Elena Ferrante is a man – but does it matter?

Elena Ferrante has probably been the biggest literary fiction phenomenon of the 21st century to date. Translated into multiple languages, prize-winning and universally lauded, Ferrante’s work, especially the Neapolitan quartet of novels, have generated intense curiosity about the notoriously reclusive and pseudonymous author.

Attempts to ‘out’ Ferrante have been made almost from the beginning, but the push in recent years to examine Ferrante’s work stylometrically and algorithmically has apparently closed in on a single suspect. And he’s a man.

Elena Ferrante: quadrilogia de “L'Amica Geniale” | RecensioniLibri.org
The Neapolitan Quartet, in Italian paperback editions.

Lithub has a decent precis of how this came about, which I won’t reprise too much here. Suffice to say that enterprising and persistent scholars used a series of methods to compare the style of Ferrante’s writing throughout her career, and then sought to find close similarities with any other writers, including some, such as the prime suspect Anita Raja, a literary translator.

What these various scholars with their various stylometric methods discovered was curious – Ferrante’s style had a number of different eras or phases, and the changes between them mapped almost exactly onto similar stylistic developments in the work of another Italian author – Domenico Starnone, who happened to also be Raja’s husband.

It now appears that Starnone may have adopted the persona of Ferrante while writing in a female voice for a lesser known publishing house, while retaining his own male name for novels with a more prestigious publisher. Furthermore, Starnone’s fiction, which apparently like Ferrante’s also deals with issues of class and identity while growing up in Campania, is unknown outside of Italy, whereas the Ferrante novels have proven a global success, especially in the ever more female readerships of the Anglophone world.

There are questions of authenticity here, in terms of the validity of men writing from female perspectives, but there is also surely some remit for literary creativity, as well as the extremely lengthy tradition, extended to almost all historical authors in the Western tradition (with the possible exception of Jane Austen), of authors writing from the perspective of characters irrespective of gender.

If we are to deem gender relevant here, perhaps the more intriguing issue is the relative successes of Starnone and Ferrante nationally and internationally, against the backdrop of an ever more female reading public. If Ferrante does transpire to be Starnone, as seems likely now, he would not be the first white male author in recent times who sought to pass himself off as something he was not.

There was, for example, a lot of controversy in particular over the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, a poet who in 2015 won an award for writing one of the best poems in America that year. Having had the same poem rejected over 40 times, he submitted it under a female Chinese name – Yi-Fen Chou, and subsequently it was accepted.

Adopting such personae and noms-de-plume seems a rather high-stakes gamble for white male authors, who are not exactly unprivileged in the international publishing world even if the tide has begun to turn away towards amplifying the voices of a wider and more diverse range of writers. After all, the ramifications of being found out in ‘subterfuge’ of this nature are potentially career-ending.

Nevertheless, the editor who included Hudson’s poem in that anthology, even after discovering the truth, acknowledged that the poem itself retained its quality even when the provenance had shifted. It did not, after all, trade heavily upon Chinese cultural attributes for its strength. Returning to Ferrante, this is a more fraught concern, as the Ferrante novels are written from female perspectives, feature female lives as their central thematic concern, and focus heavily on how female friendships and relationships are constructed and deconstructed.

I offer the following suggestion, therefore: if millions of people have enjoyed Ferrante’s novels, does it matter who wrote them? The figure of Ferrante has been throughout a somewhat shadowy one anyhow. As with notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon, Ferrante has largely let the novels speak for the author.

The more concerning thing arising from this artful piece of academic detective work is the eradication of pseudonymity, which could have significant ramifications online as well as elsewhere. When we did a conference on invented languages for Ponying the Slovos in 2016, we heard a paper by Professor Patrick Juola, a forensic linguist who had developed an algorithmic methodology for identifying authorship in any language. His paper for our conference demonstrated how he could detect whether Tolkien or a fan had written any particular poem in Tolkien’s invented Elvish language.

And here we are a few years on and similar technology has outed Starnone as Elena Ferrante. Perhaps in another year or two, it will be exposing the identities of offensive posters and tweeters online. A lot of people may welcome such a world, a world in which the current tendency towards extreme opinions is fuelled by a sense of security offered by pseudonymity. But it would have other ramifications too, in terms of whistleblowing for one.

It may not matter whether Elena Ferrante is a man or not. But it may well matter a lot that we now live in a world where it is impossible for him to keep that hidden any longer.

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