I have just finished reading Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, “My Brilliant Friend.” I must admit, it’s wonderful. Yes, she’s captured an entire life. Yes, it made me cry and, yes, of course, I immediately wanted to go to Naples and try a Ferrante pizza (which is 100% real).
After finishing I had to reconfigure myself to reality again. Convince myself that I was not living in the novel’s world. After three-hundred or so pages of intense first-person description of this small, hopelessly intertwined community, that was no mean feat.
Detachment (then reattachment) from the real world is a required state-of-being for a reader. This becomes more true when one is also a writer. To write one must be able to switch between being a solitary, isolated figure, battling one’s own thoughts and writing the best down, and being a public figure, throwing words out into the crowd, defending them, knowing and fearing one will be judged personally for them. It’s a troubling, but inevitable, state of affairs.
For an MFA student, it’s consoling to think that this struggle between the public and private self is one all writers must go through. Or at least, it was a consoling thought until I remembered that it’s only true for most writers. And Ferrante isn’t one of them.
There are a number of writers who self-eradicate. Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy and J.D. Salinger are a few, but they seem like vicious, fame-hungry dogs compared to Ferrante. At least we know their names are real.
Her ability to live completely in the shadows and not be tempted to even do a telephone interview is admirable. It is also, I am sorry to admit, infuriating.
I say this because during my MFA program my coursemates and I have been told weekly that the odds are against us. Indeed, even in my undergraduate course, my class were told that out of the twenty of us, half a person, statistically, would go on to publish. (Which half of which person was the question that sprang to mind before the reality of the words set in.)
If we were one of the lucky ones (or halves), we were told that it would be down to a great deal of self-promotion and hard work. In short, talent wasn’t going to be enough to ensure we were rewarded. That’s fine, I thought. It’s comforting to know that you need talent and tenacity to succeed. I’ll just try extra hard to promote my work and success is sure to come.
But then along came Ferrante. Not only has she been the lucky half-person in the class, but that lucky half won the lottery and struck oil. She undoubtedly has the talent, but she just gets to sit back and see her book sell itself. Her own privacy seems to be the fuel for her unstoppable popularity machine. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Obviously, it’s jealousy I feel, because she gets to choose how to live. But there is another more troubling reason that I resent Ferrante’s ability to relax into a life lived on her terms.
If I didn’t resent it, and I didn’t want anonymity and peace and to think of myself as entirely the writer I am, then what would I want? Fame and fortune? Honors and awards? As nice as those things would be, I don’t think they are the kind of things a (good) writer’s career is built on.
I’m forced to admit: what I want is to be successful enough that I can spurn the very fame I’m telling myself I don’t want. Oh dear.
I hope I speak for all of us in the “emerging writers” category, those who have no more of an idea of their future career trajectory than they do quantum physics, when I say all of this. For us, the very idea of having someone read our work is a blessing. To be asked to read it to others, therefore, is a privilege that dreams are currently made of. To be so in demand that one can turn these things, or one must turn them down to preserve the regularity of life is a pipe-dream that one can only entertain for a few minutes a day if one wants to stay sane.
Ferrante, then, should not be the person we take career advice from, unless we wish to drive ourselves mad.
Now as the guilt sets in, it’s reached the point where I should come clean: I’m not a petulant child, jealous of the success I don’t yet have and ungrateful for the peaceful life I currently live. This isn’t about jealousy, or ingratitude, or even my great respect for a writer of such intricate and enthralling stories. It’s about hope. The worst and best thing Ferrante did was give me hope.
At some point, a teacher told her that only half of a person in her class might publish and she would have to sell her soul to do so. And she looked them square in the face and said no (or maybe no, in an Italian accent) and told them she could publish, and she could do it on her own terms. So, there’s hope for me yet. In spite of everything I know about the publishing world. If she did it, and did it her own way, then why can’t I? Damn her, damn her, why can’t I?
Josh King is a second-year MFA student at Adelphi University in New York, and moved from the UK in 2014. He divides his time between writing fiction and sampling the New York literary scene. He also writes a column for London’s Litro Magazine.