Elena Ferrante: Nothing Offends Like Success

In a January 2, 2015 OpEd published in the online version of the Italian magazine L’Internazionale, journalist and translator Frederika Randall discusses the novels of Italian writer Elena Ferrante, six of which have been translated into English, ultimately dismissing Ferrante’s work as no more than an “ingenious business venture.”

Writing in Italian (the translations below are all mine), Randall begins with a long reflection on the differences between Italian and Anglophone character (Italians expect life to be full of complication and inexplicable events; “liberal” Americans don’t). She doesn’t get down to her real point until the final paragraph:

But if people like [Elena Ferrante’s books], what’s the problem? Just this: If the best foreign critics are enraptured by an obvious commercial product, what does that mean for Italy’s intellectual reputation? Leaving aside [foreign reviewers’] commendable reluctance to imagine conspiracies, isn’t their notion of Italy perhaps no more than a stereotype? A sort of minstrel Italy, available for the entertainment of others but of little consequence?

Randall is a colleague and a fellow Italian-to-English translator, and so it pains me to say that what she’s written about Ferrante for L’Internazionale is seriously off-the-rails.

With regard to her criticism that Ferrante’s books are an “obvious commercial product” and an “ingenious business venture,” my question is: What book is not a commercial product? What publisher is not hoping—with every book it produces—to hit upon an ingenious business venture?

Is anybody in this business to lose money?

Ah, but Randall is talking about art. By which I mean Art. Or perhaps I should just take a page from observant Jews and start writing “A_t.”

As everyone knows, and as Randall implies, the only real art is that which no one knows about. If art is popular, if people like it, if they can understand it—and especially if it makes money—it is automatically sullied. (Talking of stereotypes, I would immediately classify that attitude as Italian appellation d’origine contrôlée.)

I’ve written elsewhere (Please Stop Talking about Art!) about the way in which the ritual invocation of the hallowed word undermines writers’ and translators’ credibility and helps keep us poor. Randall’s editorial on Ferrante, unfortunately, is another chorus of this time-worn song.

In support of her position, Randall quotes Ursula LeGuin’s November 2014 speech—inaccurately—on the occasion of the latter’s acceptance of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards. Randall has LeGuin saying that “profit is often the enemy of art.” But that isn’t what she said. LeGuin’s actual words were that “the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.”

It’s a subtle change, but an extremely significant one. (Rather like the difference between “money is the root of all evil” vs. “the love of money is the root of all evil” from I Timothy.) I seriously doubt that LeGuin, who has made quite a nice living from her writing, is opposed to profit. She has certainly announced no plans to give her books away for free.

In any case, LeGuin was making a different point in her National Book Awards speech. Specifically, her context was the Hachette Group/Amazon conflict, the overpricing of eBooks to libraries, and what she called “commodity profiteers,” and she wasn’t saying that getting paid for writing or publishing was, per se, inimical to the work of artists. Here’s how LeGuin herself described the distinction she was drawing: “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

No one who cares about writing and translation could quibble with that. But Randall fails to establish a prima facie case for her proposition that Ferrante’s books were written solely “to maximise corporate profit” (book publishers, as far as I know, don’t typically earn any money from “advertising revenue”).

Even supposing that were the case, however, is Randall next going to take on movie producers, Apple, and the airline industry, all of which seem fairly doggedly focused on corporate profits? Or is that Ole Debbil “profit” only worrisome when he appears in the arts?

At any event, Randall’s sole evidence in the case of Ferrante is a classic circular fallacy: Ferrante’s books are suspect because they are successful. And a book that is successful cannot be good, must—by definition—be a hoax. She goes so far as to imply that even Ferrante’s choice to remain anonymous is a mercenary strategy designed to “increase her reputation and convince [readers and critics] of her seriousness.”

Well. Leaving aside the fact that any writer worth her salt ought to be doing whatever is possible to “increase her reputation and convince [readers and critics] of her seriousness,” anonymous authors and pseudonyms are hardly rare in literature. Moreover, it would be interesting to understand how an author makes herself famous or commercially successful by adopting an entirely unknown name. (The gimmick didn’t work out all that well for “Robert Galbraith,” did it?)

Randall is also misleading when she implies that Ferrante has been—thanks to the publisher’s crafty design—the darling of American and British bumpkin-critics from the beginning. Although translations of Elena Ferrante’s books are now getting serious play with the publication of the third of her “Neapolitan novels,” her earlier titles in English were modest sellers modestly reviewed. Troubling Love (2006), for example got a lukewarm (to put it kindly) notice from David Lipsky in the New York Times in October 2006; The Days of Abandonment did slightly better at the hands of Jean Hanff Korelitz, although Janet Maslin liked it more than Korelitz did.

In terms of “citizen reviews,” none of Ferrante’s first four novels—The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), The Lost Daughter (2008), and My Brilliant Friend (2012)—has cracked a 4 (out of 5) rating on Goodreads (as of this writing). The Story of a New Name (2013) and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014) have so far earned a 4.42 and a 4.29, respectively.

If “Elena Ferrante” were merely an artifice, and the translations of her books no more than a cynical attempt to enrich her publisher at the expense of art, it has taken a decade for Europa Editions to see much of a return on its diabolical ploy. I’m not sure even Donald Trump has that much patience for his investments.

Assuming that the publishing industry’s ingenious business ventures and commercial products are the real target, however, Randall might well have saved a pungent remark or two for Europa’s own editorial policies. Venal, backward, and dubiously legal as the practice is, Europa continues to insist that translators sign their copyright over to the publisher as a condition of being published. If literary cabals are afoot, this is one that truly deserves exposing.

Finally, the logical extension of Randall’s position creates a Catch-22 for Italian writers. On the one hand, Randall is scornful because Ferrante’s books are full of what Randall considers Italian clichés. To be sure, Ferrante’s settings and situations are deeply, thoroughly Italian (stereotype is in the eye of the beholder). But on the other, isn’t the degree to which a book transmits homegrown culture part of what makes it appealing to readers of translations? And if Italian writers can’t write about Italy for fear of being “folklorish,” what should they write about?

In fact, the vast majority of the Italian writers who approach me to translate their books make the same mistake: they set them anywhere but in Italy. At which point the question becomes: Why would anyone read a romance (or a murder mystery or a supernatural thriller or the sad tale of a failed marriage) written by an Italian with Italian characters—but set in New York or Lima or the Outer Hebrides? The Anglophone publishing market is already glutted—and glutted is far too mild a word—with romances and murder mysteries and supernatural thrillers and stories of bad marriages written in English by Americans, Brits, Canadians, and their fellow travelers.

Part of what makes a non-Anglophone writer’s take on these issues interesting to the English-speaking reader (and, thus to a publisher) is arguably its “foreignness”—its “italianità” in Ferrante’s specific case.

There’s a further irony—and not a gentle one—in Randall’s chiding of Anglophone critics for supposedly being duped by their own untutored desire for Italian stereotypes (the Naples of the criminal working-class, the Italian-America of The Sopranos) and for TV-ready environments and situations that presumably signal nothing but déclassé taste.

Wouldn’t it be just as accurate to say that Randall’s effort to cut Ferrante down to size was published in an Italian magazine because of the desire of L’Internazionale’s Italian readers (leftish, youngish, disgruntled-ish) to be reassured that the famous and successful are nothing more than well-connected hypocrites and sellouts—the venduti and the raccomandati of so much contemporary Italian cultural commentary? In other words, because Italians love their own stereotypes?

But if we want to give the lie to Randall’s assertion that only Italians are conspiracy-minded, here’s my entry: To understand why Ferrante’s books are getting so much attention lately, look no further than the fact that Ferrante’s translator—long-time New Yorker editor, Guggenheim winner, and PEN Translation Prize Committee member Anne Goldstein—is about as inside as a literary insider can get. In the world of A_t, no one is ever expected to recuse himself for conflict of interest, and James Wood’s raving in the New Yorker about books Goldstein translated might just possibly be related more to Goldstein’s connections than it is to Wood’s adoration of Tony Soprano, pizza, and mandolins.

Elena Ferrante may not be Calvino or Levi or Pasolini or Eco. But interest in Italian writers and, thus, in translations from Italian, floats all boats. There’s no reason other than snobbery for shooting holes in the deck.

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Posted on 5 January 2015, in Book Reviews & Literaria and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. “Snobbery” probably captures it, yeah.

    I’ve thought about this topic a lot. I’m music snob more than a book snob, but I can generally acknowledge when I’ve snobbed myself into irrelevance. When I am requiring such a near-impossible standard from the artists I listen to that there is basically no audience except me for what they put out…

    The best artists have managed to package their vision in a way that appeals to, you know, people. It doesn’t mean they’ve dumbed things down. It’s hard to package nutritional art as sweets.

    You have a much bigger cultural impact and can extend your influence significantly if people read your stuff or listen to your stuff or watch your stuff. There’s no shame in that, although there’s always a question about where you draw the line.

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