Look at me / (don’t look at me) / Look at me / (don’t look at me) / Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t look at me don’t / look / (Look) / (Don’t look) / I can’t stand it if you don’t look / Look / Look / Please / Stop.
In this passage from Kate Zambreno’s 2011 novel Green Girl, a dynamic usually obscured from the project of female authorship is exposed. Zambreno’s story is of a young American woman who has drifted into thankless work in a London department store as a means of funding larger-scale ambitions to become a writer. Drawing upon lyric poetry, memoir, and internal conflict usually consigned to the ‘minor’ literary enterprises of the notebook or the diary, its prose simultaneously articulates a desire to cast off the burden of ‘being-looked-at-ness,’ and recognises cruder urges to be constituted by its mechanisms. Although these yearnings to be seen and to be implicated as the object of the gaze are not novel, it is rare to find strident textual examples of women who both do and do not want to be scrutinized. In a culture stained and saturated by fixation with the image, it is maybe rarer still for a female author – let alone one of her characters – to deliberately retreat from the panopticon of literary production altogether.
Elena Ferrante is one such rarity. In October 2016, however, the revelation of her ‘true’ identity by Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti revealed the precarity of her position, and questioned whether fiction can feasibly remain a safeguarded endeavour in an age of rampant self-disclosure. Gatti’s piece, published in English by the New York Review of Books, uncomfortably punctured our culture’s enduring fantasies about literature: the fantasy that stories can exist independently of their authors; the fantasy that women can produce dynastic, wildly successful books of a generation without the assumption that such oeuvres were in fact co-authored by their husbands. Perhaps most incisively, it exposed the fantasy that female artists are entitled to disintricate their work from their lived, material existence in the world, or can opt out of promoting their literary labour through their bodies.
In Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a collection of Ferrante’s letters, interviews, essays and other ephemera published in English for the first time last year by Europa Editions, the expectation that women authors make willing display of their corporeality in order to invest their texts with tactile and attractive charge is flatly acknowledged by the author, but also consistently subverted and denied. In the original letter to her publishers which is often cited as the primary Ferrante anonymity manifesto, and which opens Frantumaglia, she writes adamantly that ‘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.’ What subsequently makes up the collection, however, are the needy and abandoned cries of voracious interviewers and readers, calling on the author to reveal herself with intensifying force. As one reader, (who ironically chooses to remain anonymous) declares in a Q&A session originally broadcast on Italian radio, ‘The mystery that surrounds you doesn’t help me get a sense of you. I need the visual. I would need to see you.’
This plea isn’t without precedent. In 1973’s The Pleasure of The Text, Roland Barthes writes of the quasi-erotic craving for authorial intervention which subtends the reading act. In a sentence that heavily foreshadows Ferrante’s reader’s plaintive calling for an image, Barthes writes that ‘In the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure, as he needs mine.’ In Barthes’ seminal definition, this desire marks the discrete pleasures of the ‘readerly’ text, predicated upon yearnings for authorial presence and proximity, and upon the desire to know certain concrete truths furnished by the one who is writing through a tacitly established, but unimpeachable, agreed reading ‘contract.’ In contrast, the ‘writerly’ or, in French, scriptible text operates via deliberate chasms and lacunae, leaving blanks which are the reader’s job to fill and whose gradual, hard-won repletions result in an ultimately more satisfactory, if destabilizing, form of textual jouissance or ‘coming.’
The unprecedented pulling back of Ferrante’s veil of anonymity raises questions as to what other modes of visibility and invisibility are currently on offer to female authors. One the cover of the Autumn/Winter issue of the high-brow fashion magazine The Gentlewoman Zadie Smith, promoting her first novel in four years, Swing Time, appears in a silk teal trench coat and a rust-coloured headwrap. In her interview, Smith is described as wearing ‘red on her lips,’ ordering fish for lunch, and appearing with a small gold ‘Z’ necklace at her throat. Asking questions about child-care and about her taste in clothes and fashion, the interviewer seems − like countless others before her − dazzled by Smith’s manner of appearing in the world. In further glossy images which illustrate the interview, Smith’s figure is annotated as modelling white cotton shirts ‘by Céline,’ recalling adverts for the same fashion brand by Joan Didion, another writer elevated to the status of mythological intellectual style icon. Touching on the subject of female friendship during the interview – a prevalent theme in Swing Time – Smith’s closeness to her female friends is strikingly illustrated not through the telling of fond anecdotes, but through the admission that she sends ‘Net-A-Porter packages’ to her girlfriends on their birthdays every year. Given Net-A-Porter’s status as one of fashion’s bigger retailers and as a potent source of sponsoring for fashion publications, the namecheck feels both ominous and inevitable. It is a reminder – alongside the aspirational labels and exquisite clothes – that Smith’s cultural capital is being deployed here in the service of a broader, monetizable creation of a ‘lifestyle brand.’
Beauty, fame, and the complicated implications of self-fashioning (or self-branding) are not foreign topics to Smith; she has written about both extensively in works such as 2002’s The Autograph Man and the Orange-Prize winning On Beauty. In the latter, the main character Kiki Belsey states that ‘any woman who counts on her face is a fool.’ Smith has previously confronted the misogynist suggestion that her works have only garnered interest due to the precise proportions of her facial symmetry. Following the publication of White Teeth in 2000, Smith called the press’s readiness to reduce her success to her physical attributes a ‘sinister’ indication of the patriarchal motivations which continue to structure the publishing world. In the years following White Teeth, the excessive attention directed at her image seems to have caused her to shrink back from the limelight. In the early 2000s, she moved to Italy, where she worked almost entirely in isolation, and granted very few interviews. 2012’s NW, a novel detailing the claustrophobia of class in austerity-era Britain, was accompanied by minimal press fanfare and only one new headshot, despite Smith’s apparent awareness that, as a friend put it, ‘newspapers will give anything to print a picture of her face.’
In recent months, Smith seems to have conceded to the power of her image as a part of her allure. Earlier this year, having reportedly turned down persistent invitations in the past, she attended the annual publicity circus and fashion extravaganza that is popularly known as the Metropolitan Museum’s ‘Met Ball’ in New York, wearing shoes by Miu Miu and a dress by Delpozo. ‘I spent my twenties and thirties in a dark room writing,’ she explained to the digital fashion platform Refinery29. ‘Now I’m 40 I just thought: this year I’m going to put on a big outfit and go to a party.’
This loosening of previously rigid principles of authorial distance has been present throughout the promotion of Swing Time, for which Smith has given her face and interview not only to The Gentlewoman but also to Vanity Fair, Lenny, The New Yorker, and the New York Times’ Style magazine’s video ‘Icon’ series. Whilst sometimes uncomfortably engineered, the unease generated by this kind of media coverage feels part of the point; a conscious strategy deployed by Smith to definitively rupture the perception that a woman can’t be both beautiful and engaged with intellectual work, a double-bind about which she has previously spoken. Despite an ostensible degree of complicity, then, Smith’s insistence on her own visibility as a writer in recent weeks seems a productive modification of the tired either/or binary which impresses itself upon female artists’ cultural production and a position which perhaps endures as more realistic than what Ferrante herself describes as her ‘illusion of intangibility.’ If no subject can ever fully extricate themselves from the matrix of the marketplace and its packaging of female bodies, one might as well learn to infiltrate and call attention to the system from within.
In Frantumaglia, Ferrante asserts that the right to remain invisible is a feminist issue because writing itself is a deeply embodied practice: ‘In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body,’ she notes. In such a context, the author’s conscious withdrawal from the public eye becomes, as Frances Wilson has observed, a gesture of ‘self-care’, or of reassembling what the act of writing often forces to splinter. ‘When you’ve finished [a] book,’ Ferrante tells us, ‘it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.’ In the wake of such statements, Gatti’s crude, non-consensual investigations cannot fail to register as unacceptable, unwarranted violations, bloated with the tumescent arrogance of the ongoing patriarchal crusade against ‘women who lie’.
In the preface to her 2004 work, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler writes that ‘to be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanisms of its distributions, to find out who else suffers from impermeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession and fear, and in what ways.’ It is perhaps too early to infer whether Gatti’s violent penetration of the privacy upon which Ferrante has to date depended will result in such reflections, and inspire gestures out towards the ‘collective intelligence,’ which, as Ferrante notes, can be said to animate all of her work. Elaborating on her 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment, which relays a woman left by her husband and caring for their children alone, Ferrante suggests that the novel is ‘about,’ at heart ‘the violent end of the illusion of having a heavenly body, the discovery of one’s own dispensability and perishability.’
To feel oneself not looked at, to feel the decay of one’s status as a privileged object of consumption in the sexual marketplace, can engender its own modes of violent self-erasure, a point which even the aspirant-anonymous Ferrante is not too abstracted from the material world to observe. To insist on being seen – as Smith seems to have recently decided – can emphasise productive sociopolitical tensions, fighting off a fade-from-view that might seem otherwise inevitable with heightened modes of voluntary self-exposure.
Yet it is crucial to remember that being forced into the limelight of the external gaze is a different matter. In Butler’s words, ‘the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and violence.’ It is a stark indication of the times that Ferrante’s choice to decline the expectation to display her body has inspired even more vitriol – and successive violent acts of revelation – than if she had elected to exhibit it at all.
Images: Excerpts from The Dinner Table Series, Carrie Mae Weems, 1990