Over the weekend, the New York Review of Books — no relation — published a piece of reportage that supposedly outed the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. Considering that Ferrante is an international bestseller and a global literary sensation, this piece immediately became an internet phenomenon.
I’m not going to link to the piece, and I recommend you do not read it. I have no interest in who Elena Ferrante really is, and I don’t believe there’s a single good reason why NYRB should have uncovered her name. This is not journalism; there’s no compelling cause to reveal the author behind the pseudonym aside from unchecked curiosity.
Pseudonyms have existed for about as long as writing has. Sometimes authors use pseudonyms for practical reasons — whistleblowers will often hide behind aliases, for example — but other times, the selection of a pseudonym is purely aesthetic. A writer might feel freer when they publish under a different name, or perhaps they don’t want the books to be judged against their other body of work. There are as many reasons to adopt a pseudonym as there are reasons to write a book.
Maybe one of the above reasons is why the author or authors behind Ferrante decided to use the pseudonym. Maybe not. But whatever the reason, there’s no compelling case for revealing the truth behind those decisions without an author’s consent. Something readers forget sometimes: authors don’t owe us anything. A novelist shouldn’t have to reveal their personal lives to readers. Poets don’t have to tell the truth in their poems. And readers are not entitled to the answer to the question “how much of your fiction is real?”
If a pseudonym is part of a fiction, we have no right to the truth behind that name. We should be grateful that the author shared their work at all, not try to pry into the life of a person who clearly would rather keep out of the public’s eye. (And yes, there have been cases where outing a pseudonym is useful — pseudonyms that exploit subcultures like J.T. LeRoy and Forrest Carter deserved to be outed, for instance. That doesn't seem to be the case with Ferrante.) Shame on the NYRB, and shame on the four newspapers that worked with NYRB on this entirely useless investigation.