Elena Ferrante

A few months ago when Knausgaard fever was sweeping these States, I saw some people promulgating the argument that if a woman had done what Knausgaard did, no one would have cared. Or even worse, she would be derided as self-indulgent and banal.

To my ears that argument has always had a bullshitty ring to it for various reasons, and, well, now I think we have the closest thing possible to proof that it’s wrong. The Italian author Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) is beginning to catch on big time in the States (see her in The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, etc). And the work of hers that it becoming a sensation is a three-volume (and counting) study of “the lifelong friendship between two women.”

So, basically, an extremely long, in-depth, autobiographical series of books by a woman about “women’s” things, in translation. Sounds just about as close to a counterfactual as we would get in this debate.

Recent Posts

Criticism Isn't Free

CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!

You could also purchase one of my acclaimed ebooks.


Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Like many others, I would be thrilled to see Elena Ferrante, or Jenny Erpenbeck, or any of the other outstanding female authors (in translation) receive as much attention as Knausgaard has; however, Ferrante’s situation epitomizes the kinds of difficulties that men just don’t experience in equal measure. The public speculation that Ferrante might be the pen-name for a male writer (the implication being, “surely a woman couldn’t right something this good”) that continues to come up in discussions of her work (including some of the articles that you cite above) undermines the point that you make. Ferrante and Knausgaard’s books might share some formal similarities (thin grounds in this instance), but the conditions surrounding the authors are entirely different (the projected public image of the author counts for at least part of a books success, right?). You may choose to see a level, gender-neutral space for the reception of literature, or you may simply be tired of hearing the same arguments about gender discrimination stated again and again, but our biases (my own included) are real, persistent, and not easily resolved.

Iain, is it really the implication that a female could write something this good, or is it more a “what if” scenario whereby critics and readers have difficulty believing a man could “write” women to the extent Ferrante does? That is how I have always taken it.

At any rate, Ferrante has always said books make their own way independent of their author (as has, oddly, Naipaul), and I am thrilled Ferrante has warranted, finally, a mention here on the CR. I don’t even think, as good as they are, the Neapolitan novels are her best work, but if they bring her long overdue recognition, so much the better.

Scott, give her a try (Days of Abandonment), or someone you trust who writes for the QC. The link with Knausgaard is way off in terms of their work, and I think she will continue to be read in numbers in 50 years, whereas Knausgaard won’t (but he may have opened a way of working, a door, which people will still be walking back and forth through in 50 years time). I don’t think you will regret the time or investment.

Drew, I see your point and I agree that, to a certain extent, the interest in the author’s gender comes from disbelief that a man might be able to ‘write’ women so well. However, implicit in this is the attitude that a book written by a female author is not in itself adequate. The path from ‘a – mysterious – female author’ to ‘it must be a man writing’ is a trope with a long history. My comment was not intended to undermine Knausgaard’s work (though, like you, I believe that Ferrante’s own will stand up for much longer). But, the kind of celebratory fascination that has emerged with Knaus-mania does seem like a particularly masculine tradition of the ‘great’ literary work. I also don’t mean to accuse Scott of a general gender bias: he covers and supports many, many female writers (including Ferrante) and I am a tremendous fan of Conversational Reading (and the Two Lines podcast). But, on this particular issue, I would challenge his argument.

I am so grateful to you (again), Scott, for pointing me towards Elena Ferrante, my new literary obsession. (I do love Knausgaard too – both of them awaken floods of childhood memories, and I think both of them are much funnier than critics seem to recognise). isn’t it time for a new group read and time for a woman’s novel(s)? Why don’t we do the Neapolitan novels?


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2018. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.