The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism
by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards
Columbia University Press
Published January 2020
If I were a participant in The Ferrante Letters, I would open with an anecdote.
Last night I watched Pasolini’s 1961 film Accattone, an unrelentingly grim portrait of Rome’s down-and-outs. In a world of lazy pimps and wretched women, where violence is mundane, the keenest thugs hail from Naples. ‘Don’t take us for Italians, we Neapolitans are special,’ says a bruiser to a sad-eyed streetwalker, before beating her close to death to make some forgotten point about loyalty and betrayal.
This would lead into my take on violence and class and ethnicity in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: of how rarely we see violent male worlds through women’s eyes, not least those women who drag themselves out of the muck.
Perhaps at some point I’d zoom out to paint my own sad portrait. Here I am in my highly flammable dressing gown, making coffee with the $7.50 kettle I bought from K-Mart, before I sit down each morning and struggle to write. I’d describe the flimsy plastic, the utilitarian shape, the dull click of the switch. Hopefully I’ve made clear that this is a kettle that isn’t made with futurity in mind: it is a daily reminder of uncertainty and impermanence and turpitude. Here comes the meta-commentary on trying to think critically about criticism, a centripetal circle-jerk, while the world around you implodes. Would I eventually confess to you that I bought this kettle after the Russell Hobbs Heritage Vogue was repossessed by the son of a real estate agent who inherited his father’s proprietary bent, and if I did confess this, then what would be my motivation? To signal I had already spent too much of the year thinking about the violence of men before I began thinking about Ferrante, or Pasolini, or a collective of female scholars writing back against the masculinist rhetoric of the academy? Does my confession carry any weight when on the news the bodies keep piling up and the fascists create louder diversions and I don’t want to create false equivalencies because one violence cannot be exchanged for another but in the perpetual scroll they’re all beginning to blur?
Why would I tell you any of this? Does stripping bare the scene of criticism add anything of value to the text we appraise? Am I telling you that perhaps, in my sorry state, unable to distinguish here from there, my ideas can’t be trusted? Am I explaining why I sound like a person who has lost faith? Or am I hereby solemnly rejecting a notion of public criticism that pretends to be bodiless: without a race or a gender or a weary heart?
Dear Reader, I’ve barely begun and already I’m exhausting us both.
In the summer of 2015, North American literary scholars Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Jill Richards and Katherine Hill conducted what they term ‘an experiment in collective criticism’. Each month they would each read an instalment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Each month they would each pen their ‘brilliant friends’ letters on the subject, which would be published in the online academic journal Post45. The project is framed as a rejection of the academy’s individualistic and rigid metrics of success, yet it also emerges from such a paradigm. These are ambitious young scholars who want to remain productive during their precious student-free months of European vacations and languid heat. That their correspondence has been republished as a print artefact by Columbia University Press confirms its seriousness.
Like many forms of life writing, the letter is a feminised genre: intimate and personal, written hastily without revision, the work of the amateur rather than the professional. Yet the letter occupies a nexus between the public and private, for its writer engages in a kind of performance of the self for another – an interplay key to the letter as literary device, in the tradition of epistolary novels stretching back to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), or, more recently, the autofictional billet-doux in Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick (1997). The public letter can also be a powerful rhetorical strategy, epitomised by James Baldwin’s 1963 essay-as-letter ‘My Dungeon Shook’, addressed to his nephew, and reappropriated by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015) to similarly striking effect.
Apart from the aforementioned deadlines, the Ferrante Letter-ers set no rules as to what their missives should contain: ‘It could be a confession, a character study, or a series of close readings, though they all began with acts of address’. The epistolary address belies the fact that their correspondence is written with a public audience and instantaneous online publication in mind, allowing the project to garner more critical momentum than possible in the prolonged publishing schedules of print academic journals and, unfurling over several months, allowing for more fluidity of thinking. Rather than pretending the scholar’s ideas originate in the mind of the singular genius (who surveys then discredits the field), they want to show how ‘the intimate labor of conversation’ – between colleagues, students, friends – forms part of the work of scholarship: ‘Our goal was to formalize the texture of togetherness to show that this, as much as putting one word next to another, is the labor of writing.’
To call The Ferrante Letters an experiment in collectivity summons the term’s feminist and Marxist spectres. Collective criticism suggests working cooperatively towards the good of the discipline, rather than the reputation of the individual; a criticism that is non-hierarchical and democratic, with the utopian inclusivity of feminist consciousness-raising circles; a criticism that is dialogic, open-ended and non-combative. Such a criticism is antithetical to the traditional image of the public critic as man apart, delivering his proclamations on art’s worth from on high. It is further an anathema to the individualism of the neoliberal university, which demands a Fordian research output of perpetual growth; where collegiality is forsaken for pugilism in an intellectual Battle Royale. It also suggests a project more politicised than The Ferrante Letters turns out to be.
Collectivity here does not equal collaboration. Unlike the fable The Blue Fairy penned by Lenù and Lila in My Brilliant Friend (2012), this is not an exercise in co-writing. The participants reject the ‘we’ model of collaboration, suggesting the shared voice presents structural limitations:
Collective criticism… is more accommodating of our discontinuous styles, our individual habits of thought and feeling. The letters invited many forms of expression that fell between the personal and the professional – conversation, anecdote, autobiography, confession – knowing that even the slightest hint of the personal can court disdain and disapproval.
Yet I wonder what is added to our collective understanding of Ferrante’s work by this semblance of self-disclosure, which in fact reveals nothing much about its authors at all. That they vacation in the summer. That flus sometimes render them recumbent. That these scholars, like readers across the world, fell prey to what canny marketers dubbed ‘Ferrante fever’. That they find themselves reading for pleasure, quelle horreur!
The Ferrante Letters fulfils the scientific notion of experimentation, following principles to test a hypothesis. The experiment doesn’t generate experimental writing, however, especially when compared with critical work by North American writers who regularly publish outside of academic spaces and mainstream periodicals (think Chris Kraus, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eileen Myles, Hilton Als). These letters may refuse the methodological stringency of academic literary criticism, but beyond some epistolary scaffolding (an addressee, a conversational tone, questions answered or posed) they are largely close textual analyses performed by astute readers with comp lit bona fides and early-career positions at Yale, Princeton and Oxford.
It’s unfair to ask these scholars for naked bodies writing at the desk. But to venture into a form as intimate as the letter suggests an element of risk, some vulnerability. The correspondents may tentatively question the kinds of knowledge and writing the university valorises but ultimately pull their punches, neither criticising institutional thinking explicitly nor puncturing their own professional identities. The experiment’s stakes are low, bar the prospect most terrifying to academics ordained by defending their theses in a public show of intellectual fisticuffs: the possibility that, in posting out thoughts under-researched or half-formed, that they could be wrong.
The Ferrante Letters is written with the voice of the scholarly super-ego still booming in its authors’ heads.
In 1987, Jane Tompkins articulated a sensation of split subjectivity as a scholarly writer. ‘There are two voices inside me,’ she writes.
One is the voice of a critic who wants to correct a mistake in the essay’s view of epistemology. The other is the voice of a person who wants to write about her feelings. (I have wanted to do this for a long time but have felt too embarrassed.)
The tension Tompkins expresses is one that stretches back to Descartes’ mind/body dualism, the divide between the thinking and feeling subject, which cleaves the masculine mind from the demands of the feminine corporeal body. ‘If we think the mind-body split through the body,’ writes Jane Gallop,‘it becomes an image of shocking violence’. For Tompkins, Western epistemology’s desire to jettison emotion from knowledge is another of theory’s ‘patriarchal gestures’:
Because women in our culture are not simply encouraged but required to be the bearers of emotion, which men are culturally conditioned to repress, an epistemology which excludes emotions from the process of attaining knowledge radically undercuts women’s epistemic authority.
The style of Tompkins’ essay attempts to bridge such a rift, introducing emotion and anecdote into the realms of theoretical discourse, in what became known as ‘personal criticism’.
Sensations of splintering are frequently expressed by thinkers whose writing teeters between essayistic and academic modes: say, Cixous’ écriture féminine, or Roland Barthes’ later work, where he described the stylistic laceration suffered by the writer who moves between academic and literary spheres as ‘the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages’. In Australia, such split subjectivity was also expressed by proponents of fictocriticism – which Amanda Nettelbeck defined as ‘hybridized writing that moves between the poles of fiction (‘invention’/ ‘speculation’) and criticism (‘deduction’/‘explication’), of subjectivity (‘interiority’) and objectivity (‘exteriority’)’ – working primarily in feminist and postcolonial studies.
The ability to put one’s body aside in order to think is of course a privilege that has only been bestowed to those whose bodies are cloaked under guises of neutrality and universality. Hence to acknowledge the body, much like anything coded feminine, is to be in excess of scholarly discourse: a sign of unseriousness; a lack of rigour, discipline, control.
In its various iterations, however, such interstitial writing comes up against a similar problem: that what feels transgressive for those usually bound by scholarly strictures can feel staid to writers and readers in the world beyond l’académie. What is considered experimental in academic prose often looks much like an essay, with its openness to anecdote, digression and conversational style. What feels like a radical disclosure for some academics can feel frivolous to readers. When Tompkins reveals the thinking and feeling subject, she is sitting at her desk in warm socks (or, indeed, a flammable dressing gown).
Those critical writers who refuse the academy’s terms of engagement entirely are met with predictable accusations. I always think of that scene near the start of I Love Dick (1997), Chris Kraus’ manifesto for the amateur, where the protagonist Chris gets a seat at the table with tenured men:
Over dinner the two men discuss recent trends in postmodern critical theory and Chris, who is no intellectual, notices Dick making continual eye contact with her… Because she does not express herself in theoretical language, no one expects too much from her and she is used to tripping out on layers of complexity in total silence.
In Bookforum, David Rimanelli memorably ordained I Love Dick a book ‘not so much written as secreted’.
I want to situate The Ferrante Letters within this fractured critical resistance, but while its authors nod to such feminist praxes the project feels divested of past works’ political and/or aesthetic risk-taking.
There’s a scene in Merve Emre’s letter on The Story of a New Name (2013), the second instalment in the franchise, that sums up what troubles me about The Ferrante Letters. She describes an overheard conversation about Ferrante between ‘two older women with light purple hair and excellent posture’:
“I couldn’t stop reading,” one confessed to the other… Her friend nodded and murmured, “Such drama in this one. Such drama.”
Emre’s patronising description of ‘ladies who lunch’, bewitched by character machinations and plot twists, encapsulates a strange dialectic established between the Ivy League scholar and the everyday reader:
We – me, you three, others like us – have been well trained to sniff out the bread crumbs of radical feminist thought that Ferrante has scattered throughout her novels. But those violet haired ladies at lunch? I think they’re just in it for the drama; the sheer thrill.
This assessment reverberates with the disdain reserved for the fangirl who, overcome by ‘the sheer thrill’ of cultural consumption, faints before her idol.
Throughout the scholars’ correspondence, however, they express surprise that readers as sophisticated as themselves could fall under the same spell as the book-buying masses. Emre loses herself in the final book, The Story of the Lost Child (2015), which she consumes in one sitting: ‘I forgot to eat. I forgot to go to the bathroom. I repositioned myself once, to cry briefly, noisily, and then again to solider on to the last page.’ Hill describes ‘devour[ing] these books… the way I remember devouring books as a kid’ and, later, goes on a literary pilgrimage to Naples and Ischia trying to find the real locations of Ferrante’s fiction. Like the ‘ladies who lunch’, the scholars too weigh up the merits of Lila and Lenù’s various suitors, and self-identify as Lilas or Lenùs. Richards confesses to an overidentification with characters: ‘while reading, I imagine myself being them, in every case’.
I use the term ‘confess’ deliberately, for in every instance the scholars express shame about indulging in such feminised readerly practices. Richards writes, ‘This is all somewhat embarrassing to admit. It is certainly not a very professional mode of reader response that I’m describing’. Chihaya, in the book’s most personal disclosure, writes that
I’ve come to realize (nonacademically, with not a little critical shame) that for me, the centrality of Lila’s disappearance is the idea in these books that I keep writing back to in my posts, because a longing for utter erasure is my point of origin as well.
This oblique allusion to yearning for death, a painfully common desire, is the closest we get to vulnerability.
Don’t get me wrong: astute criticism flourishes in these pages, and there is pleasure to be found in seeing these scholars’ arguments develop slowly, in dialogue with others. Chihaya presents fascinating readings of literary geography by comparing Ferrante and Sebald; Emre performs masterful dissections of Ferrante’s prose style, showing how her prosody builds into ‘language that is vivid, everyday, and yet still enchanted’. And at times, the personal letter does proffer opportunities for novel angles that may not have emerged in other forms of critical writing: the scholars’ emergent friendships feed into a discussion of how friends, like lovers, can be fantastical projections; childhood recollections into how anger is sometimes a motivating force in our lives; and the experience of pregnancy into Ferrante as a writer of motherhood and family dynamics. But the persuasiveness of these scholars’ analyses shores up the insincerity of the epistolary padding surrounding it. Kudos to them if reading for pleasure is the depth of their indignity, but one suspects there is a messier self that exists beyond the page.
At one point Richards describes the private emails that the quartet have been sending around their public letters:
If ‘The Slow Burn’ is a companion to the Neapolitan cycle, I like to think of the email threads scheduling these posts as another literary form altogether, a companion to the companion, a spiderweb of dumb GIFs, summer schedules, revolving encouragements, friendship, trauma, care.
Like Lila’s missing notebooks in the Neapolitan novels, this seems to be the shadow text that haunts The Ferrante Letters: the correspondence relegated to marginalia where true intimacy – and its attendant risks – is actually occurring. Perhaps in these emails the performative declarations of mutual affection, promising ‘to treasure the traces we’ve left in each other, to keep each other from disappearing’, feel more earned.
I found myself yearning to read this shadow text instead, where the contributors allow the mask of the young professional to slip, instead of the safe and santitised selves that they construct for a public readership via anecdotes from literary tourism or bourgeois dinner parties. I think of the email correspondence between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker, collected in I’m Very Into You (2015). This textual flirtation is of course another kind of performance, but one that allows a more complex portrait of the writer/scholar to emerge over time. Wark writes to Acker
slipping between straight/gay is child’s play compared to slipping between writer/teacher/influence-peddler whatever. I forget who I am. You reminded me of who I prefer to be.
A guest letter sent in by a Post45 reader shows what might be possible within this form. Lili Loofbourow writes in under the guise of overidentification: ‘I’ve spent some of this summer searching for my own Lila’. What follows is the devastating story of Loofbourow’s sister who, before her suicide, erased all her documents, as Lila does at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend. Here the personal and the literary interleave in a way that elucidates each, offering writing that is generous, dangerous, beautiful – and honest.
The Ferrante letters are followed by extended essays penned once the online project was complete, allowing contributors to follow their experiment with more measured undertakings. Sarah Chichaya’s stands out for its complexity, framing the Neapolitan novels through the concept of ‘unforming’ (which she situates in relation to the psychoanalytic unpleasure and uncanny), a thorny thesis which itself threatens to unravel, yet holds to present a fresh way of thinking about the compulsive effect of Ferrante’s prose and the text’s bodily fascinations.
Emre, whose letters open with a tantalising focus on anger as a motivating force – how one might mobilise ‘an anger taught to control its tone’ – results in a profile of the director Saverio Costanzo, who adapted My Brilliant Friend for HBO. He describes the process of working with Ferrante as ‘like working with a ghost’. It takes a detour though when Emre secures an interview with Ferrante herself, who thwarts Emre’s expectations of communion: ‘She eludes me, she scolds me, ruins my pleasure in having written thoughtful questions.’
Others are less successful. The promising premise of Jill Richards’ ‘The Queer Counterfactual’, which attempts to (mis)read the novel’s lesbian subtexts, splits off into copious subplots that fail to cohere: the shame of a ‘naïve lesbian wistfulness overtaking my years of critical training’ splits into discussions of absent Neapolitan dialect and what is lost in translations; overattachment and queer reading; fetishism and slash fiction (a subgenre of fanfiction that imagines sexual trysts between characters); a student play that adapted The Ferrante Letters; and an extended metaphor about Pavlov’s dogs – the point of which, after several revisits, still bemuses me.
Katherine Hill’s ‘The Story of a Fiction’ is itself a kind of fanfiction, imagining herself into the role of Elena Ferrante’s confidante, to understand why the author chooses to remain anonymous. For Hill, Ferrante herself is a fictional character to whom she’s developed certain attachments: ‘she’s one of my Lilas: a sometimes-close, sometimes-distant friend and rival, who keeps winning by being smarter.’ While Hill presents some interesting observations on autobiographical fiction, the emerging novelist imagining a simpatico bond with the storied author can also feel like an ego exercise.
For the most part, the frisson of critical analysis has already been spent in the letters themselves.
Last weekend I lay on the couch in my new apartment and finished Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults. The north-facing window bathes my reading spot in spring sunshine and I have no need for polyester robes.
All the usual Ferrante tropes were there: education as a pathway to the middle-class, the poverella driven half-mad by her grief, the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. I was reminded why I’ve sometimes cleaved to Ferrante myself. Her feminism lies in her lack of dogma, in her refusal to say that women must be one thing or another. Whether impoverished or bourgeois, all her women suffer the same humiliations of heterosexuality, the middle-class just dress them up in finer clothes. Ferrante doesn’t create an intellectual or moral hierarchy between a Lenù and a Lila. Both sometimes willingly lay waste to feminism’s promises and betray one another, begging the Ninos in their lives for more.
In Ferrante’s Naples the university still offers some refuge for the Marxists and the writers, which seems like such a fantasy in Australia today. Who knows if the sessional staff the university has been exploiting for years will even get work next semester? It feels like the doors have officially closed on the next generation of scholars. It makes me wonder, why do we keep on writing in modes that please institutions that never really wanted us anyway?
The words of Maggie Nelson spring to mind, talking about the freedom that comes from accepting patriarchy’s rejection: ‘Perhaps this is one of the great gifts of being a feminist: you’re off the hook from all that crap. You know you don’t really and truly belong in the canon club, so you’re free to play.’ I wish The Ferrante Letters’ contributors had shaken off the shame imposed on the so-called confessional, and seen the possibility offered by the amateur, the dilettante, the autodidact, the fan.
Dear lunch ladies, come over for Kaffeeklatsch when this interminable lockdown ends. I have my own Russell Hobbs Heritage Vogue now.