The Elena Ferrante effect: In Italy, female writers are — at long last — gaining much-deserved recognition
Elena Ferrante's best-selling books are inspiring female novelists and shaking up Italy’s male-dominated literary establishment | via @nytimes
ROME: In Italy, literary fiction has long been considered a man’s game. Publishers, critics and prize committees have dismissed books by women as chick lit and beach reads. They scoffed at Elena Ferrante, the author of My Brilliant Friend, as the writer of mere page-turners.
Then Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels became an international sensation, selling over 11 million copies, inspiring an acclaimed HBO series and cementing her reputation as the most successful Italian novelist in years. Her ascent, and the rediscovery of some of the last century’s great Italian female writers, has encouraged a new wave of women and shaken the country’s literary establishment. Female writers here are winning prestigious prizes, getting translated and selling copies.
Their achievements have set off a wider debate in Italy about what constitutes literature in a country where self-referential virtuosity is often valued over storytelling, emotional resonance and issues like sexism or gender roles.
“Once we were more reluctant to write about certain topics, fearing they could be labeled as ‘women’s stuff,’” said Veronica Raimo, author of the novel The Girl at the Door, an exploration of marriage, pregnancy and sexual assault allegations that was translated into English this year. “There was this idea that stories told by women couldn’t be universal. But that’s changing.”
One author to see the progress firsthand is Helena Janeczek, who has been publishing for decades but who last year became the first woman in 15 years to win the Premio Strega, the country’s top literary award.
“That was quite a time gap, wasn’t it?” she said. “But I wasn’t that surprised. The times are changing.”
The book that won her the award, published in October in English as The Girl With the Leica, is a historical novel about war photographer Gerda Taro, who was killed in 1937 while documenting the Spanish Civil War with her more famous boyfriend and colleague, Robert Capa.
In the past two years, novels by women have accounted for roughly half of Italy’s top 20 bestsellers in fiction — nearly double the percentage from 2017, according to data released by Informazioni Editoriali, which surveys sales in the country’s bookshops.
In interviews, Italian authors, editors, critics, translators and publishers said that female writers have gained extraordinary attention. Some call it “the Ferrante effect.”
My Brilliant Friend and the other Ferrante novels (her latest, La Vita Bugiarda Degli Adulti, came out in Italian last month and is slated for publication in English as The Lying Life of Adults next year) showed that “there is a market for fiction by women,” said Daniela Brogi, a contemporary literature scholar at the University for Foreigners of Siena. “And they also gave literary dignity to fiction about women.”
Establishment critics were previously quick to disregard stories about the bonds between women. That has changed.
Three much-discussed recent books delve into mother-daughter relationships. Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s A Girl, Returned, released last summer in English, is a coming-of-age story set in rural Southern Italy. Claudia Durastanti’s La Straniera (The Stranger) recalls her upbringing in a dysfunctional family between Brooklyn and Basilicata. Nadia Terranova’s novel Addio Fantasmi (Goodbye Ghosts) tells the story of a 30-something woman facing her painful past on a trip home to see her mother. Both of those are being translated into English.
Raimo, the author of The Girl at the Door, said that younger readers in Italy have become more open to women writers partly as a result of having read women in translation.
“They know there are countries in which having someone like Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith is normal,” she said.
But many of the new wave of female writers attribute their momentum to the pseudonymous Ferrante, who has guarded her anonymity even as her books have become bestsellers. (Some people speculate that Ferrante could be Anita Raja, a prominent literary translator married to novelist Domenico Starnone, and they have looked for evidence of his hand in her work.)
Beyond the guessing game, Ferrante has generated international interest in Italian writers overall.
“There’s a global buzz about contemporary Italian writers, including many women and even minorities, and we owe a lot to her for that,” said Igiaba Scego, a Somali Italian writer. Her novel “Beyond Babylon,” which explores the traumas of the immigrant experience through the eyes of two women, was translated into English this year after being published in Italy a decade ago.
Some new translations of Italian works reach back even further.
A new English translation of Family Lexicon, the 1963 masterpiece by Natalia Ginzburg, came out in 2017. Three more of her novels were reissued this year, two of them in new translations. Another major writer from Italy’s postwar period, Elsa Morante (whom Ferrante has cited as a source of inspiration), is likewise getting a fresh look, with a new translation this year of her coming-of-age classic, Arturo’s Island.
And yet, Italian female writers still face obstacles.
“The problem is not getting published or selling copies,” Janeczek said. “It’s getting recognition.”
She said that women have generally been kept far from the Italian canon, and that Ferrante’s success overseas is not likely to get her much closer. “When she had all that recognition abroad, our critics said ‘Look, those Americans think she’s a great writer,’” Janeczek said.
In 2015, as Ferrante was receiving enormous acclaim, novelist Francesco Longo wrote in the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero that “Ferrante is a powerful storyteller. But not a writer.”
Some of Italy’s female critics think their male counterparts are missing the point.
Tiziana de Rogatis, a critic whose book on Ferrante’s diction came out in the United States this month, said that Ferrante, like Morante, is a sophisticated thinker and writer who chooses to write plainly and empathetically to be understood. Academia, she said, eventually catches up with great authors “first popular with the public.”
Some writers and literature professors argue that dusty elitism, more than overt sexism, hinders women from being recognised.
“There is a widespread idea here that literary fiction should be virtuoso and self-referential,” said Elisa Gambaro, a scholar at the University of Milan. As a result, fiction that is commercially successful is often disparaged.
But some women say it should be the other way around.
“To put it bluntly, women writers tend to be less self-referential, because they’re less used to thinking of themselves as the center of the world,” said Brogi, the contemporary literature scholar at the University for Foreigners of Siena. She said women developed literary language to make themselves better understood — and incidentally, easier to translate — because they were so often ignored. It was a condition, she said, that Ferrante had eloquently coined as “smarginatura,” or, roughly put, being pushed to the margins.
But this new crop of women writers is pushing toward the center.
“We are standing up for each other, and calling out the double standards,” Durastanti said. “This sense of sisterhood wasn’t there a few years ago.”
Terranova said the results were already there to see.
“Italy always had great women writers,” she said. “The truly new thing is that, for the first time, they’re getting recognition.”
Anna Momigliano c.2019 The New York Times Company
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