Anonymous Authors Like Elena Ferrante Could Be Onto Something Great

Virginia Woolf once wrote, "While fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace." In a capitalist, culture and fame-obsessed country, the concept of obscurity and anonymity are largely forgotten, or viewed only through lens fogged with negativity. To be unknown is to be worthless, we're told. But perhaps, Woolf, and most recently and controversially, anonymous author Elena Ferrante, were onto something with writing anonymously.

It's common these days for aspiring novelists to dream of having careers and lives like the universal greats because of their financial and mainstream success — people like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, James Patterson, or Agatha Christie. We dream of people consuming our words, pulling our characters from the book, and creating and inhabiting a fandom that revolves around, essentially, us. Success is a funny word because it's impossible to define in just one way. That hasn't stopped the world from trying, though.

For writers and authors, success means NYT Bestseller, books being made into movies, going viral, Twitter hashtags all about you, and hot takes on your work/words for a whole week. It's sad, really, because the human attention span has become so abysmal. Like Heidi Klum always says, "one day you're in and the next day you're out." So it is with fashion, so it is with most things.

Part of putting yourself out into the world for mass consumption is that you lose some of your inherent autonomy. You become a product and not a person. Look at Elena Ferrante for example. A sleuth named Claudio Gatti launched a research project and investigation into the true identity of Ferrante. He tried to justify his efforts, explaining to BBC Radio 4, "When millions of books are bought by readers — in a way I think readers acquire the right to know something about the person who created the book."

Essentially, if you publish a book that millions of people buy, you are then saddled with certain demands and expectations. We are a hungry public and expect our attention and devotion to be rewarded. But in the end, it's all wrong.

I'd honestly never considered writing anonymously because it was never presented to me as an option nor as some equivalent alternative to being known. The more you break out of the ego mindset, it seems fairly reasonable and even preferable to write anonymously. You'd be judged for your work and your work alone. You could reach a wider audience, who understandably make not have given your work a chance due to differences in cultural identities. Most importantly, you could hold the power over your career, your art, and your life.

And sure, it'd be nice to have a lot of money and have security for myself and for those I care about. But since when did having money require being famous? Couldn't you still write articles and novels and screenplays without using your name? This isn't about bashing people who proudly own their name in their work because there's immense value in that as well — which I won't explore right now. This is about presenting a second choice to people who may not have known they ever had one.

Again, I resort to Virginia Woolf, who talked about all of this long ago: "Obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite; [it] sets running in the veins the free waters of generosity and magnanimity; and allows giving and taking without thanks offered or praise given."

Perhaps her words here, sum it up best:

"You asked me what I intend to do for the promotion of Troubling Love… You asked the question ironically, with one of your bemused expressions… I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I've already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind.

[…]

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana [a fairy-like character of Italian folklore], which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them."

Your work doesn't need your name to be yours; it'd be yours no matter what. But it could be more without it.

Image: Unsplash/Malik Earnest