The writing life has always been a risky business. Writers have dodged kings and popes, tyrants and megalomaniacs. But for female writers, the cruelest judge of all has often been society. Society has been quick to criticize ambitious women, a tendency Charlotte Brontë challenged in her work, including in her masterpiece Jane Eyre. It also ostracized those who dared to enter relationships outside marriage, as George Eliot found when she lived as the unmarried partner of George Lewes. Among the various tools in their arsenal of self-protection, writers have historically relied on the ability to write under a different name. Like Eliot, the Brontë sisters famously wrote as men, because, as Charlotte ultimately explained, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
But this trusted tool of writers—the pseudonym—may now have become unreliable. In the era of Google and Facebook, it’s extraordinarily difficult for public figures to hide from scrutiny or, in the case of authors like the Italian novelist who publishes as Elena Ferrante, to keep their true identities a secret. Ferrante built her career around an imagined and assumed name, and her publisher assisted her in maintaining the veil of pseudonymity. But, as is now well known, she was “outed” in October by an Italian journalist, Claudio Gatti, who published his findings in four venues, in four different languages, around the world. Perhaps to his own surprise, his revelations generated a great deal of acrimony. He has been accused of everything from violating privacy to instigating a form of virtual sexual assault.