Elena Ferrante is due to publish the fourth, and last, of her cult “Neapolitan” novels next month. The Story of the Lost Child’s publication is a big event for her legion of readers in Italy and around the world.
We will only encounter the book though. Ferrante will not be on the literary festival circuit, or be signing copies in Waterstones, or feature in our weekend papers. Most of us don’t even know what she looks like, though there is a grainy picture or two out there somewhere. She is among the handful of high-profile authors who abjure publicity. Sometimes this can create its own publicity, but it’s also reassuring, if not a relief, in an age of the self-publishing “kindlepreneur”.
All the more so because she has remained virtually anonymous from the beginning. There is the postmodern quote, almost as singular as Harper Lee’s or Greta Garbo’s: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” The statement comes out of a letter she wrote to her Italian publisher (a husband and wife team) on the publication of her first novel in 1991, which was recently released by the publisher, Edizioni EO, and quoted in a London Review Bookshop blog. In it, she sets the intention she has lived by for over two decades: “I do not intend to do anything for [the novel] Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum… I understand that this may cause some difficulties at the publishing house... I don’t want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, I’ll understand. It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book...”.
I can’t be the only one who wishes more authors could be as uncompromising. Let’s not forget she was this uncompromising over her debut. While it is fascinating to hear novelists discuss their life and ideas, I feel an empathetic shiver at seeing some die at festivals because they don’t have the actor’s gift of thrilling us with anecdotes, or reading aloud. I am not certain that I care to read an interview which tells me exactly what colour socks a writer is wearing as she or he lounges at home.
There is also the hazard of falling out of love with the book when the author doesn’t turn out to be the personable soul that the reader envisaged: Margaret Atwood’s quote about the illogic of likening ducks to duck pate (just because you like the book doesn’t mean you’ll like the author) comes to mind.
As Ferrante suggests, the book should surely be enough, though that is sadly not the reality for many pressured to deliver a performance after they have delivered their novel. Maybe their last line of defence should be an economic one, as Ferrante’s was in her letter: “Isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”
No to a lady Doctor?
Does Doctor Who have a guy vibe? AL Kennedy thinks so. There should not be a female Doctor, she said at the Edinburgh Book Festival: “He’s got a sort of guy vibe to him. He’s got a... guy type of eccentricity, not a girl-type of eccentricity.” I see her frustration at the desire to change the gender of male characters (Bond, Holmes) rather than write original female roles, but I’m not convinced by the idea of “girl/guy eccentricity”.Reuse content