Nom de Vie: Literary Social Media in the Age of Ferrante
On Anonymity and the Self-Promotional Author
The London Review of Books Bookshop blog has the entirety of a letter Elena Ferrante sent her press when they were preparing to publish her first novel. After an introductory paragraph, in which she explains she thought the matter had already been settled, she writes, in no uncertain terms,
I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum. I am absolutely committed in this sense to myself and my family. I hope not to be forced to change my mind. I understand that this may cause some difficulties at the publishing house. I have great respect for your work, I liked you both immediately, and I don’t want to cause trouble. If you no longer mean to support me, tell me right away, I’ll understand. It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book. To explain all the reasons for my decision, is, as you know, hard for me. I will only tell you that it’s a small bet with myself, with my convictions. I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.
And then, as a parting line, “Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”
There was every reason to think that this way of presenting herself would fail. For every Elena Ferrante, there is a crowd of novels (and their authors) waiting to be ignored by the world—a crowd you can never search for online because it went unnoticed. But much as Ferrante hoped, the Befana did eventually respond—specifically with a spectacular review in The New Yorker from James Wood in 2013.
The Befana, if you don’t know, is the Italian witch of Christmas—sort of like if Santa was a kindly magical crone who appears on the feast of the Epiphany instead of Christmas. Whether or not it was she who delivered the Wood review, Ferrante is now greeted as something like the Befana herself by readers, who, for her newest book, attended crowded midnight publication parties at bookstores in the way Harry Potter novels were once greeted. Ferrante, with her reluctance to make public appearances, her announced secrecy and her nom de plume, has become a sensation in America at a time when the American author is asked to participate in the selling of their own work in a way unlike that in any era previous. It is almost illegal here for her to do what she does. And while we can’t all be Ferrante, maybe it’s time to think—again—about just what authors are being asked to do to sell a book.
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A rough history of the marketing problem facing authors today runs like this: at the end of the 1990s, advertising budgets for publishers became one of the first places to save money as the publicly held companies taking over the industry began to demand higher returns. Reviews were said to be the ads you really wanted—who needed ads if you had reviews?—but the result was a loss of advertising that doomed many of the publications that reviewed books. When those publications vanished as the ads vanished, book blogs appeared to replace them, and when social media appeared, book blogs and book bloggers embraced those many platforms. Soon bloggers were being sent books just to post photos of them on their feed, never mind reading and reviewing them.
When I see ads from publishers now on book blogs, I still mourn the old reviews.
The postcards I once made for my first novel back in 2001 have been joined by blogging and social media—which have a much bigger footprint online than a postcard or in some cases an ad—and come with a relatively low financial cost, if you already have a laptop or a smartphone. Thus the seemingly essential role social media and the Internet play in the marketing of books now. Most of us who write and publish fiction in 2015 are participants in a process that extends from before publication to well after, and includes creating a kind of electronic diorama of our writing process and lives, extending across several platforms, all of it available at a glance to any interested consumer. Your feed as native advertising, an open answer to the questions so often asked at readings: “How much of this is autobiographical?” or “What is your process?” or “Where do you write?”
Having authors on social media has also provided a sideshow for readers who care to follow along—even able to draw in those who refuse to be online, and the results are well known to us now, ranging from “Jonathan Franzen vs the Internet” (now a perennial feature) to the Nice Authors dustup to The Goodreads Bully Wars. Social media has become an accepted way to develop an audience, meet other writers and editors, and perhaps most importantly to outlets, generate traffic for your work, even if a fair number of the people sharing posts, essays and stories on social media seem not to have read them.
As a result it is now common for writers hoping to “break in” to work at all of this with the effort of someone applying to college, trying to appear well-rounded for the application committee that is their future audience, with proof of a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter page, an Instagram, and a blog, all full of compelling, audience-friendly content.
The cause of the “unlikable character” has been popular to champion in recent years but as of this writing, there is no room for the “unlikable author.” Perhaps until now. Because Elena Ferrante does not care if you want to be her friend. And it is, quite frankly, exhilarating to watch. Or, to not watch. There is no Twitter feed where she might make gaffes, or get into online battles. There is no sad abandoned blog, updated for the last time in 2011. There are no Facebook profiles with promoted posts to resent, no pictures of her gamely smiling at a fan for her Instagram. No pictures of her book tour meals, no complaints about her flight delays, no rants, no hashtags, no RTs of her praise, no “WTF/FTW/LOL/OMG” posts, no strings of thank yous. She does not invite you to play Farmville, or if she does, you’d never know. There’s just a row of books executed with intellect and bravura, and the rest, hidden behind a name. And so it is I like to imagine her, sometimes, at home in Italy, posting a video of her cat to her private Facebook, private like all the rest of her life, before turning to her work.
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In a recent interview with Elissa Schappell in Vanity Fair, Ferrante elaborated on this choice:
“I simply decided once and for all, over 20 years ago, to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people, those who believe they have won who-knows-what. I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books. Today I feel, thanks to this decision, that I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
The anxiety of notoriety is not just the fear of who you’ll become if you desire to be famous. It is also the fear of notoriety itself—the loss of privacy that we believe is the necessary cost for any public life.
Part of the pleasure of reading Ferrante, for me, has been the pleasure the resistance her pseudonym provides to the entire biographical fallacy industrial complex. I was never the kind of reader who needed to know the author and with Ferrante, I can’t. The “character is the author is the character” shadow dance cannot consume her the way it seems to with every other fiction writer. The “How much of this is autobiographical?” question becomes meaningless when there is no way to verify it, the speculation one long look into a space that will not answer you back.
A space that would collapse if it answered you with any further detail.
Ferrante’s anonymity is something of a feminist project, also. No one is able to talk about her appearance. No one can decide if she is a good or bad mother. No one can decide if her work is the product of this or that biographical event—and evaluate it by that single event, and its perceived fidelity to that event. One can talk about her work, really, or her relative anonymity (the constraints of which force you back to the work). No one wants to do this for women writers usually.
A room of your own was never going to be enough, her career seems to say. Build a life apart and live there instead, and throw your books out over the wall through your publisher. Don’t let them see the rest. Don’t let them in, don’t play nice. They’ll try to treat you like a woman instead of a writer anyway, no matter how much you show. It isn’t worth it. Ferrante’s indifference alone is like a manifesto she couldn’t be bothered to nail to any church door, except her publisher’s.
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I remember back when I chose to go by “Alexander Chee” in print, and it was a choice. I hadn’t actually considered that it would be. A pen name seemed like an anachronism. And when I first heard of Ferrante, she did seem less like an iconoclast and more like a throwback, though she has more company if you look away from her toward another group of writers, online. Her choice is not meaningfully different from the choice made by any number of bloggers, where nothing is as traditional as a nom de blog. “Real Name” policies at Facebook and Google+ have, in recent years, challenged this, beginning what became known as the nymwars in 2011, but Xeni Jardin, writing for Boing Boing, wrote a strong defense of the online pseudonym that doesn’t sound so different from what Ferrante herself might say: “Persistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are… The desire to be judged—not by our birth, not by our sex, and not by who we work for—but by what we say.”
All of this is on my mind as my own second novel heads into the world next year and I prepare. What will I share, what will I not? What have I not shared, with a WordPress, a Tumblr, an Instagram, a Facebook and a Twitter account? If I didn’t enjoy my interactions on social media I might be more regretful. And yet I do have a sense of feeling diluted. As I consider options, a revision of my web and social presence—a pseudonym is not one—I also have noted the very successful Instagram my friend Hanya Yanagihara has created, for example, for her new novel, A Little Life, currently shortlisted for the Man Booker. Yanagihara has always been good at Instagram—she also maintains a professional one, notes from her work as a deputy editor at T Magazine. She is not the oversharing kind, and the Instagram for A Little Life keeps it simple: Bookface posts, photos submitted by fans via tags, reposted, and currently, some of the covers she rejected. There is also an in-demand and elegant tote bag, not for sale, given to a select few.
Do I miss privacy? Don’t we all? If anything, whatever we experience as writers around social media is not so different from what any other user experiences—what the whole culture is experiencing. We are not so different from the rest of the culture—we’re online because we’re all online, as a nation. And for most writers, it seems like the real issue is just the Internet. One writer friend, who asked not to be identified, locks his router up and sends himself the key in the mail so he can’t be online while it is away from him. The poet and editor Saeed Jones had a friend change his password for Facebook and Twitter, and only Instagrammed photos from his summer writing retreat in France while he worked on his forthcoming memoir. Edan Lepucki is on a break from Facebook and Twitter to finish her new novel, and in the past, her husband has changed her password and not told her this until she was done. Angela Flournoy took two years off from Facebook while she wrote her debut novel, The Turner House, returning only when she had sold the book. “I imagine it would have taken me longer to write the book if I hadn’t done it. I also don’t know if I can take such a long break again. I get real opportunities and have important contacts via social media.”
In the absence of social media, everyone I spoke to for this essay did note the difference. When Anisse Gross took a social media break, she noticed she felt something like a Phantom Limb. “It’s like your brain, every 15 minutes or so, goes online, in its mind. You feel an electrical pull. It took me a solid week before that faded.” For most, it was positive. Marie Mockett took a year off from social media to write her most recent memoir, Where The Dead Pause and The Japanese Say Goodbye. She is one of the writers I know who took a nom de vie for social media—and when she left Facebook, she left both identities: “I’m probably—and I hate to say this—on the sensitive side. I needed my year off to write but also, I needed a year or more of reality in relationships. I felt significantly better after I took a huge break. I will probably take a break again. But now that I’m back, this June I was in Japan on my own, in remote and traditional parts of Japan, but I could still text friends, share anecdotes—I was never lonely. And social media has changed that dynamic. I liked that I could take people with me. In general, I like it because I do want to know what friends are doing, or family who are far away, who is getting married, what ten people think about something. I still like my private account where I mostly post pictures of my son and don’t think about branding. I also like that on my public account I get heartfelt notes from strangers about my last book, and I’m glad for those–even as I also get notes from strange men and the occasional prostitute. Back then social media made me feel pressured to treat it like a job at which I needed to excel. I’m different now (therapy actually helps), but having a separate account where I was more relaxed, where I didn’t have that gray area of writers “working” through social media, helped too.”
Some writers, though, find it helps them. Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War, found her social media break was a terrible idea. “I was dismayed to realize I was more productive when I allowed myself to check in to Twitter several times a day. Having said that, I also use an app called Self Control to block all distracting websites for two to eight hours a day.” And Rumaan Alam, whose debut novel, Rich and Pretty, comes out early next summer, offers this. “I wrote my book mostly between the hours of 8 pm and 3 am, when the children were asleep, and honestly, I found Twitter in particular but the Internet generally to be very helpful. It made me feel less alone, in the middle of the night, and was an incentive of sorts: finish that scene and you can screw around for ten minutes.”
Perhaps the answer is to simply make the choice that offers you the most freedom—we can’t all be Ferrante, after all. I write fiction in part because I never wanted to have just one identity, one life, and so I can acknowledge that the act that begins My Brilliant Friend is thrilling for the fantasy it offers—that kind of ultimate vanishing. I confess I do have a pseudonym picked out, chosen back when I chose this name out of my legal name. It waits like an emergency kit, something I can use in case of a fire. But perhaps that is Ferrante’s ultimate secret in plain sight—that all of this is written by the one who made herself vanish.