It was a bad weekend for American journalism, by which I mean it was kind of an atrocious weekend because the standard is already fairly low, with a TIME Inc. division firing its editor-in-chief for, apparently, hiring an adult film actress to write about sports, creating a fake columnist to argue with her, and then lying about the whole thing; and now a New York Post columnist saying Derrick Rose has made a bad first impression on Knicks fans with the “noise of a rape trial.” But all of that is sort of par for the course, especially in our little corner of the journalism world.
The real atrocity, however, was the soi-disant “premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” the New York Review of Books, choosing to out pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante (whose best-selling novel My Brilliant Friend I reviewed this summer) by, among other things, combing through financial and real estate records. It was a malicious, tawdry exercise in placing money over integrity, the sort of yellow journalism we might expect from the Drudge Report or an alt-right site, doxing a woman who’d make it clear she wanted to remain out of the public eye.
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) October 2, 2016
The column, written by an Italian journalist, claims that Ferrante, by writing a quartet of bestselling novels, “has in a way relinquished her right to disappear,” while making no actual argument to support this claim, probably because the author – and the NYRB editors who must have died on the way to work that morning, given their abdication of their responsibilities by letting the piece run – can’t do so. There was simply no public need to know at work here. Ferrante is not a public figure, not a politician, not a businessperson seeking tax breaks or handouts, not claiming to be anything at all that she’s not. She’s a successful author who sought to speak through her writing, and to barely speak at all through any other medium.
Outing an author who sought anonymity for its own sake would be bad enough, but here a male reporter has chosen to reveal the identity of a female author who may have (or have had, I suppose) motivations for her secrecy that should, if nothing else, have kept this article from seeing the light of day. What if Ferrante is a victim of domestic abuse, hiding from her former partner? Or a rape or sexual assault victim doing the same? Whatever her reason(s) for choosing to write and remain behind a pseudonym, it is not for any of us to choose to unmask her, to decide that this reason isn’t good enough to maintain the veil … but a woman may choose to hide her identity out of fear of physical harm. This muckraker, with the help of a periodical that aspires to intellectual superiority, has put this woman on blast for no discernible benefit to anyone but the writer and the publication, with no apparent concern whatsoever for whatever physical or emotional consequences Ferrante herself might suffer. Ferrante appears to have been simply too successful for this man or the New York Review of Books to allow her to succeed in peace.
(As of 11 am on Monday, I haven’t heard any response, via email or Twitter, from NYRB. I will update if one appears.)
UPDATE: The woman outed as Ferrante has confirmed the account (in Italian), and has opened a Twitter account (same) to say she will never speak about Ferrante’s books and to call the revelation a “vulgar and dangerous … violation of privacy and norms.”