Look, it’s hard to admit this without feeling like it’s a betrayal of the sisterhood, but Elena Ferrante didn’t invent women’s inner lives in the Neapolitan tetralogy and it’s been a pretty tough five years listening to people pretending that she did.
Sure, Ferrante has her critics. Her language -- translated to English by Ann Goldstein -- has been called too blunt and her narrative, in spite of its quartering, “very long.” (True.) Many have likened her accomplishment to that of Karl Ove Knausgaard, which seems like a pretty awful fate for any novelist. Some Italians have scoffed at the English-speaking world for falling for all this feminine sentimentality.
And “God, it just goes on about shoes,” a friend who tried to read the first novel said.
No doubt the coming years will produce new and more original reactions to her work. (The critics are wrong about the language, BTW. The plainness is how the ideas become intimate — it’s the whole point.) But there’s a huge problem with “Ferrante fever” and its unabating self-satisfaction: it’s made such a big deal about a woman’s writing because its victims don’t care, and maybe don’t know, about women’s writing.
The first problem was the anonymity thing. Delirious American critics couldn’t get enough of the unusual challenge of writing about a book without writing about its author. “Could it be a man?” many asked. If you’ve never read another novel in your life I guess it could be a man. It could be a dog. It could be me. From the very outset, writing about the author became a kind of speculative obsession of its own, more overwhelming than the buzz surrounding the life stories of many named authors.
The second illicit thrill was the popular conviction that the novels broke new ground with their depiction of female friendship. Sure! They did do something rigorous and exacting with the lifelong push and pull between Lila and Lenú, the brilliant and hardscrabble bitches whose relationship is at the centre of the books. But again: she didn’t invent the divided female consciousness. Like, that’s the thing women invented the novel to talk about. And this is the root of the problem with frothy Ferrante hype: it’s based on the flagrantly stupid Byronic lie that women’s art is about men (while men’s art is about the world), making it seem like a brilliant and novel innovation to create a universe in which women organise their lives around each other.
Why else would the books have been sold with insipid pastel covers and blurbs that said things like, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry” (we don’t have to, Jane Austen was enraged and we already know that from her novels)? Why else would the best literary criticism about it refer to the books only in comparison with Ferrante’s own previous work, rather than the novels of other women, including her living European contemporaries? Why else would so many responders, much like Lenú’s own daughters, consider the jagged, vivid Italy of the novels “a splendid corner of the planet, and at the same time, an insignificant and inconclusive province”?
The hype about Ferrante was a clever cover for our vast ignorance of the innovation and excitement that women have brought, and are constantly bringing to literature. If you avoided it, there’s no need to feel too smug: the novels really are good. But they’d have been better if we’d missed out on the distasteful and publicity-driven storm of emotion around the books. If they’re lying on your shelf unread, do yourself a favour and lock them away for the next fifteen or twenty years. Let the tearful book club meetings and Ferrante’s perfunctory Guardian column go away. Let the – gulp! -- HBO adaptation be produced, consumed and fade away. Come back to them when they stop constituting an act of performative feminism.
‘Why Was This Hyped?’ is #bpbSpine’s new occasional series criticising other people’s taste in literature. If you’d like to contribute, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo source: Elena and Lila in HBO’s version of My Brilliant Friend, via Vulture.
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