The ‘unmasking’ of author Elena Ferrante’s, who has been writing under a nom de plume since 1991 begs the question of the ‘whether the public has a ‘right to know’ as the journalist who set about discovering her identity claims, and calls into question the cult of the celebrity as well.
I write autobiographically and I use my own name and those of my family members liberally. That is my choice. I’d love to say that I have stretched the truth about what goes on inside our home, but seriously you couldn’t make this stuff up. It does restrict me as a writer somewhat because I have to remember I have a public persona at school and one doesn’t want to reveal too much dirty laundry, especially the teenage boys’, but knowing my name doesn’t mean my audience owns me or has a right to pry into my mail.
I invite the reader into the bedlam that exists around us for the vicarious enjoyment of other war-torn parents not quite coping with the tumult of raising a family, in order to make others look anew at their lives and think, ‘Thank God I am not as bad as Colleen.’ I don’t mind if unknowns ‘know me,’ (It’s hard to hide when you drive a large, noticeable bus around town with 4 ?/2 redheads) but I am certainly not inviting Joe and Julie Public and their awful kids to picnic on our lawn (It’s full of prickly weeds and windblown pollen from the neighbour’s tree, which is guaranteed to irritate your allergies anyway).
I do not have the talent to create worlds and characters as a creator of fiction might. Elena Ferrante does. I do not have the desire to keep my name unknown. Elena Ferrante does. That is surely her right. If you buy her books and enter her world, you have not bought her. Your relationship is with her characters only. While you may be intrigued by the mystery behind her anonymity you do not own her or her personal story, because her personal story is not what she is selling. The public does not have a right to know.
I’m reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare at the moment. If I have learnt anything from it, along with my years of English teaching, it is that we don’t know much about old Willem Wikkelspies. Personally I think Marlowe wrote all that stuff, but that’s another story, which serves only to irritate Shakespeare’s purists who can’t prove he did because we don’t know anything about him. The art must speak for itself whoever wrote it and it does. That is what has made his work so durable. The characters tell the human story no matter who put quill to paper.
Actors and even reality television entertainers are entitled to privacy. They participate in a film or programme and after that we do not own them. We pay to watch a film, not to know that Brad Pitt may or may not have been drunk on a plane or that some emaciated Survivor star is bonking an Idols finalist. Unlike the royals who frankly are owned by their nations (yet still are entitled to tan topless in the peace of their homes), celebrities are private citizens. I don’t want to know the details of Kim Kardashian’s ordeal during a robbery, despite having been invited into her onscreen world (and gracefully declining). In fact that robbery is perhaps an extreme result of some folk thinking they even have a right to the possessions of famous people. Not even the trashy Osbournes want you to or let you see everything.
This is not about censoring the right to know what our governments are doing or the l’art pour l’art view, because for me, all art clearly comes out of and is part of a moral and historical framework. But, unless a novel is written by a criminal who is profiteering from his crime or a politician who should be spending the time in office serving the people not selling books to them, I say we should leave the jolly author alone!
However, you are welcome to send me money and flowers. Then I’ll show you my new toenail polish if you like. The girls say it’s ‘a bit bright, you know!’