“Ferrante Fever” – based on literary merit or hype?

I don’t know why but I am in an inquisitive mood these days – again I would like to ask my readers for an opinion or a feed-back.

The author “Elena Ferrante” is on the Man Booker International Longlist this year, which some of my blogger colleagues cover in detail. Check their reviews out, there are some great books on the list again.

Maybe it is just me, but I am a bit allergic against authors that are subject of a media hype. I am not inclined to read any books by Knausgard or Houellebecq any time soon, and I am afraid that the same goes for Ferrante, who keeps her/his identity a secret – thus creating an even bigger interest in her/him (gossip of usually well-informed insiders hints at a male author behind the pseudonym, which would render most comments about her feminism and background rather ridiculous; indeed a lot of the reviews focus on the personality of the author – about which we know absolutely nothing for sure, except for those bits we are told to believe, something I find highly problematic. Media shyness of the author or very clever marketing?). 

I cannot say anything about the quality of the Ferrante books so far – as you see from my previous remarks, I am until now immune against the “Ferrante Fever”. I am not a friend of such deliberate obfuscations, and will read these books probably a bit later, when the hype has a bit calmed down and I don’t have the impression to be subject of a media campaign and collective frenzy.

Now I have a question for you, dear readers: 

Did you read recently anything by “Elena Ferrante”? Is she(?) really as brilliant as almost everyone tells me or is this article in Commentary closer to the truth?

What is your opinion?

And, if you like, another question:

How do you approach “hyped” authors (like Knausgard or Houellebecq)? How do you prevent yourself from being influenced in your judgement regarding the literary merits of their books by the noise of the media around such authors?

Looking forward to your opinions!

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21 thoughts on ““Ferrante Fever” – based on literary merit or hype?

  1. Lizzy Siddal

    The article is a bit harsh, but not without its truths. Having read, enjoyed, and reviewed the quartet, I can say I was mesmerised by My Brilliant Friend, stayed that way during The Story of a New Name, started asking questions of the writing in Those Who Stay .. and thoroughly enjoyed The Story of the Lost Child.

    I’ve yet to find a male affected by #ferrantefever and that’s because 1500 pages from a purely female perspective would be hard to take. Even I found it hard, particularly as the protagonist, Elena, sank in my estimation as the story progressed.

    There’s more to it than the story of a female friendship/antagonism. As a social history piece, it is illuminating.

    I don’t accept that the translation is flat and stale. It reads well, but not in the places , where I suspect the original is flat and stale, and I’m thinking about the interminable political/feminist passages included in book 3. The quartet would have benefited from a good edit. But once an author becomes so famous ….

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thank you, Lizzy – very interesting points! Right now I am reading a work written from a purely feminine perspective and enjoy it a lot because it is so well written – and a lot shorter than 1500 pages! One of the reasons I raised this question is to see a bit more clearly if it is really worth it to devote quite a lot of time to the series; I am sure that in the end my curiosity will be too strong to resist reading Ferrante. But in the moment these books are not a top priority for me.

      Reply
  2. Joseph Schreiber

    You know Thomas, I cannot offer you my assessment of Knausgaard, Ferrante or Houllebecq because I have not read any of them. Well no, that’s not quite right. Last year when I was part of the IFFP shadow jury I gave Knausgaard the college try, got about 100 pages in and figured that was enough, thank you. I am at the age where the “life is short” measure comes into play. I am also at the age where I do not feel I must read what everyone else is reading, “just because”, nor will I apologize for my own idiosyncratic reading tastes. With both Ferrante and Houllebecq I am not opposed to trying one of their earlier works but, then again, I don’t feel any pressing need to do so. And I am glad that I am not participating in the shadow jury this year so I can maintain my Neapolitan novel-free status.

    What I find interesting is how defensive fans of one of these “hyped” authors become when I dare to admit that I have little interest in their work, or worse, dislike or feel decidedly underwhelmed by the prevailing winds of praise. I have recently experienced this with my ambivalent reaction to The Vegetarian. I didn’t hate it but I find it difficult to understand the excitement. It is, for me, an uneven work. Then again, with any of these authors I do not begrudge anyone who does like them – I am quite content to accept that they may not be for me. And that’s okay. I am almost relieved when I encounter literature that does not call to me (especially the multi-volume variety) because there is no shortage of books calling my name as it is!

    Don’t know if that helps.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Oh, I know so well what you mean, Joseph! I don’t want to put anyone off reading Ferrante or any other well-advertised author, but I try not to be influenced too much by the media. In general my preferences are a bit more on the side of older books which have stood the test of time, or books which don’t get much media attention because they are for example translated from some “exotic” language, or published by a small publisher. So many interesting works to discover in that field!

      Reply
  3. Anthony

    In Ferrante’s case, I read The Days of Abandonment and thought it a decent enough novel, of no particular merit and with a distinctive style. I’ve no urge to read further. From what I can see the ‘Ferrante Fever’ is a well executed viral marketing campaign. In the case of Knausgard, I read th first one and thought it a poor novel with one or two well done set pieces. Time may prove me wrong but I’d be stunned if either writer were still being discussed in ten years time.

    I loosely try to follow DG Myers’ 10-year rule as a way of avoiding all the storm and fury of a well funded and initiated marketing campaign. It is rare that I read a writer that hasn’t stood the test of time and find myself surprised by brilliance. Quignard & Espedal are examples of why I only loosely follow the rule. To have delayed reading their work would have made my life less rich.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      I was not aware of Myers’ 10-year rule, but I follow a very similar approach as you do – media campaign stars have to wait a few years usually but exceptions are always possible. Reading should be fun and not a subject of too many strict rules. Thanks for your comment, Anthony!

      Reply
  4. Another Elena

    See March 12 article (and latest update) in Slate, “Elena Ferrante’s Identity Revealed? This Italian Newspaper Thinks It Has the Answer” at: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/03/12/elena_ferrante_s_identity_revealed_author_is_marcella_marmo_claims_italian.html

    Just as an FYI, I haven’t read Ferrante’s books, but only because they don’t sound at all appealing (I’m a woman, BTW). But it seems to me that avoiding hyped books is being just as “influenced by the media” as reading them. If you’re reacting either way to what chatterers or media say, or you’re waiting x number of years before reading a book, you’re still letting yourself be manipulated/ controlled by other people. Hey, if a book sounds interesting to you, take a look; if it doesn’t, move on.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Ha, let’s see if this information is indeed correct! Very reasonable approach regarding how to deal with hyped books. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Elena!

      Reply
  5. Krisi

    Usually we chose the book by the attractive cover of the book and by the little announcement on the back, which seems to be very interesting. We put gently our hands on it and start reading. The story in the book drives us so deep in a wonderful world full of emotions, touching something known and so close to us. Slowly we are getting involved deeply and going to the bottom of unexplored feelings. But in a shadow is waiting the end. Oh is this the end we asked? It could be more happy. When I was small child I always wanted to rewrite the stories with happy end. So we leave the book somewhere saying : “One day I will read it again …soon”. So the book remains forgotten in dark place covered by dust waiting for soon. One beautiful day we remember it again. We take it tenderly now and start reading again in details trying to understand everything what has touched us in this book. It is the real life how it is. This time we love the book not only like, because its real. Then we want to know who is the author.
    Excuse me for the mistakes Thomas. I had difficulties expressing in English.

    Reply
  6. Scott W.

    I’ve been wanting to write about these books for some time, but have yet to pull together a coherent post. To answer Lizzy’s assertion that she hasn’t found a male reader with “Ferrante fever,” I’ll just say that – though I have some issues with Ferrante, such as her lack of humor – I’m a male reader and I think very highly of these books (and of course I’m not alone, as the dozens of blurbs on the books’ cover attest). I don’t quite understand simply not reading something because it’s “hyped.” That smacks of Schoenberg’s simplistic formula that what is art is not popular and what is popular is not art, an assertion increasingly difficult to substantiate in a world where high and low are so mixed and in so many creative ways. But I think there’s something very curious going on with these books. Their popularity – at least here in the U.S. – is staggering for “literature,” and yet the reviews have focused on things like Ferrante’s identity and the “friendship” between the two women at the heart of the novels, but have seemed largely to overlook their Neapolitan context and, especially, their literary context. Readers quick to dismiss the books as “popular” might want to consider one of Ferrante’s acknowledged influences, Elsa Morante, who intentionally sought a popular audience (including by insisting that her novel History be first released as a mass-market paperback), or might question whether Ferrante is following the dictum of the practitioners of the New Italian Epic, such as the collective Wu Ming, who urge anonymity as a means of focusing on the work itself.

    Also, though I think the debate over whether Ferrante is a woman or a man is as absurd as that over whether Shakespeare’s works were really Shakespeare’s, I take issue with the idea that if the author were a man that would somehow “render comments about her feminism…ridiculous.” The novels are unquestionably feminist in and of themselves.

    But sure, take D. G. Myers’ advice, wait for ten years, whatever. But I don’t think one always writes novels solely so that they will stand the test of time – at least I hope that’s not the primary motivation of an author – and Ferrante fairly shouts her activist, political intent (not that many people are listening). I suspect that, for the realist depiction of the horrors of contemporary Camorrist Naples alone, and particularly as they have affected women, these books will be looked to in the future. But in the present, they offer an enormous panorama – not primarily of Naples or of Italy – but, as regards the lives of many women around the world (and quite a few men), of “The Way We Live Now.”

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thank you, Scott – I find your remarks about the Neapolitan context extremely interesting and you are for sure right that the majority of reviews should focus more on the literary merits of and context/influences of the book instead of marginal issues like who Ferrante is or to see it exclusively as a work that writes about the friendship between two women.

      As for the popularity aspect: I am not a snob (I hope) and I enjoy many books that are very popular with a large part of the reading audience. (I understand the Schoenberg quote a bit differently, but that is maybe not of interest in this context.) As I said in the comments, I don’t want to put anyone off reading Ferrante, but me personally I am tired of this media “overkill” in the case of Ferrante and a few others. And that I am at least a bit sceptical I think is not surprising – most of the authors I read in the past that were promoted in a similarly (to me) annoying way proved to be not very remarkable. I am giving Ferrante the privilege of the doubt, but I will read these books when it is a little bit less noisy in the media.

      As for the feminism: I haven’t read the books and don’t know how feminist they really are. But as you see, I was not talking about the books itself but about the perception and reviews of the books. And I am sorry, for me the majority of reviews are simply absurd when they are referring to Ferrante’s life and experiences about which no one knows anything, except for what we are told to believe and which may or maybe not true. (I could share a similar case when the whole back-up story of a similarly mysterious author was completely made up – I am not saying that it needs to be like this in Ferrante’s case, but please forgive my being a bit suspicious here.)

      That the author choose to be anonymous – fine. But one has to be either very naive or very cunning not to know that as a result, this author will receive a strongly increased media attention – all these reports about the newest research on who the author really is, etc. This is how media works in the 21st century, and I guess Ferrante, her agent and her publisher(s) are very well aware of these mechanisms which work very well to sell the books. As a result we have very few reviews regarding the literary merits of the books, and a lot about aspects in which serious readers are absolutely not interested.

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        I completely agree that the marketing and media frenzy around the books has been “overkill.” But there’s another interesting strategy posed by the New Italian Epic writers (I would love to know what its proponents think of Ferrante’s books, and whether she herself – who clearly borrows from their manifesto – sees herself working that vein): that of using every possible means to provoke a reaction, including a popular sensibility aimed at creating a sort of destabilized text that forces readers to wrestle with it, that makes it an “unidentified narrative object.” Does that ever seem to have happened with this one! This brings me to agreement with another of your points, about readers “referring to Ferrante and her life experiences about which no one knows anything.” What I meant to convey in my earlier comment was that the feminism is thematic, not that it’s rooted in some autobiographical “honesty,” which we can’t know without Ferrante’s confirming that for us. I too can think of a few authors who made everything up – an American novel entitled Famous All Over Town, by a “Danny Santiago,” won praise for being an honest depiction of Chicano life before its author was revealed to be Caucasian. But I don’t think something like that necessarily invalidates the content of the work (though it may certainly invalidate the credibility of the author…).

        But it really is startling how many readers seem to latch on to Ferrante’s Neapolitan books as though they’re simply autobiography. Even worse, many appear to confound the narrator of the novels with their author, without seeing Elena (the narrator) as a fictional invention. That some readers are disappointed in Elena (as Lizzy Siddal puts it above, she “sank in my estimation”) makes sense, and reflects an authorial decision. Elena is a terribly unreliable narrator. And when some who’ve criticized the books say, “But look at Ferrante’s banal language” and then relate a line of dialogue from Elena as proof, they’re again confusing the narrator with the author.

        Anyway, I’m glad you’ve raised this questions about the books. Skepticism is not only healthy but also essential.

        Reply
        1. admin Post author

          Thank you, Scott – another very valuable comment! I have enjoyed the feed-back of all of you so far; these are all valid points you mentioned in your two comments and I will keep them in mind once I will tackle the Ferrante books.

          Reply
  7. Another Elena

    And did you spot this in the NYT yesterday? http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/14/books/who-is-elena-ferrante-an-educated-guess-causes-a-stir.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

    “Elena Ferrante”, whoever s/he may be, has played the Internet like a viol…no, a mandolin. Well done!

    Nevertheless, if you’re not in the mood for what has turned out to be EF’s netpop chick-bait, how about something literary? You might try Nobel-Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s “Die Liebhaberinnen”, a novel about women’s experience of work, friendship love, and romance, translated into English as “Women as Lovers” by the very capable Martin Chalmers.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for the link, Elena – from the point of view of the marketing department of Ferrante’s publishers this kind of articles are just perfect: unpaid ads 😉 And it will go on like this for years, I suppose… I just wished that all those authors who are less clever in exploiting the media but who produce great literature would receive a fraction of this attention!
      Jelinek: on my list!

      Reply
  8. Gert Loveday

    I’ve read the first 3 Ferrante, liked the first, thought the next two weren’t so good and couldn’t be bothered with the fourth- particularly as, like you, I tend to react against hype. I think Ferrante is quite a good middle-range author, perhaps the Italian equivalent of the British “Aga” school, but certainly not a great writer. I’ve given up on the Booker as an indication for that, in any case. I think a lot of readers like books that feel like films, or as if they could be films, and I bet the Ferrante ones will be. I have recently read Magda Szabo’s “Iza’s Ballad” after loving “The Door”, and she just blows Ferrante out of the water.

    As for Karl Ove, we read the first four. Again, I don’t think he’s a great writer and there are many longueurs, but there was something weirdly compelling about them. The fourth bored and annoyed both of us, but one of the Gerts is saddling up to try to read vol 5 (600 + pages). Will she finish it? Who knows?

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks, Gert – I always feel a bit sad when I see that a few authors get almost all the media attention, and many others (who might be really brilliant) go almost unnoticed.
      There is also something else which you mentioned: the length of such books/series. When you get older it seems that you are also getting a bit more careful with what to spend your time. Should I really read the whole Knausgard series with the terrible title that permanently annoys me, or isn’t it better to re-read Proust (again)? Should I follow the crowd and read the Ferrante quartet, or would I make better use of my time to finally tackle Thomas Mann’s Joseph novel(s)?

      Reply
    2. admin Post author

      Thanks, Gert – I am still reluctant regarding Ferrante and Karl Ove. Somehow Ferrante seems to be the probably more appealing author to me from what I have read so far. Maybe I will start with it this summer and see how it goes…

      Reply

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