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Do Authors Owe Us Their Whole Selves?

2880219291_155840e230_zBig news from the New York Times this weekend! Oh, maybe not the news you’re thinking of. A totally different outcome of deep investigative reporting that excavated long-held secrets…

they’ve announced the unmasking of Elena Ferrante [1], author of the Neopolitan Quartet of novels.

Whether or not the name Elena Ferrante rings any bells with you, her work has become wildly popular worldwide, which I suppose is what made her a target ripe for unmasking. The fact that there is no “Elena Ferrante” — that this is a pseudonym — was not a secret. But an investigative journalist decided that the true identity of this author was something readers needed to know, and now they know it.

I haven’t linked to the actual article for several reasons:

As an author who writes under a pseudonym, this bothers the heck out of me. Not because I think this means I’m about to be unmasked by investigative reporting in a major American newspaper and the international press. No, there are already dozens if not hundreds of people who know what other name I write under, and plenty of connections between my two identities, so the “investigation” could probably be conducted and completed in the time it takes to watch an episode of “Seinfeld,” plus no one would care once the truth were “revealed”, so what would the point be?

I’m troubled by this because it seems to indicate that authors’ identities a) matter and b) belong to the world.

Do our identities matter?

Sure, in a way. We write how we write because of who we are. But we are also fiction writers whose gifts must include imagination. We step into the shoes of people we are not. We write about places we’ve never been, about worlds that may not even exist, peopled with characters who were never born, speaking words that were never spoken. Where we ourselves grew up and went to school has very little to do with whether or not our words on the page are compelling.

Do our identities belong to the world? The New York Times and other outlets seem to be saying that yes, they do, if we happen to write anything that’s wildly successful. (Those of us selling fewer than a million copies under a false name are allowed to go about our business in peace.) The woman who writes the Elena Ferrante novels now has to contend with a level of scrutiny she never did before. Her life will be analyzed and examined. For what? Will it help readers understand her work better, or read it differently? Even if it does, it’s hardly worth it, in my opinion. The best way to reward a writer for what she’s written is to let her write more of it, not to yank away the comfortable anonymity in which she used to write.

[NOTE: This piece was edited to clarify that while the New York Times was among outlets publishing the information this weekend, the investigation was conducted by an investigative journalist for the Italian publication Il Sole 24 Ore. The results were initially released to several publications, including the New York Review of Books.]

Do you want to know who the authors who wrote your favorite novels really are? Or are you comfortable with the identities they choose to write under, if if they aren’t “real”?

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.