Much ado, not by accident: Elena Ferrante has spoken frankly about exploiting the gossip mill to drive book sales — to The Financial Times

The other

The other side of silence — postgutenberg@gmail.com

Could Elena Ferrante’s WikiLeaks-ish ‘doxing’ really be a publisher’s marketing ploy and bid for a Nobel literature prize?

Somewhere between sleep and waking, last Monday — grey, damp, frigid — the possibility of a lip-smacking conspiracy began to take shape in a dozy head. What if Claudio Gatti, the financial journalist lambasted by Elena Ferrante admirers everywhere for her doxing — net-enhanced exposure through leaked documents — was actually part of an Italian publishing conspiracy concocted in the (wild) hope of creating Italy’s first Nobel literature star since the playwright Dario Fo won in 1997? A real-life wheeze that would have enchanted Umberto Eco, the colossus who strode large over literary Italy for decades before he died last winter — who scribbled Foucault’s Pendulum to show off as a conspiracy artist nonpareil?

Suggesting such a plot is no more ridiculous than the uproar over the apparent — as yet unconfirmed — revelation that the pen name Elena Ferrante has for a quarter-century been hiding the secret novel-writing habit of a respected, well-established German-to-Italian translator called Anita Raja. How can anyone doubt that the writer (or very likely, literary collaboration) behind the Ferrante phenomenon is every bit as impish as Eco, and set out to capitalise on the mystique of an avowed recluse to maximise book sales? It is odd, not to say unfathomable, that commenters on this drama who have quoted the interview with Ferrante-Raja(?) that ran in The Financial Times last December, somehow missed the unambiguous statement to this effect in the conversation, high up in the edited transcript:

Q: Could you explain why you decided to keep your identity hidden — to maintain an “absence”, as you put it, from the business of publishing and promoting your books?

A: I believe that, today, failing to protect writing by guaranteeing it an autonomous space, far from the demands of the media and the marketplace, is a mistake. […] Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip. Let’s restore authentic centrality to the books themselves and, if it’s appropriate, discuss the possible uses of idle gossip as promotion.

All the other answers seemed just as truthful — this one, for instance:

Q: Should we assume the story to be your story — as readers clearly do — or is that a failing of imagination on their part, a symptom of the modern trend for always looking for the author in the work?

A: The four volumes of the Neapolitan novels are my story, sure, but only in the sense that I am the one who has given it the form of a novel and to have used my life experiences to inject truth into literary invention.

If I had wanted to recount my own business, I would have established a different pact with the reader, I would have signalled I was writing an autobiography …

As her country’s most internationally acclaimed living author, and having made no secret of fomenting gossip to make more money, Ferrante-Raja(?) is a legitimate if unusual target for financial reporting. What is truly strange is the companion post for Gatti’s exposé on the blog of The New York Review of Books on Sunday. In it, he purports to excoriate Raja for failing to make her primary material the experiences of her mother, a Holocaust survivor — choosing instead her outpouring of raw, blistering, enraged, tell-it-like-it-is, feminist, seemingly autobiographical stories set on rough and impoverished Neapolitan streets. There is no logical justification for such a criticism. A writer could, entirely understandably, find it unbearable to re-live at one remove the fate of a victim of mass-murdering depravity. We know of no precedent for such an accusation involving any famous name, and Gatti’s outrage seems not merely bizarre but manufactured; also, a tasteless April Fool’s satire that somehow got its dates mixed up.

Is it any wonder that on Monday, we opened our eyes half-dreaming about the possibility that Gatti and unknown fellow-conspirators spotlighted the maternal segment of Raja’s personal history because she really is an author or co-author using ‘Elsa Ferrante’ for camouflage — and because the Holocaust adds gravitas to that story, the kind that the Swedish Academy seems prone to saluting in the biographies of its literature prize-winners? (Think of Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist serving his fourth term in prison; V. S. Naipaul, the son of indentured, alienated, peasant-labourers; Doris Lessing, born into a fractious poor white family in Rhodesia; J. M. G. Le Clézio’s triumph over the risk of cultural marginalisation, from his stubborn insistence on being as much a child of Mauritius as of France …).

Could it have occurred to someone at Ferrante-Raja(?)’s publisher, Edizioni E/O, that an anonymous writer is also a scribe without a biography — a someone who plotted and planted the Gatti revelations to fill that void? Yes, Elsa Ferrante has in the past proclaimed that she will refuse to accept prizes and awards, but her publishing managers could simply ignore her protestations. The pseudonymous scribe’s actions and words do not always match. She has explained to The Guardian that ‘[a]nonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing,’, yet readily interrupts her work to give one fascinating, intelligent newspaper or literary journal interview after another — gripping in ways that renderings of her stories into English are not — behind her veil.

It seems most likely that the lead conspirator — if there is a conspiracy — works in marketing in Ferrante-Raja(?)’s publishing house. That is especially probable if Anita Raja is the mysterious author or a collaborator, since it is hard to imagine her orchestrating Gatti’s broadcast of details of her financial records to the universe.

Consider the timing of his exposé. The English version of a new book by Ferrante-Raja(?) will not be published until next month. But the Nobel awards are announced this month. This week, the site of the Nobel organisation lists announcement dates for every prize but the one for literature, offering no explanation for stating that:

According to tradition, the Swedish Academy will set the date for its announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature later.

Can this mean that the committee of judges for this garland — notoriously the most controversial, by far — continues to argue about who deserves to be garlanded all the way to the deadline? And could some people be deluded enough to imagine that they can assist pro-Ferrante committee members to make their case from outside the Swedish Academy?

Whoever wins — and we doubt that it will be Elena Ferrante — is unlikely to compete for publicity with the fuss and condemnation stirred up by Claudio Gatti’s supposedly wicked unmasking; not to mention Elena-Anita(?)’s teasing and manipulation of the gossip mill.

To that ill-informed, mad, hullabaloo, we at post-Gutenberg have now made our modest contribution.

Time-travelling email to Tolstoy re: reminders, in the transition to post-print publishing, of you emancipating your serfs in 19th-century Russia

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)

tocqueville-manuscript-page-democracy-in-america

Zdrastvooytye Leo!

(Privyet! seems too much like hi for such a distinguished stranger)

You’ve had a century and a half to think about founding 13 schools for educating the children of peasants working on your estate, Yasnaia Poliana, in the 1870s, and your enthusiastic marrying of new agricultural technology to your attempts to share land-ownership with your serfs. You understood, as few of your fellow-aristocrats did, the late ripples through Russia of the implications of printing’s invention — that Tsar Alexander II’s orders for the emancipation of the serfs were part of what Michael Lynch has described as ‘a programme that included legal and administrative reform and the extension of press and university freedoms.’

Another aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who — a few decades earlier — had educated his French countrymen about the inevitability of the spread of American democracy to the rest of the world, would have said that you were a fine example of his belief that …

… almost all the democratic convulsions which have agitated the world have been directed by nobles.

A most interesting idea, that. What advice do you have for editors and media captains floundering, like so many, in this post-Gutenberg transition? If only time travel, for you — not just your thoughts — were possible, you might speak on the subject at a TED conference that the rest of us could watch on YouTube. We were reminded of your revolutionary ardour by chance, in re-reading and listening to an audio-recording of Anna Karenina — about which practically no non-expert thinks, in reflecting on agricultural reform.

Let us say, frankly, that although we could have no quarrel with Virginia Woolf’s pigeonholing of you as the greatest great novelist, virtually the estimations also of Joyce, Mann, Proust, Faulkner and Nabokov (according to the Wikipedia), you are not one of our favourite writers. We have always found your stories almost peerlessly depressing: there is often delicious humour in them, yes, but not nearly enough — as much in, say, the work of your hero, Charles Dickens. Certainly in English translations of your work, there is no leavening by evocative passages — as by the class of writers we called magician-scribes in a post here last month. You deliberately wrote as plainly as possible, with powerful descriptions of people and keen psychological perception, but with almost no sense of place; no ability to conjure you-are-here sensations. Surviving the horror of the truth about life is intolerable without some poetry in prose.

But your cold rolled realism, and your deep anti-romanticism, make you an ideal reporter on the obstacles to democratisation. We smiled in recognition at the passages in Anna Karenina in which you describe the struggles of Levin — standing in for yourself, in your story — to convince the change-resistant peasants tied to his family’s estate by Russian tradition about 200 years old, then, that the changes he was bent on introducing reflected his heart-felt good intentions for them. What did we recognise? The suspicion and resistance to change are so like the reactions to attempts at reform in the digital revolution in publishing — recently noted by us in a Q&A post and in one other, doing our bit to keep the historical record straight.

Beneath our signature, we will post extracts to show what we mean. Of course it is ironic — not to mention tragic — that the clever peasants’ mistrustful and cynical reactions to the new system were partly justified by events elsewhere in Russia. Michael Lynch has shown how the reforms meant to liberate them were subverted by the landowners

But! Eventually, as everyone knows, one of the world’s most famous revolutions corrected all that — in 1917 — and proved that there was no turning back of the democratic tide. This is surely the thought that media editors and proprietors need to keep at the front of their minds.

Yours in hope,

pG

… Levin continued the conversation with the gray-whiskered landowner, […who …] stuck to it that the Russian peasant is a swine and likes swinishness, and that to get him out of his swinishness one must have authority, and there is none; one must have the stick, and we have become so liberal that we have all of a sudden replaced the stick that served us for a thousand years by lawyers and model prisons, where the worthless, stinking peasant is fed on good soup and has a fixed allowance of cubic feet of air.

[…] The carrying out of Levin’s plan presented many difficulties; but he struggled on, doing his utmost, and attained a result which, though not what he desired, was enough to enable him, without self-deception, to believe that the attempt was worth the trouble. One of the chief difficulties was that the process of cultivating the land was in full swing, that it was impossible to stop everything and begin it all again from the beginning, and the machine had to be mended while in motion.

[…] As for the proposal made by Levin—to take a part as shareholder with his labourers in each agricultural undertaking … On beginning to talk to the peasants about it, and making a proposition to cede them the land on new terms, he came into collision with the same great difficulty that they were so much absorbed by the current work of the day, that they had not time to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed scheme.

[…] Another difficulty lay in the invincible disbelief of the peasant that a landowner’s object could be anything else than a desire to squeeze all he could out of them. They were firmly convinced that his real aim (whatever he might say to them) would always be in what he did not say to them. And they themselves, in giving their opinion, said a great deal but never said what was their real object. Moreover (Levin felt that the irascible landowner had been right) the peasants made their first and unalterable condition of any agreement whatever that they should not be forced to any new methods of tillage of any kind, nor to use new implements. They agreed that the modern plough ploughed better, that the scarifier did the work more quickly, but they found thousands of reasons that made it out of the question for them to use either of them; and though he had accepted the conviction that he would have to lower the standard of cultivation, he felt sorry to give up improved methods, the advantages of which were so obvious. But in spite of all these difficulties he got his way, and by autumn the system was working, or at least so it seemed to him.

[…] A distant part of the estate, a tract of waste land that had lain fallow for eight years, was with the help of the clever carpenter, Fyodor Ryezunov, taken by six families of peasants on new conditions of partnership, and the peasant Shuraev took the management of all the vegetable gardens on the same terms. The remainder of the land was still worked on the old system, but these three associated partnerships were the first step to a new organization of the whole, and they completely took up Levin’s time.

It is true that in the cattle-yard things went no better than before, and Ivan strenuously opposed warm housing for the cows and butter made of fresh cream, affirming that cows require less food if kept cold, and that butter is more profitable made from sour cream, and he asked for wages just as under the old system, and took not the slightest interest in the fact that the money he received was not wages but an advance out of his future share in the profits.

It is true that Fyodor Ryezunov’s company did not plough over the ground twice before sowing, as had been agreed, justifying themselves on the plea that the time was too short. It is true that the peasants of the same company, though they had agreed to work the land on new conditions, always spoke of the land, not as held in partnership, but as rented for half the crop, and more than once the peasants and Ryezunov himself said to Levin, “If you would take a rent for the land, it would save you trouble, and we should be more free.” Moreover the same peasants kept putting off, on various excuses, the building of a cattleyard and barn on the land as agreed upon, and delayed doing it till the winter.

[…] Often, too, talking to the peasants and explaining to them all the advantages of the plan, Levin felt that the peasants heard nothing but the sound of his voice, and were firmly resolved, whatever he might say, not to let themselves be taken in.

[…] But in spite of all this Levin thought the system worked, and that by keeping accounts strictly and insisting on his own way, he would prove to them in the future the advantages of the arrangement, and then the system would go of itself.

… At the end of September the timber had been carted for building the cattleyard on the land that had been allocated to the association of peasants, and the butter from the cows was sold and the profits divided. In practice the system worked capitally, or, at least, so it seemed to Levin. In order to work out the whole subject theoretically, … all that was left to do was to make a tour abroad, …

Fiddling with the true record of newspapers’ post-print struggles robs our first drafts of history of crucial lessons for media

Three editors: Lionel Barber of The Financial Times interviews http://video.ft.com/5113031401001/Lionel-Barber-discusses-future-of-media/Life-And-Arts Alan Rusbridger, who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes{{{CK SP}}}} of The Economist. The dark shape racing towards them looks like the chiefly Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

Lionel Barber (left) of The Financial Times interviews Alan Rusbridger (right), who led The Guardian for 20 years, and Zanny Minton Beddoes (centre) of The Economist. The sinister dark mass behind them could be the Facebook-shaped digital juggernaut they are discussing with commendable calm.

In the outline of his unfinished manuscript about the difficulties of constructing accurate history — partly scratched out as a prisoner of Germany in 1940-4 — the French historian and Résistance operative Marc Bloch wrote [ the italics are his, in all cases ] :

VI. EXPLANATION IN HISTORY

By way of introduction: the generation of skeptics (and scientists)

1. The idea of cause. The destruction of cause and of motive (the unconscious) [ … ]

2. The idea of chance.

3. The problem of the individual and his differential value. [ … ]

4. The problem of ‘determinant’ acts or facts.

Apologie pour l’Histoire, ou Metier d’Historien, 1949 [ a posthumous work published in English in 1954 as The Historian’s Craft ]

All three versions of his manuscript ended with these words: ‘In history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for …’. If he were extending those notes today, we would propose:

5. The problem of the sound byte and tiny attention spans.

Explanations shrunk to sound bytes can wreak havoc with historical truth. That would account for the hair-raising contrast between our analysis — two posts ago — of why The Guardian’s economic model of giving everyone free access to its website is unsustainable, and the answer to virtually the same question by the architect of its strategy, Alan Rusbridger. That prospective revolution failed because it was halted halfway, as if lacking the courage of the convictions that got it rolling — including the editor’s enthusiasm for the advent of ‘participatory journalism’. But he and his managerial colleagues did not go far enough. For old media in transition, free access can only make economic sense — some day — in combination with building in some version of the audience participation or collaboration that defines social media. Recently, the post-Rusbridger Guardian made a stunning turn in the wrong direction. As we noted on this blog last month, relying on the accuracy of a report by Private Eye, the paper’s present leaders decided — unbelievably — against allowing its new class of readers paying £5 a month for ‘membership’ privileges to elect a representative on the paper’s governing board, the Scott Trust. (‘Readers’ Knives,’ Private Eye No: 1422, 8-21 July, 2016)

You would glean none of that from Rusbridger’s reply in an interview with the editor of The Financial Times — at this newspaper’s first ‘live’ festival in London earlier this month — to a question about the explosion in readership after the launch of his content-is-free business model:

Lionel Barber: Under your editorship The Guardian became incredibly successful in terms of developing a global audience. You went from 300,000 in the UK to literally millions. Can you make money out of that audience?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the answer to that changes from year to year. At the time I left, we were just about managing sustainability and then everything changed — not through anybody’s fault. Except that Facebook came along and this behemoth started taking 85 cents out of every dollar in terms of the advertising revenues that came in. And that’s a completely changed environment. There’s no point whingeing about it, it’s a brilliant company. Google’s a brilliant company. But it does mean you have to adapt your business model not only in light of things that may change from year to year but from month to month.

The facts called for giving the FT editor a different sound byte altogether. But that would have put the former Guardian chief, who stepped down last year, in the awkward position of criticising his change-resistant former colleagues for their inability to understand, as he did, digital technology’s inversion of the pyramid they were used to — with journalists at the top and their audience members squeezed together, powerlessly, at its base. He could have given a colourful, entertaining account of, for instance, the shattered egos of senior journalists and columnists subjected for the first time to criticism by readers in comments sections — and to competition from blogs. Instead, he expressed himself eloquently on the perceptions that made him a Moses who lost most of his followers, because they lacked any glimmer about the Promised Land to which he was trying to lead them:

I felt that my job was to try and understand the technology, not because it was technology but because it signified a completely different social shift. It was the biggest thing since Gutenberg — not the technology of printing but the democratisation of reading and of thought. And we’re moving from a vertical world in which the people with the knowledge used to drip it down to something in which it’s much more widely dispersed. And as editors, you can’t afford to ignore that.

In their joint interview, Zanny Minton Beddoes, the practical editor of The Economist, described a survival strategy pegged to pushing for the replacement of advertising revenue by expanded circulation and subscriptions. This could succeed, for the special reason why publications focused on finance and economics are virtually the only big names in journalism that are doing well behind the paywall or subscription barrier. Her plan represents a different recognition that success will entail some kind of financial reward for the reader-participants in publishing’s future. The economic model that we have advocated on this blog would give readers small monetary stakes in media organisations. That would be just right for the communal-minded, left-leaning progressives said to dominate The Guardian’s audience. By contrast, readers are willing to pay for old-fashioned subscriptions to The Economist — or The Wall Street Journal or FT — in the hope of learning what they can to protect their piggy banks from disaster. (See ‘The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co’.)

Surely a sound byte encapsulating some of that would have been a more useful guide for editors coping with the digital transition than implying that the Guardian‘s huge economic losses are simply the fault of Facebook, which came along and devoured old media’s future.