Why Do We Care Who the “Real” Elena Ferrante Is?

Elena Ferrante, the author of the internationally-acclaimed and best-selling Neapolitan novels, has a perfectly fine explanation for why she chose to remain anonymous:

I will only tell you that it’s a small bet with myself, with my convictions. I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

Of course, Ferrante’s own desires matter little to fans and critics who have tossed out different theories of her true identity for years. The latest literary Sherlock is the Italian professor Marco Santagata who has determined the most likely candidate is Marcella Marmo. “I did philological work, as if I were studying the attribution of an ancient text, even though it’s a modern text,” Santagata said, sounding a bit like someone with too much time on his hands.

What’s evidence did he find? Well, Marmo is a history professor in Naples who, like the character Elena Greco, went to school in Pisa. So she fits the rough outline of the Elena… at least if you assume the books are autobiographical:

“I did something simple. I took the yearbook of the (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa) students in the 60s and I looked at which names could respond to all of these requirements,” Santagata explained. “Marcella Marmo corresponds to my identikit.”

Santagata also claims Ferrante refers to a bar in Pisa that was popular among 60s students. There doesn’t seem to be too much other evidence. Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, called the idea “nonsense.” Marmo, like every Ferrante candidate, denied being the author, saying she has only even read one of the novels. Then she suggested yet another possibility: Silvio Perrella.

I have to admit that Marmo sounds almost like Ferrante in some of her quotes: “Notoriety has no upside. It’s never pleasant. Thank you to everyone who thought that I could be a happy bestseller writer, but as I’ve already tried in vain to say in recent days, I am not Elena Ferrante.”

Still, the greater question is why anyone cares? The obsession with Ferrante’s identity seems particularly odd among American audiences, who are unlikely to even be able to name another living Italian author much less have the “real” identity mean anything to them. Does it really add anything to the experience of Ferrante’s novels to know she is (or isn’t) an Italian professor you’ve never heard of before?

The public has always hounded famous authors who wished to be even somewhat private. (As Thomas Pynchon once quipped, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning, doesn’t like to talk to reporters.”) But it also feels like we live in an age where fans feel almost offended if anything is withheld from them. We demand 24-hour interaction from artists and entertainers on social media, declare artists “greedy” if they don’t want to stream their work for free, and even hurl abuse at authors who don’t produce work as quickly as we’d like. That Ferrante continues to publish anonymously is taken at best as a challenge and at worst as a betrayal of the contemporary author-reader relationship.

But Ferrante claims that the anonymity helps her write. Speaking to the Guardian, she said she wrote with a pen name not only for the privacy, but for the “wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become one’s public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.”

If anonymity helps Ferrante create the books you love, maybe that’s reason enough to let her be.

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