Where Are the Great Italian Women Writers?
Jeanne Bonner Visits the Salone del Libro to Look Beyond Ferrante
Long before arriving this month at the Salone del Libro, an annual book fair in Turin that’s Italy’s largest, I was asking myself this question: where are the great Italian women writers?
I’ve been reading Italian fiction for two decades but this particular question has motivated much of my reading since I discovered Elena Ferrante, the author of The Days of Abandonment and the Neapolitan series of books, beginning with My Brilliant Friend. Her emergence, for me, was like a wakeup call, particularly since she’s created female characters who seethe with ambition, anger and longing. Women with wandering, industrious minds who choose their sexual partners with abandon. Yes!
I want to find more of these female characters, which are particularly well-wrought when created by a woman. So where are the great Italian female writers, doing justice to this topic and genre, and countless others?
Well, in fact, there are many fine Italian women writing fiction and nonfiction today. But other than la Ferrante, few of them appeared on Italian best-of lists at the end of last year or roundups of up-and-coming authors. I know—I scoured the year-end best-of lists, the mid-year versions and a few other lists, too. I also thumbed through suggestions on services like Audible.
Italian women writers, of course, do emerge from these searches—but they never constitute the majority of the writers suggested, or even simply half. Perhaps it sounds like a pedestrian observation or a problem well-known to everyone. But I’m reminded of political protest signs I’ve seen this year: We’re still dealing with this?
It bears mentioning that best-of lists often have currency only within a clubby world of type-A literary folks who keep score on everything.
Yet such lists are a mirror for any society (they also constitute a handy guide for readers and serve as primers for book fairs—more about this shortly). And it is telling that a few of the lists of top Italian books of the year, or recommended reading for the summer, include no women at all!
To wit, the cultural magazine Panorama, one of Italy’s largest weeklies, published a list earlier this year of the ten best Italian novels of the 21st century so far, and included a single woman: Michela Murgia’s Accabadora.
While women are mentioned prominently in places like the magazine Il Libraio and the blog Sul Romanzo, in most roundups, best on best, you’ll find three out of ten spots going to Italian women authors (and sometimes the lists are mixed with foreign authors—notably, foreign women authors at times fare better than Italian women). On its website, the giant publisher Italian Mondadori, for example, includes Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Margaret Mazzantini on a list of top contemporary Italian authors, in addition to Ferrante.
(The same math is at work in this year’s Strega competition, in which three individual women have cracked the list of twelve finalists, including author Wanda Marasco; a fourth woman, who is a co-author, has also been nominated).
This phenomenon is unsettling because the question behind these lists wasn’t how many copies of the books were sold, but which were the best? After all, even prominent male authors of literary fiction and nonfiction sell poorly, reflecting the market’s taste.
Italy has long been known as a country of non-readers. According to a 2015 survey by ISTAT, the Italian pollster, more than 60 percent of Italian homes had no more than 100 books.
And in this country full of non-readers and occasional readers, women authors do not win the majority or anywhere near half of the top literary prizes. The Strega prize, the Italian equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize or the Man Booker, has been awarded to only ten women since its inception in 1947.
But that’s not the only interesting statistic to emerge from a perusal of the list of Strega winners. Here’s something else: most of the women who have managed to snare the prize did so decades ago. To wit: no woman author has won the Strega since 2003!
To be sure, Italian book critics aren’t the only ones overlooking the country’s female writers. With help from a group called Women in Translation, Literary Hub has published a series on books written by female foreign authors that should be translated into English (full disclosure: I wrote the edition for Italy). If the Italian list is any indication, all kinds of successful women authors—some of whom have even managed to win the top literary prizes—remain routinely untranslated into English (which also, of course, reflects the aversion many English-speaking readers have for translated literature—but that is a different topic).
Italy is also, of course, not the only country where women writers are not as prominent as their male counterparts. Britain’s Booker Prize, for example, has been won by a female author only about one third of the time.
But the problem is particularly pronounced in Italy, Ferrante notwithstanding (or perhaps withstanding, given the reaction to her reticence toward cultivating a public persona and the ferocity of her unmasking last year—by a male journalist—as most likely the translator Anita Raja; it may indeed indicate the precarious state of successful women authors in Italy’s male-dominated publishing industry).
And lest anyone think I’m simply a meddling foreign feminist, male authors in Italy are also acknowledging the undeniable. Writing for Italian literary magazine Il Libraio, publisher Luigi Spagnol notes that women authors actually sell well in Italy—and yet they are still denied most of the top prizes.
In a column published last October, he asked, “Why? Why do we do this? Why do we persist in not wanting to read about the world through the eyes… of important artists who have the single defect of belonging to a sex other than our own?” (Note, the translation is my own).
So when I decided to visit the Salone del Libro from America, I set myself the task of seeing how women authors fared at Italy’s largest and most storied book fair. Were there a lot of books by women authors on display? How prominently were they placed? What women authors would be speaking? And how do Italian women authors feel about their prospects for success and recognition?
Having just returned from the book fair, I can say in some ways I went to the right place to find answers and in other ways the wrong place. This year’s Salone del Libro was extremely successful, particularly under the direction of novelist Nicola Lagioia. He advanced several important initiatives, including mainstreaming the role of literary translators (many of whom are women) with an ample and exciting slate of panels and discussions. It indicates an approach that will likely bear fruit, in future iterations of the fair, for also bringing more women into the spotlight.
But it’s not the fair’s job to fix society’s gender gap. It can’t, to a certain extent, help but reflect the place of women in Italian’s literary firmament, even if it may try to remedy the situation with various panels and projects. Either publishers brought out books by women, which would be on display at the fair, or not. Either critics already weighed in favorably on these books, helping to bring readers and attention to the works, or they did not. In this case, it’s a long haul, and the fair reflects that.
It’s actually an exceptionally fruitful period for Italian women authors, with exciting new releases from Elena Varvello, noted above, Alessandra Sarchi, Valeria Parrella, Donatella Di Pietrantonio and many others. The books often take ingenious approaches to perennial topics. Notably, Parrella’s “Enciclopedia della Donna” is a witty rewriting of a famous manual for women, with the important modern distinction of including ample information on sex.
But while many countries with a “woman problem” are playing catch-up, I would argue Italy is playing catch-up for other things. Knowing English—and flaunting said knowledge of the language and the English-speaking world—is the big one. The country has become obsessed with English (you can observe this by picking up almost any newspaper or major magazine and counting up the number of English words in headlines, captions and texts). And it is desperate to catch up to its European peers in ease of use of what’s become the global language, if for nothing else, than business and travel.
And in fact one strand that emerges from my visit to the Salone is that the gap the Italian publishing industry may be desperate to close isn’t that between men and women writers, but rather between the Italian world and the English-speaking world. This year’s fair, the 30th edition, included a prominent track dedicated to the US called “Another Side of America.” American authors Jonathan Lethem and Richard Ford even appeared, and were among the most coveted events.
(The other big obsession at this year’s book fair was the schism between Turin, which has long held the book fair, and Milan, which held a rival event in April).
Walking the floor of the Salone del Libro this year, one could be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t a “woman problem” or that no one is too concerned about it or that again, the battle at hand was something else. Arguably, literary folks nearly everywhere are constantly safeguarding the written word against other distractions and attacks. The gender issue can take a backseat to the more pressing problem of whether people are reading at all.
Nonetheless, a large share of the most hyped events revolved around male authors, including notably a few foreign authors such as French writer Daniel Pennac. The Italian weekly L’Espresso published a list of the fair’s top “gets,” and while women nabbed four of those spots (not too shabby, as these lists go), Italian female authors (including, admirably, again Parrella, an up-and-coming author from the Naples area) had to divide these four slots with two foreign women authors
(Hard to say if female writers fared better in a preview of the fair published on Mondadori’s website which relegated women largely to a category called the Feminine Universe.
Concern for the second sex’s potential, not surprisingly, emerged prominently in an event on Ferrante’s global juggernaut. The event’s panel featured Italian and American writers and critics, including moderator Loredana Lipperini, a journalist and author, who noted that while it’s common to talk about gender in other parts of the world, it’s not the case in Italy. You can try, she said—but nothing doing. Indeed, she noted that an author like novelist Elsa Morante, now commonly considered one of the greats of Italian 20th-century literature, was slammed initially by critics for “sentimentalismo.”
Perhaps this is because, as one of the panelists noted, the male view weighs heavily on women writers in Italy. Indeed, books that are recognized as having “universal” themes are often really books with a male point of view, noted Tiziana De Rogatis, a professor at the Universita’ per Stranieri in Siena.
Ferrante’s books, however, are helping to change that paradigm, she told the packed room. The story of Elena and Lila from Ferrante’s Neapolitan series can be read, she said, as a story of two women in search of emancipation (perhaps this is why the author has become so beloved among women readers in particular).
That’s a sea change but one that, unfortunately, is proceeding at a much slower pace in Italy, De Rogatis told me in an interview after the panel.
“There’s still the literary and academic caste systems,” which are overwhelmingly male, she said, using an Italian word—“casta”—that is typically applied to a generation of Italian politicians (mainly men) who seem to manage lifetime appointments to elected positions while living large on the public tab.
Of course, there are many important Italian women authors working today—including she said, Alessandra Sarchi, author of the novel La Notte Ha La Mia Voce, (Nighttime Speaks in My Voice) published by Einaudi earlier this year and Varvello, mentioned above, the author of the suspenseful 2016 novel La Vita Felice (A Happy Life). But, she intoned, they are less visible.
Glancing at the books and the event roster at the Turin book fair, I certainly sensed this. As I perused the stands, I often found giant displays for male authors or an exceptionally large number of books by men on the tables for sale.
There were, of course, exceptions. The conference track dedicated to translation was full of women authors (and their translators, who were often also women). Newton Compton’s stand seemed to be absolutely brimming with books by women authors but many of the books are light romance novels or mysteries, a genre where women have been allowed to operate for some time. On the other end of the spectrum, Marcos y Marcos, a very fine publisher of among other things poetry collections, also had many books on hand by female writers including the poet Chandra Livia Candiani, and small publishers like Minimum Fax and Neri Pozza, too. But they do not command the authority or influence (or responsibilities) that the larger publishers have. (It goes without saying that Ferrante’s Italian and English-language publishers, E/o and Europa Editions, respectively, had a slew of books by women).
There were also discussions and events featuring women, including an event focusing on emerging writers that gave five up-and-coming women writers a great spotlight. And Laura Pugno, the author of La Ragazza Selvaggia and an important emerging voice in literary fiction, was featured in an hour-long interview in the “Caffe Letterario” space.
So, sure: women’s books were always present and women appeared frequently at author events and as panelists (and of course especially as moderators—a slot often relegated to women authors). Parrella’s appearance, for one, was a sought-out event at the fair.
But that’s part of the problem. Women are, of course included, just about everywhere these days in all kinds of fields previously occupied exclusively by men. But are they prominent? Do they have equal representation? Tokenism frequently masks deeper problems. Had Hillary Clinton won last year’s presidential election in America, the country would still have been centuries—plural—away from achieving gender parity in elected offices.
Of course, I am not so myopic that I fail to recognize the progress already under way. Authors like Ferrante are already changing the landscape and someone with a longer perspective than me would be quick to recognize that trends are headed in the right direction. Indeed, when I put the question to Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions, which publishes the English translations of Ferrante’s books, he, too, called the shift already underway a sea change, and one that’s visible in how new Italian female authors like Parrella and Silvia Avallone, author of the novel Swimming to Elba, have been received. He also noted how critics are finally re-evaluating Elsa Morante, who has had a big influence on Ferrante.
Writing about the lack of women in a particular field or the tendency to marginalize females is a tricky endeavor (I’d say especially for a female writer such as myself). Much of what happens is actually blameless. We all gravitate to other people who are similar to us in certain situations. So it’s not so odd that a male editor would champion male authors or that a male book critic would promote titles by men. Indeed, many of the people doing the marginalizing don’t realize it—it’s a man’s world even for men of the younger generation who never sought out such disparity and who may not even want to exploit a system that puts them at such an advantage. Often the people who push women aside or simply ignore them in public life are people we know and love—indeed, sometimes they are themselves women!
And of course the market often reflects genuine consumer desire. In Italy, male authors like Andrea Camilleri and Paolo Giordano and Niccolò Ammaniti who appear on those pesky best-of lists that I mentioned sell books, win prizes and see their work translated into foreign languages because they are working at the top of their game.
But as I left Turin after the Salone del Libro, I couldn’t help but linger in front of the bookstore at the train station. The window display featured the faces of five writers, including Pennac, the French writer who was one of the stars of the Salone. Of those five authors, only one was a woman.
In other words, women were visibly present—and there were other books by women in the window—but not the stars. Never the stars.
That leaves us with an inequity. And in my experience, you can ignore an inequity for only so long before it comes a gaping, nagging, nasty injustice.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s something else that Luigi Spagnol wrote in his column last October for Il Libraio: “Even now that women have won the right to create art and express their vision of the world with a freedom heretofore unseen, we males decline the opportunity to enrich our cultural horizons, to nourish our inner selves because we don’t consider the art created by women. Doesn’t it merit our attention?” Si, si, Luigi—it does.