could you live your entire writing life unknown, or: Author invisible: the Elena Ferrante story

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I don't care what time of night is, or how many days I've gone without sleep, or how many clients are knocking.  I stop to read James Wood. 

I was particularly interested in his story this week (New Yorker, January 21, 2103) on the writer "Elena Ferrante," an Italian who has never made herself, or her real name, known. She has, Wood tells us, made herself available to answer written questions.  She has indicated that she both translates and teaches.  But nobody knows what she looks like, she has appeared on no panel, she has been absent at awards dinners, there is no well-lit author pic, and perhaps she lives next door to you.  If she does, she hasn't bored you with her tales of fame.  She has, instead, borrowed your clothespins.

Her rationale was explained early in her career, in this note to her publisher, which Wood quotes like this in his piece:

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.... I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own.  They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child.... True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.... Besides, 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.
I have sympathy for this woman who stands behind the Elena construct.  For while my graciously lit author photo lives on the internet and on book jackets, while I speak at times, teach in the spring, joke around on Facebook, appear on some panels, physically grant the winners of prizes I judge their awards, and blog daily here, I am not there, most of the time, with my books.  I don't tour.  I am not a personality—not spontaneously clever, not actually interesting, not possessed of an air-brushed allure.  I typically read from each of my books to a very small audience just once or a handful of times, and there are books that I have published that I have yet to actually read aloud to an audience of more than my son.  What I write, in other words, does by and large need to stand on its own. 

And sometimes it does.  And sometimes it doesn't.  So that much of what I am paying attention to, as I keep trekking forward in this journey, is this, specifically:  How to leave pages behind that do not need me.  How to make the work the most important thing of all.


patti.mallett_pp said...

I find you extremely interesting! And, yes, dare I say it without sounding kinky - alluring!!! (Yes, you know it, I am left smiling.)

Seriously, this is a weighty post - and one that will stick to my bones.

Thank you for being exactly as you are, at all times.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

"If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers ..."
Sadly, I don't know that this is true. I think we've all read marvelous books whose obscurity puzzles us. Why is this genius going unrecognized? we wonder.

Erica Jong wrote (in Parachutes & Kisses), "I saw that talent--even great talent--was not in itself enough. The world *never* wanted any new talent, however arresting; it had to be *made* to want it. It was not enough to prepare the feast; one must also create the appetite for it, cut the meat, pour the wine, butter the bread, and spoon-feed the guests."

I don't know if she's entirely correct, but it's certainly an interesting point of discussion, I think.

I doubt that just having a Facebook page will bring the unrecognized genius his due. But I've seen a few people going dark on social media lately, and I suspect it's a backlash to the be-everywhere-selling-machine mentality that initially arose around social media. But to me, those extremes don't have to be the only choices. I come to the places on the internet where I have fun or find things to think about, where I can exchange notes with other writers about what is otherwise a very solitary profession, and where I can interact with interested readers if they choose.

Writers are lucky in that they can still be fairly anonymous even if their books do well. Doing a bookstore event or having a Twitter feed doesn't turn one into paparazzi fodder, as many writers have discovered. ;-)

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