Elena Ferrante’s Right to a Pseudonym

The journalist who claimed to uncover the Italian novelist’s “true” identity violated a time-honored means of protecting creativity: copyright law.

Vladimir Gjorgiev / Africa Studio / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

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.

Nevertheless, for all the condemnation that Gatti has faced, he hasn’t been accused of the one crime of which he is probably guilty: violating the moral right of the author.

Moral rights are a part of copyright law. The entire discussion surrounding Ferrante, which has so captivated the media, fails to address copyright—something that is, from an author’s point of view, very important. Copyright came into being, long before Disney and Spotify, for the fundamental purpose of guaranteeing and protecting an author’s rights. In most countries—including Italy, home to both Ferrante and Gatti—copyright law protects an author’s right to be acknowledged as the creator of his or her own work. This right is known as a “moral” right, to contrast this special, non-economic prerogative of authors with the economic benefits of owning a work, which is usually acquired by a publisher, producer, entertainment company, or other corporate entity. The right to write under a pseudonym—to choose the name by which you actually want to be recognized—is widely accepted as intrinsic to the idea of “attribution.” If Ferrante were interested in taking Gatti to court for violating her moral right to write under a pseudonym, suing under Italy’s copyright law, she would probably have a good chance of success.

Curiously, the United States remains possibly the only country in the world not to recognize an author’s right to be named as the creator of his or her own work, despite huge pressure from authors’ groups and legal experts to do so. American law provides for a limited “right of attribution,” as it is called in the U.S. Copyright Act, but only in relation to works of fine art. Writers, musicians, and creators working in other disciplines have no such right at all. Establishing one would bring the United States into line with the rest of the world—a good thing when creative works literally circulate without borders, and reputations must stand or fall on the global stage.

In Italy, the copyright law says that a pseudonym will be treated as equivalent to the author’s true name, unless (and until) the author chooses to reveal his or her identity. Both the language of the law, and its silences, are arguably significant. In no way is any outsider empowered to reveal an author’s “true” identity when the author has chosen to publish under a pseudonym. Italian law wouldn’t seem to condone a concerted effort such as Gatti’s to uncover Ferrante’s identity.

Why are authors almost universally granted this strange, and strong, prerogative? The answer to this question lies at the heart of copyright history, in a perhaps surprising fact: Modern copyright law originated in the battle for freedom of speech. The first modern copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1710, and was a crucial precursor to American copyright law. The Statute of Anne mediated the transition from a society where the sovereign could restrict speech by controlling the publication of books and other writings to one where works could be published without the approval or involvement of the state. Early copyright law accomplished this goal by a swift, simple, and surgical step: It took the right to control the publication of written works away from the sovereign, and placed it, instead, in the hands of authors. Authors could decide who would publish their works, and when, and how. Their new right would be held for a limited period, following which, anyone would have the right to re-publish any work of interest. In this way, the public domain was born.

Through these developments, authors effectively became the caretakers and champions of free speech. Early advocates of authors’ rights included eminent writers and thinkers such as John Milton and John Locke. The eventual creation of an author’s copyright was viewed as a victory for freedom of the press. In this sense, copyright was one of the first steps that modern democracies took on the path towards broader guarantees for the liberty of speech of the public.

Those early discussions recognized the value of the works that authors produce, but something even deeper was at stake: authorship. The elemental creative act of the author, and the social role and responsibilities that came with writing, emerged as key factors in the growth of democracy.

Not only do authors create works that are valuable to the public, but they also do so by a peculiar process: an act of free thought and, above all, imagination. Given the intrinsically free-ranging nature of the human imagination, writers often find themselves on the wrong side of power. Authors from Dostoevsky to Ken Saro-Wiwa, Voltaire to Subramania Bharati have criticized their rulers, fought against colonial administrations, railed against the unfairness of social traditions, and satirized local bullies.

In a well-known episode in Russian literary history, two writers of the 1960s, Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel, were put on trial by the Soviet government for the crime of writing. The trial was a unique occasion where imagined statements drawn from fictional works were used as evidence against the writers. In response to questions from the prosecutor, Siniavski stated firmly,  “I am not a political writer … An artistic work does not express political views.” However, the nature of the prosecution confirmed the profoundly disturbing reality underlying the trial: even more than what the writers wrote, it was the fact of writing that was at issue. The very act of exercising a free imagination, beyond the boundaries of official state ideology, was an offense.

Like Ferrante, Siniavsky, too, chose to write under a pseudonym. However, his pseudonym ultimately offered him little protection in a society where the privacy of the individual was not respected. In the modern, democratic context, as the reaction to Gatti’s investigation shows, the public is far less ready to accept violations, not only of privacy, but also, of authors’ creative prerogatives.

For, as many of Ferrante’s readers were quick to realize, a pseudonym is more than a veil; it is also an expression, in its own right, of authorial identity.

Ferrante herself eloquently and comprehensively addresses the issue of her choice to write under a pseudonym in a series of discussions, published in Italian more than a decade ago but appearing in English just now. The book, Frantumaglia, assembles interesting material drawn from interviews and other sources and seems to make clear that the decision to write under a pseudonym is one of the keys to Ferrante’s creative success. In a telling quote offered by Mini Kapoor, writing in The Hindu, Ferrante once responded to the interview question, “Who is Elena Ferrante?,” with the words, “Elena Ferrante? Thirteen letters, no more or less. Her definition is all there.”

Under the protection of this name, Ferrante has written about the lives of people emerging from poverty-stricken backgrounds in Naples. In this light, the revelation of Ferrante’s “true” identity has stirred up particular excitement because it appears that she comes from a different background from that of the people she has written so convincingly about. If Gatti is right, the “real” Ferrante is a talented translator, “the daughter of a German Jewish refugee,” whose husband is also a novelist. Her example is said to stand for the principle that a writer has a right to imagine lives different from his or her own.

But this interpretation misses the point. The only real limits to what a writer writes should be determined by his or her own imaginative capacity; and it is the reader who will ultimately judge how successful that act of imagination has been. A writer’s imagination can be powerful, hurtful, and sometimes, so dangerous to society that the works are ultimately proscribed. But this is treacherous ground; except in extreme circumstances, the suppression of imaginative literature represents a fundamental threat to freedom of thought. When writers work, they imagine; and, by affirming freedom of the imagination, a writer asserts, on behalf of every reader, the right to imagine a life beyond the confines of everyday experience. It is an escape, it is an experience, and it can be transcendent. Good writing, even when it disturbs us, is a potent reminder of what it means to be a human being.

When a writer adopts a pseudonym, he or she has embarked upon the ultimate act of imagination. The writer turns the imaginative eye inward—imagining a new, creative self. Not only writers, but also, artists in other fields, and from every culture, have played with the conventions of identity to carry out their work. The street artist Banksy is unidentified; while it is claimed that this is partly because making street art can be illegal, it is also evident that the mystery of Banksy’s identity brings special excitement to his work. Going a step further, this is perhaps what the great classical pianist, Glenn Gould, meant, when he claimed that his own biography might best be approached as a work of fiction.

Depending on how involved this creative act is, how passionately the artist is committed to his or her self-created identity, and how important that identity is to the psyche of the writer, intrusion upon it could be a serious personal and creative blow. Without the transformative magic of the writer’s mask, creativity just may not be possible. No wonder the “real” Ms. Ferrante, and her admirers, ask themselves if she will ever write again.