' - yes, this.
I agree with Victoria absolutely.

vesuvia · 05/10/2016 17:07

Thanks for writing this post, Victoria. I think you have made some very good points about how the privacy of men and women is often treated differently.

StepAwayFromTheThesaurus · 05/10/2016 17:22

I think he might not have realised that investigative journalism is supposed to be in the public interest. Otherwise there is no reason to justify the intrusion. Exposing someone as an author of fiction is hardly in any kind of public interest.

scallopsrgreat · 05/10/2016 17:22

It's all a bit sinister isn't it? Ensuring a woman is put back in her place. How very dare she want to live her life free from harassment and judgement.

"by announcing that she would lie on occasion Ferrante has […] relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown." In other words, she shouldn't have led the reader on. As far as Gatti is concerned, she was asking for it.

So what if she lied (although I would dispute she lied)? People don't actually have to tell the general populace the truth about themselves. She didn't hurt anyone with remaining anonymous. And it doesn't surprise me that Gatti follows a narrative that her behaviour led to this inevitable conclusion. Where else do we hear that?

ArcheryAnnie · 05/10/2016 18:38

I hated hearing Gatti on the Today programme on R4, where he was basically saying "this woman doesn't want to give me this but I'm going to take it anyway, and give it to everyone else, too". A more textbook example of male entitlement it would be difficult to find.

How dare women have boundaries. If they do, an arse like Gatti will be there, pronto, to smash through it.

Wonderhorse · 05/10/2016 22:19

Great post Victoria. I completely agree - it's vile the way her pleas to be kept anonymous to protect herself and her art have been taken up as a challenge by Gatti. This covered it too. I've found it interesting who's chosen to report her identity as part of the story and who's not included her name so not to add/collude with the intrusion. I just hope she continues to write.

MatildaOfTuscany · 06/10/2016 07:57

Thanks for that link, Wonderhorse. This sentence near the end really nails it for me: "In writing a book that perhaps shares part of herself with us, Ferrante is not signalling that the rest of her is also for sale. Women are not products." It really sent chills - this attitude that some men have that once a woman has the temerity to step into the public domain, she is publicly owned for the entertainment of the masses.

nicebitofsodaandjam · 06/10/2016 10:13

Great post Victoria! The whole thing makes me feel very uncomfortable as who knows what artists it might put off publishing their work? The whole 'out there' world of writing now whereby authors are expected to engage on twitter, lead very public lives, is just not suited to every writer. Also the way in which women are judged so harshly and in such a different way to men gives a rock solid reason why some women might validly want to hide. I mean, this woman has essentially had her address published to the whole world, and a record of her finances - in a week where we saw what happened to Kim K, it just feels very wrong.

ageingrunner · 06/10/2016 12:44

He clearly thinks she has no right to any privacy, not even about how much she earns or where she lives. What an unpleasant man. He clearly couldn't stand the thought of her making the choice not to be public property.

scallopsrgreat · 06/10/2016 13:07

nicebitofsodaandjam I agree. It certainly highlights his male privilege. It probably never even crossed his mind that he could be putting her in danger by 'outing' her. That there maybe very good reasons why she wanted to remain anonymous (other than the very good reason of wanting some privacy).

VestalVirgin · 06/10/2016 13:37

What a disgusting man. Well. I will make sure to use a male pseudonym if I ever write something noteworthy. In the hopes that disgusting men like him will think I am male and thus leave me alone.

Lorelei76 · 06/10/2016 16:30

Vestal - I can't recall the name but there was a male author - American I think - who had a similar problem. I think he was less famous so it was less reported.

I used to do creative writing and have expressed concern on the boards here that all authors are now expected to be public authors. not saying that my writing is a loss, lol, but I do think that there will be good writers who are put off it if they now have to make themselves known.

it's like an extension of the awful idea that actors/musicians always have to do selfies with fans, even at the supermarket, because "your fans made you". Ive long been concerned about how privacy has gone out of the window and this is another example.

I didn't read Gatti's article because I didn't want to give him any more web traffic, but from what I have heard I suspect he'd have done the same to a man. There's a lot to be desired in modern journalism and certainly the UK powers decided to learn nothing from Leveson.

Lorelei76 · 06/10/2016 16:31

again I can't bear to look at it so I won't - the financial data he disclosed, I am guessing that must be in the public domain already e.g. company directorships, shareholdings? because otherwise how can you print someone's financial info?

GillyMcFizzleSocks · 06/10/2016 20:17

I think it's really sad, and shameful of him. I just read a great book by a well-known author but I have no real interest in the author's personal life. If she had been using a pseudonym it would have made no difference to me. However, I think it is a sorry state of affairs if anyone wanting to express themselves creatively has to decide whether or not they want to waive their right to anonymity.

If I were to write a novel (it would be crap and I'm not planning to but that's by the by) I would want to use a pseudonym. I wouldn't want my deeply religious Gran to read swearing or sex scenes I'd written, or friends and family to read my work and speculate about whether characters or scenes were based on real people or events. If I got J K Rowling level famous I wouldn't want exes to sell stories on me, or people to know my level of wealth. I wouldn't want people to be frightened to speak to me in case I was going to use something they'd told me in my writing.

Bobochic · 07/10/2016 09:18

The idea that artists owe their public an ever open window on their private lives has grown hand in hand with the rise of celebrity culture. These days, if you are a famous name, the assumption is that you will be a public person. Respect for privacy has gone.

MostlyHet · 07/10/2016 11:40

Jeanette Winterson has a great piece on this in today's Guardian.

yy to poster upthread who said "I don't want my gran reading my sex scenes" - exactly how I feel about my fanfic! Incidentally I found Winterson's whole I-not-I discussion fascinating. I particularly liked her comment:

"My first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit uses a character called Jeanette. I like to read myself as a fiction as well as a fact. It is creatively freeing. Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Milan Kundera have all used themselves as their own aliases. When men do it, it is called meta-fiction and part of their playful experiment. When women do it, it is called autobiography."

Incidentally, the whole question of how much of yourself you put into fiction gets in there even at the clumsy amateur level I write at - and there is an assumption on the part of many readers that one must be writing autobiography or some sort of "self insert". I had two characters have a row - their first row in their burgeoning relationship. One of my readers sent me a list of self help books which she thought I should read before embarking on a relationship myself! (I sent her a polite reply thanking her for her concern, but saying that as a middle aged mother, I rather felt that ship had sailed.)

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