Elena Ferrante and the Politics of Deference
Rehabilitating the concept of the asshole
Not too long ago, I joined many others in being suddenly, oddly angry at an obscure Italian journalist. That journalist, a man named Claudio Gatti, had published an article in several languages that purported to reveal the identity of the celebrated Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. The author, whose work has in recent years become as critically adored as any living writer, has been open about her pseudonymity and about very little else. In the rare interviews she has granted, she has argued that remaining pseudonymous allows her work itself to command attention, granting her the ability to concentrate on writing without the trappings of literary celebrity. Gatti, it appears, has robbed her of that freedom. In his essay, Gatti detailed the great lengths he had gone to complete his investigation, digging into the financial records of both the woman he names as Ferrante and that woman’s spouse. I suppose it’s worth saying that I find his claims about Ferrante’s true identity persuasive. I also find his work invasive and gross.
Certainly my affection for Ferrante’s writing plays a part here. Ferrante is truly a giant, one of the rare living writers whose hype is proportional to her talent. She is an achingly exacting stylist, her books have a particular moral vision that seems truly unusual in today’s politicized artwork, and she practices a rare kind of subtle, unassuming irony. Still, even if I wasn’t as taken with Ferrante’s writing, I would feel angry at Gatti and his self-aggrandizing essay. For one, Ferrante’s rare stand against celebrity, in a world where even those who complain about it clearly hunger for it — see Franzen, Jonathan, for a prime example of a writer who complains about celebrity while pursuing it relentlessly — shows immense integrity. By denying it to her, and by calling her attempts to maintain her anonymity the very reason for his investigation, Gatti essentially forecloses on the possibility of artistic engagement that stands outside of the celebrity industry. Gatti’s investigation into financial records takes him close to violating real ethical standards of privacy. It’s one thing for journalists to dig through the records of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both in a bid to become the most powerful person in the world. It’s another to treat the salary of a pseudonymous novelist like the Watergate scandal.
Gatti’s justifications, meanwhile, are self-serving and unconvincing. He writes that “by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” Really? “In a way?” In what way, Claudio? This is not an argument; it’s a sleight of hand, and yet it fills an essential space in Gatti’s justification for his efforts. To be clear: I don’t think that Gatti broke the law, and I must grudgingly agree with Deadspin’s Hamilton Nolan that journalists have the right to investigate the identity of a famous writer. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that I can’t judge Gatti and his weird justifications.I was therefore pleased, at first, to see a lot of the Internet joining me in condemning him. Many of the tweets, posts, and essays I read expressed the same unhappiness I felt over this brilliant writer having to endure such a grubby act of voyeuristic journalism. Over time, though, the conversation about Ferrante’s true identity and the conduct of the reporter took a familiar turn. As seems to happen more and more often, the case against Gatti became politicized in particular terms: he was not merely guilty of journalistic impropriety, or of being a jerk, but of abuse, of gendered abuse, of a particularly noxious, particularly taboo kind. Social media lit up with accusations that Gatti’s essay was sexist, harassment, a kind of gendered violence, even comparable to domestic abuse or sexual assault. The New Republic’s Charlotte Shange declared the outing sexist, arguing that Gatti’s justifications “echo the most chilling claims of men who physically violate a woman while claiming the resisting woman wanted it and had it coming.” An activist site dedicated to cataloging victim-blaming declared Gatti’s essay “part of the continuum of violence against women and girls.” Tom Geue called Gatti’s actions a “reactionary bid for repossession,” comparing them to antiquated traditions of men enslaving their wives. The message from all corners was clear: Gatti was not just guilty of a particularly ugly invasion of privacy, but of something much darker.
What to make of this? More than anything, it strikes me as a matter of people actually trivializing accusations they seek to take most seriously. To compare a journalist revealing the real identity of a wealthy writer to domestic abuse, enslavement, and sexual assault is to disrespect the victims of those horrible crimes in the comparison. What happened to Ferrante was unpleasant, even exploitative; it was not the same as physical or sexual abuse. This distinction is necessary if we’re to preserve the status such crimes have rightfully earned as uniquely worthy of moral condemnation. Outrage is a finite resource; to attempt to generate it over and over again ensures that it will be harder and harder for it to mean anything in the future. Similarly, while I don’t doubt that gender is implicated in this story — gender is implicated in everything — I don’t think it’s productive to cast Gatti’s actions as sexist. Creepy and malicious will suffice.
Have to agree with the statement that conflating a journalist revealing an identity to domestic violence and sexual assault does trivialize precisely the accusations that we want to take most seriously, and deBoer has a point saying that those who would conflate and collapse the distinction between a mercenary journalist and a wife-beater ultimately trivialize accusations of the latter when they collapse the former into a smaller spectrum of what's regarded in public discourse as aggression against women.
I would propose that part of what makes these rhetorical flourishes troubling is that by insisting that Gatti's journalism constituted a kind of symbolic violence against women and girls altogether is that in order to take this to be the case it requires what is at a foundational level a totalitarian collapse of categories. Would similar laments have been raised about an A-list Hollywood actress depicting a Margaret Thatcher in a period of physical and mental decline? When Slate featured a piece that declared that the white women voters betrayed the sisterhood by voting for Trump it wasn't really clear whether the sisterhood, as a designative term employed by writers who write for Slate, was necessarily much larger than the coterie of journalists who live in the New York area and/or can write for Slate. When Hanna Rosin made an observation about the inherent limitations of rich white ladies opining about all women as if knowing what all women feel like it wasn't exactly taken as winsome by other writers in the journalistic orbit in the United States.
But deBoer raises another point that is worth touching on, that outage is a finite resource. The internet leverages outrage pretty consistently and yet thanks to generations of partisan propaganda in the two party system the outrage that is the default weapon of choice to turn against the other team is what the insider seems most adept at being inoculated to when the matter is one's own team. To put it in depressing terms informed by last year's presidential election, it could seem we were asked to choose between two people who over the years have been accused of being a perpetrator of sexual harassment and an enabler of sexual harassment. It's something to keep in mind now that we're on the other side of an "I'm with her" campaign that clearly didn't win over the electoral college. Depending on your perspective both the big ticket candidates came across like they felt at some level entitled to the Oval Office. But whether that entitlement is a sign of self-aggrandizing narcissistic tendencies or a kind of political destiny worth of a Oscar-bait Hollywood production may just depend on which side you've invested yourself in.
It looks like we're in an era in which merely saying someone seems creepy and malicious is frequently felt to be not enough. It's like we need something more apocalyptic.