If the Ferrante files have taught us anything, it’s that all authors should be writing under pseudonyms…

In this week’s video from the Author Cave, I’ve taken a look at the articles recently published in several major newspapers and magazines, apparently revealing the “real” person behind author Elena Ferrante. The video deals primarily with the question of why authors choose to write under a pseudonym, so I’ll not go into that again. Instead, I’d like to discuss the other aspect of this mess. Mr. Gatti claims that readers have a right to know who the person is, and he’s looking for traces of the human being in the novels of Ms Ferrante. Having once majored in literature, I understand the need to “understand”, to understand why authors write about certain topics.

August Strindberg, Swedish playwright and infamous for being Sweden's biggest misogynist, ever? Does it matter for understanding his work? How?

August Strindberg, Swedish playwright and infamous for being Sweden’s biggest misogynist, ever? Does it matter for understanding his work? How?

I still have to chuckle at our teachers obsession with e.g. August Strindberg’s hatred of women, or Knut Hamsun’s nazi sympathies. I wonder, does it make their work better or worse if we know such intimate details of their lives? Last week i attended the opening of Mozart’s Idomeneo, a beautiful opera. In the playbill, the opera house discussed the fact that Mozart had left his father and that his struggle to free himself of his father’s despotic rule had influenced his work. Unfortunately, I read that part of the playbill before the production began. That aspect of Mozart’s life influenced my viewing of the opera, and I’ll tell you that it didn’t exactly enhance my experience. Quite the contrary. I feel it got in the way of it. Why can’t I be allowed to watch Idomeneo as a tale with great music without having to drag Mr. Mozart’s personal life into it? Besides, how can we be certain that he was indeed influenced by his so called personal struggle with his dad. We can hardly ask him about it?

As an author, I find all of this deeply troubling. And I’m not even going to attempt at trying to deny that my personal life doesn’t affect my writing. Of course it does. Duh! The question is: does it matter? And if it does, which some – like Mr. Gatti seem to claim – how? Does it increase our understanding of the work? I would claim that our understanding of a work should solely be based on the work itself. Disregard the author completely. And here’s why: as the foremost and (so far) only expert on my writing, I can honestly and unequivocally state that I do not fully understand how my brain works, and which elements from my personal life, which of my convictions find their way into my work. I have characters who believe in supreme beings. I do not. So how do I fit into all that? And again, why does it matter?

Richard Wagner, brilliant (imho) composer, but his political views weren't quite as brilliant. Quite the contrary. Does is have to affect our appreciation of his music? Why?

Richard Wagner, brilliant (imho) composer, but his political views weren’t quite as brilliant. Quite the contrary. Does is have to affect our appreciation of his music? Why?

Is my work “better” if you get a sense for where the real life author is buried in the text? How we influence the work? Can you enjoy Wagner’s Ring less because he was a anti-Semite? Yes, it does get complicated when you know that an artist harbors despicable views, even worse when those views impact on his work (Wagner’s Meistersinger is such an instance). But what if we hadn’t known? What if Meistersinger had been judged solely on the merits of ht work? What if the stereotypical portrayal of the Jew in that opera had been viewed, I don’t know, e.g. against the general tone of the era, or from a humanistic point of view? Does our knowledge of the composer’s political view make that aspect more or less horrific? I’d go back to the original question: does it matter?

Allow me to make an example from my own work: Spanish Bay, which is a book about living a happy life, with good and healthy relationships. The catch, two of the characters are disabled, and I wrote the book specifically to provide one an additional hopeful story to young, disabled, LGBT people.

The story of two men who will not let disability come between them, or the family they start together.

The story of two men who will not let disability come between them, or the family they start together. Does knowing me change the perception of this novel? How?

I’m not disabled myself. Some might claim that disqualifies me from writing  a book on the subject. Cultural/ethnic appropriation and what not. But what if you didn’t know who wrote the book? Wouldn’t you judge the book based on the characters and how they are described? And is the disability really a defining factor? Isn’t the contrary the case? That the very humanity is the defining factor for the characters, not their disability (which incidentally is the point of the story). I’m lucky in that several disabled people have been in touch with me to tell me how much they enjoy the book and how much they identify with the characters. Does knowledge of the author add a dimension? I don’t think so.

In fact, I claim the opposite to be the case. Knowing too much about an author really gets in the way of enjoying a story. I have made the same mistake with the work of others, trying to find the author in the character. Why? I guess it’s part of human nature. Yesterday I listened to a debate on radio about the Ferrante case, where two journalists stood on opposite sides of the argument. One argued that a good journalist has no choice but to unravel a mystery (I’d agree in principle, but there are a lot of shades of gray in determining ‘which’ mystery is worth unraveling more than others… Elena Ferrante’s identity clearly pales in comparison to e.g. learning more about how Italian politics work, or not. In this particular case, the damage is done, and we’ll see if Ms Ferrante will make true of her threat to not write again (provided she was correctly identified).

For the rest of us writers, I would hope that readers enjoy our work for what it is. Because even though our characters carry some traits we share with them, they aren’t “us”. I will testify to that effect under oath. What is your take? Does knowing the author help us understand a work?

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Have a wonderful weekend!

Hans

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