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Books by Elena Ferrante are displayed in a bookstore in Rome on Oct. 4, 2016. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Books by Elena Ferrante are displayed in a bookstore in Rome on Oct. 4, 2016. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Unmasking of Elena Ferrante forces us to reconsider J.T. LeRoy scandal Add to ...

Insults are raining down on Claudio Gatti, the Italian journalist who went to forensic lengths to discover – and unmask – the identity of the fiercely private Italian author known as Elena Ferrante. As he revealed in a lengthy and dry article in the New York Review of Books last week – a scoop announced with all the breathlessness of Donald Trump’s tax returns – her publishing house’s financial records, and various real estate deals, indicate that the likely person behind the pseudonym is a translator named Anita Raja.

Fans of Elena Ferrante are outraged: She had every right to privacy, they say; his investigation of her publishing house’s records was like fishing through her wallet. Her books are good enough without a personality attached to them; a book stands alone. And of course the fact that the reporter is a man has been called proof of what Ferrante has said in interviews about the trustworthiness of men in general (they will always betray you). Besides, say her readers: We don’t want to know. We don’t want her to be anyone else. We want her to be Elena Ferrante, famously unknown.

Claudio Gatti’s stated reasons for his invasive investigation are the usual weak nonsense repeated by paparazzi whenever they betray and humiliate. His is the usual line about Ferrante being a “public figure.”

Nobody in his position ever tries to define exactly what a public figure is – is every person not public? – or explain exactly how public figures forfeit their right to privacy. In his original piece he was already on the defensive, arguing that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her book.” Huh. How so? Gatti does not elucidate. He goes on, “Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.” No, they haven’t, Mr. Gatti: People like you have.

The question of whether or not any person has a right to put out a different life story from her real one is tricky, though. Ferrante’s case is slightly complicated by the fact that in 2003 she published a volume of correspondence that spoke of her life in autobiographical terms. Called La Frantumaglia – an English translation by her long-time collaborator Ann Goldstein will be published on Nov. 1 – it was fragmentary, but it did not claim to be fiction and it did make certain claims – that her mother was a seamstress in Naples, for example – that Gatti has shown to be false.

Well, so what? Isn’t it okay for a novelist – whose business is telling stories that aren’t true – to make up some about her own life? Why do we continue to care about the distinction between memoir and fiction anyway? If we like a writer’s style, surely we enjoy them in the same way?

Maybe in Ferrante’s case. But how quickly we forget other literary nom-de-plume scandals in which an author with a glamorous and fake life story was not so quickly forgiven. How timely it is that we have just witnessed a revisiting of the J.T. Leroy scandal, with the release of the documentary film Author: The JT LeRoy Story, about hoaxer Laura Albert.

You will recall, if you were alive and reading in the early 2000s, the excitement about a young and very edgy American writer called J.T. Leroy. Part of the buzz around him was not just that he wrote troubling stories of teenage hustling at truck stops. It was that he was a troubled street kid himself: possibly trans, possibly HIV positive. He was a hero to the marginalized.

Except that he wasn’t. He was the creation of a woman called Laura Albert, who was not HIV-positive. Once Leroy was found to be her invention, interest in his fiction dropped off dramatically. And Albert has not been nearly as successful writing under her own name. Why is this? If we found the short stories exciting on their own, did we need a troubled author to lend them credibility?

Obviously people did. There was something legitimately troubling about using a story of victimization to create publicity; it seemed, to some, one step short of faking cancer to fundraise. People with HIV were particularly unamused. It’s funny, though – no one is giving Elena Ferrante a hard time about her made-up seamstress mother (a rather romantic story, one must admit). In recent days, it has seemed that the very same sort of person who was so hard on Laura Albert for faking an identity is leaping to the defence of the reclusive Neapolitan. Given current fashionable thinking about the collapsibility of fiction and non-fiction, we would have to say now that J.T. Leroy was just another fictional character, and a particularly well-imagined one (if a politically incorrect one), and we can only admire storytellers for such poetic lies. (Interestingly, in a recent interview with Salon, Albert said that she rejected the word “hoax”: She describes her identification with her character as something closer to mental illness. She really believed she was him, and was only able to write as him.)

Authors seek anonymity for good reason. They do not want their work to be judged through the prism of their own failings or appearance or the gossip columnists’ reports. They face pressure from their publishers and agents to present a likable face to the public (I wonder if there was any pressure of that sort on Ferrante to write that memoir). It is brave and difficult to resist this pressure, and if you are going to try it, the quality of your work had better be extraordinary. Ferrante’s work meets that criterion and so people are happy for her to be anonymous.

But Ferrante’s invisibility also became a romantic story, and it also became, despite her, a selling point. Her anonymity was her identity – the whole idea of secrecy and reclusivity was impressive. That was the identity that people liked and admired (just as they revered the troubled young man J.T. Leroy). They did not want their idol to be revealed as a normal-looking white-haired woman who is half-German and who works as a translator. Ferrante fans are upset not just because the author was abused by a snoop (which she was) but because a literary fantasy – a kind of romance – is ruined.

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