The Debt of Authorship: And Who Has To Pay?

What does an author owe to his or her readers? A book, certainly. But beyond that, does the contract between writer and fan demand any further obligation? For example, what about a real name? We all know that many authors opt for a pen name, some as simple as J.K. Rowling, while others create a completely false identity to throw off the scent in case he/she has a respectable day job which might be threatened by purple prose and exotic sex scenes. And some authors, of course, switch genders in the fear that boys won’t read books by girls—or vice versa. At the same time, it’s become customary to feature a glossy head shot of the author on the back flap of the book, assuring us that the author has brains and looks. Who wants to read a book by a total fright, after all? 

Recently, however, the NY Times Book Review published an expose of the famous Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, a name riddled in rumor and rancor. Many fans are desperate to know who Ferrante really is, whether the daughter of a poor Italian seamstress (as a fictionalized autobiography suggested), or perhaps even a well-known Italian male writer, cynically switching genders to bolster his bank account. The article, however, pointed to Anita Raja, the daughter of a German Holocaust survivor who became a respectable translator and married a well-known writer/publisher. Indeed, one of their publication ventures released some of Ferrante’s novels, and payments to Ferrante seem to have funneled into their exclusive homes in Rome and Tuscany. You can read the full article here:

While this makes for an exciting detective story, other fans have attacked the New York Times for exploiting a writer’s privacy, some even going so far as to decry the article as “sexist.” If a woman wants to hide behind a pseudonym and write novels, who are we to object? Not every author wants to be famous, these fans object, and the Times piece is a concession to the cult of celebrity that demands its burnt offerings. Whoever Ferrante is or isn’t, we should read the books and call it a day. We have no right to demand anything more than the words; the author’s identity, and even the profit from his or her books, should remain behind closed doors. The comments section from this recent article were almost unanimously in support of the author’s privacy, and some even threatened to cancel their subscription in protest. Only a lone voice or two—of them mine—suggested something audacious: that the author owed her fans something in return for her fame.

Granted, a writer who employs a pseudonym seems an unlikely candidate for entitlement. It seems humble, a way of saying, “look, I love writing, but please don’t make me give speeches and sign books and look important. Just let me write.” And this would be fine, except that Ferrante is a major international writer. Her books sell all over the world, in dozens of translations and have transformed the literary landscape. More importantly, they’ve changed people’s lives. They’ve made her rich. She can now—assuming she’s Anita Raja—write from the splendor of a Tuscan view whenever she likes. At this point, what would it really hurt to say, “okay, it’s me, I wrote the books”? At worst, she would be hounded to give talks and book signings (which she could easily refuse; J.D. Salinger did), and at best, her fans could finally call her by her real name, knowing that their favorite author wanted to share the most intimate thing she could with her readers.

After all, a name carries tremendous weight in the world: it’s a biography, a history, an education. A pseudonym hides this behind a gloss of artifice, and in Ferrante’s case, replaces the foreign “Anita Raja” with a tried-and-true Italian name, more in keeping with her persona of “the daughter of a poor Italian seamstress.”  Maybe the name came from her fears that Italians wouldn’t read a book by an Anita Raja? If so, certainly those days are past. Why not come clean with her identity and wave the white flag? Of course, some would argue that a name doesn’t change anything; the books remain the same no matter who wrote them. Why bow to tabloid pressure and be forced into the trivial world of promotion and advertising instead of living in a world of privileged secrecy which is more conducive to novel writing?

My answer is simple: you need to come out of hiding. Of course, many writers have had good reason to hide their name. Jane Austen hid her name initially, while the Brontes and George Sand took male pseudonyms, fearing no one would take them seriously or because novel writing ill-befitted a clergyman’s daughter. But most of these came clean early in their careers once said careers took hold, and even those who maintained the role, such as George Sand, never seriously hid her identity. To truly retreat into a stage persona seems dishonest, as if you want the fruits of fame but consider it a dirty transaction. It strikes me a little like a nobleman’s contempt of money, which for all that he desperately sought and greedily stockpiled away (reportedly, Chopin, after a piano lesson, refused to handle the payment himself, disdainfully asking a servant to collect it).

Is money and fame so contemptible? Samuel Johnson once wrote that only a fool wrote for anything less than money. And while he might have been a tad facetious, the truth remains: why publish if money is beneath you? And fame? Even a pseudonym doesn’t dodge that question, since Ferrante’s identity was likely known by an exclusive inner circle, and certainly by her publishers, which for an author is payment enough. No one writes without the slightest thought of fame, perhaps even more than money (though ideally, they go hand in hand).

For better or worse, we become attached to our favorite artists. We desire to know everything about them, or at least enough facts to make them a character in their own right. Perhaps we should fight this unhealthy urge to identify with our heroes, to see them as human beings the same as us, however remarkable. What kid hasn’t hung pictures of his or her favorite bands or singers on the wall in silent homage? At that age it seems harmless, even a rite of passage. But inevitably we’re supposed to grow up and rip down the posters, realizing that behind every pop idol is a narcissistic drug addict. Yet it isn’t the person we desire, necessarily, but a personification of the work itself: Superman rather than Clark Kent. Certainly the publishing industry goes too far in meeting our demands, offering pictures, websites, blogs, and conferences with our favorite authors, to the point where a few of them have become speakers rather than writers. At the same time, just because writers can easily be transformed into brands, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have authors at all.

As a testament to this, look at the biography section of your local bookstore (scratch that—we have no local bookstores; very well, Amazon): you’ll find countless shelves of biographies of every figure great and small, from Mozart to Madonna. Most are dead, but many are still alive, and no one is crying foul when we scrutinize their life for childhood traumas or secret sex partners. However, it’s more than voyeurism, it’s a chance to connect on a deeper level with the work itself. We want to understand where it came from, how the author breathed Work X into existence. Biography alone can’t tell us that, but it can give us the illusion of being an eyewitness, and watching the first, fledgling steps of genius as it waddles into eternity. That’s a wonderful vantage point, much as John Keats once wrote in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer: “like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise--/Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” We want to be there, on that peak, looking at the birth of a new sea where no ship has ever traveled, and no eyes ever swam.

Even more tragically, think of all the writers of old we can no longer do this for. Shakespeare’s biography is lost, only mere scraps remain, most of them unreliable. The greatest writer in the language is reduced to suing his neighbors and drinking himself to death with Ben Jonson. Even less remains of Homer—who more likely, didn’t exist at all. And pitifully little of Sappho, and nothing at all of the Beowulf poet or the Pearl poet (author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Who wouldn’t risk their life, or at least a good chunk of it, to research even the merest scrap of their existence? Can we really blame those who seek out the mysterious authors of today, whose lives are still there, waiting to be found, before relatives die and stories spin out of existence. Can anyone blame the New York Times or other outlets for wanting to find Ferrante’s identity? Is it really so wrong, so compassionless, so sexist? Or is it the reverse: is she entitled and callous for hoarding her secrets into the grave?

In the end, an author is more than his or her work. No one author is responsible for writing a novel or a poem. We all write it together, collaboratively, the writer and his or her audience. Writers channel the zeitgeist of the age into a script we can read and recognize, and if they’re good enough, we think to ourselves, “this is my book! I know this!” And that’s why we love the writers: because they gave it back to us; our thoughts and emotions and ideas, in a form we could only dream about but never replicate. We couldn’t read it without them, and they couldn’t write it without us. So our devotion is our grateful tribute; we’ll read whatever you have to write, and support you when so many other writers are lost in a sea of indifference and rejection. In return, we only ask one thing: tell us your secrets before you, too, become a memory. Don’t become another “anonymous.” Become a person. Nothing of your self, your desires, or your privacy will survive your death. Only your name will. Make it live forever—in your books.