The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante: Journalistically Defensible, Perhaps, But Morally Questionable

The public interest doesn't necessarily mean "what the public is interested in."

So, now you (likely) know who Elena Ferrante is. How does it feel? Does it make a difference to how you approach her work? Do you feel like you’ve unravelled some sort of mystery?

I’m not going to say who she is here — not that it matters, because since the New York Review of Books published its tabloid exposé on Ferrante’s identity over the weekend, you can just Google her and the answer’s in front of you. Ferrante’s famed anonymity is gone forever, torpedoed by a journalist digging into her bank statements.

The question of whether Ferrante’s identity should have been revealed has, predictably, dominated the cultural press over the last couple of days. Plenty of editors have queued up to condemn the NYRB for what they see as a violation of Ferrante’s right to privacy: the New Republic and Jezebel both refer to the feature as a case of doxing, and condemn both the journalist behind the feature and his publishers in no uncertain terms. Others have argued that the piece is journalistically defensible — The Washingtonian suggested that “The New York Review of Books Was Correct to Reveal Elena Ferrante’s True Identity,” while The Cut went with the rather milquetoast “Elena Ferrante’s Unmasking Wasn’t the End of the World.” Well, no. Of course it wasn’t.

For what it’s worth, Claudio Gatti — the Italian journalistic sleuth who proudly unmasked Ferrante in a feature published on Sunday— remains unrepentant about his actions: “In a way,” quoth Gatti to BBC Radio 4, “I think readers have the right to know something about the person who created the work.”

If this is the extent of Gatti’s justification, it’s nonsense. Readers have no such “right” — they have no rights at all, beyond that to read the book they’ve paid for. Clearly, at least some portion of the public wants to know, but wanting something doesn’t constitute a right to it, especially when what you’re asking for is so directly in violation of the express wishes of the person being affected by that desire. Gatti tries to weasel around this, suggesting in the conclusion to his piece, “In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after, the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known.” There’s no “apparently” about it — Ferrante has stated clearly and repeatedly that she wishes to remain anonymous.

So, what about Ferrante’s rights? Does she have a right to retain her anonymity? Gatti believes not: “I [revealed her identity] because she was a very much public figure,” he said to the BBC. This is an important question as far as, ahem, ethics in book journalism are concerned: does Ferrante’s great literary success alone make her a public figure, despite her express desire to be anything but? Even those condemning Gatti admit that there’s an argument to be made that this is the case: the New Republic’s Alex Shephard concedes, “[An] argument could be made [that] Elena Ferrante is now an international celebrity and a multimillionaire and that her identity is newsworthy in and of itself, despite the fact that the author has made it clear that she would prefer to maintain her privacy. That argument would probably also make people mad, but it would have the virtue of being defensible.”

I’m not entirely sure it does have such virtue, though. This leads us to the second key journalistic question addressed here: the standard of newsworthiness. It seems to me that this is a standard that we apply more stringently to those in the arts than to others. If Ferrante were a successful but determinedly anonymous manufacturer of widgets, rather than a successful but determinedly anonymous author, I doubt anyone would think that publicly naming her was justified.

This is because the public couldn’t care less about the manufacture of widgets, but they care a very great deal about the authorship of successful novels. Still, the public interest isn’t necessarily just what the public is interested in. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that knowing who wrote the Neapolitan Novels has very little utility as far as the public interest goes: if, perhaps, the author were revealed as a politician whose policies have perpetuated the poverty into which the books’ characters are born, there might be an argument as to the fact that the public should be aware of this fact. But it appears Ferrante is a humble translator, so really, where’s the public interest in revealing her identity?

Gatti fails to get to grips with this question — the closest he gets to addressing it is in the final line of his piece, where he argues, “Ferrante’s books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable.” This is true, but that in and of itself doesn’t justify joining the search: after all, if you notice someone walking down the street with a wallet hanging invitingly out of their back pocket, you’re not justified in stealing it just because someone else probably would have done so. (As the New Republic noted, “This is a shrug, not an argument.”)

There are very good reasons why a woman, in particular, might want to remain anonymous — one hopes that if nothing else, the NYRB‘s editors would have done due diligence to ensure that no such reason exists here, although given the perpetually hurried and underfunded state of journalism in 2016, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that was the case. But OK, let’s assume that Gatti and his editors have at least ensured that Ferrante’s safety wouldn’t be threatened by the revelation of her identity. They’re comfortable in the fact that they are ethically justified in publishing. Does that mean they go ahead and publish?

It’s easy for other editors to say that they wouldn’t have published this piece — in today’s cutthroat media environment, a scoop of this magnitude would be hard to turn down — but nevertheless, I’d like to think that Flavorwire wouldn’t have published this piece, had it been offered to us. As a society, we’re not particularly great at balancing our right to do something with our responsibility to consider whether doing that thing is an especially good idea. (Especially in this case, when Ferrante has already said that losing her anonymity might well mean she ceases writing altogether — are we really so collectively obsessed with celebrity that we’re more interested in making an unwilling celebrity out of a writer than in caring whether she may or may not continue to write?)

If nothing else, the unmasking of Elena Ferrante is a prime example of that fact. It’s in the interests of neither the public nor Ferrante herself — ultimately, it serves only to benefit Claudio Gatti and the magazine who published his piece. The rest of us already know everything we need to know about Ferrante: as our Jonathon Sturgeon wrote earlier this year, “We know the identity of Elena Ferrante. She’s the author of several novels that will outlast most of the others that you read.” That’s really all that matters.