Essay

Tabloid Footprints Everywhere

by Christiane Swenson

"When we treat a short story like a personal essay, we end up projecting our own ideals onto the characters. Instead of viewing fiction as an opportunity to enrich our view of the world, or as a way to explore emotional and philosophical themes—in the way that a painting, for example, explores color—we’re asking it for lessons on how to live. When we cannot even understand that a short story is fiction, and that a writer has carefully chosen how to construct her world, with its own architecture and a universe separate from our own, we flatten it completely, and we also flatten our own ability to think critically." (Larissa Pham, Village Voice)

In the last few weeks of 2017, everyone on American social media was buzzing about a controversial short story—but despite its billing as such, many people examined it as if it weren’t one. After its publication in the New Yorker, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian spread quickly on Twitter and Facebook, mostly among women who urged their friends to read it; it was lauded by Roupenian’s contemporaries as a scathingly accurate portrait of dating in the Internet age. In less than twenty-four hours “Cat Person” had reached its peak of annoying virality, and even in February of 2018 it remained number four on the top-read online articles in the New Yorker. Internet-dwelling reactionaries (almost all men) began to tear it apart, as they often do with any work created by or for women. There was something different, however, about exactly how they worded their complaints.

“How are articles like this not viewed as sexism?” a Twitter user named Brian wrote, probably referring to the twenty-year-old protagonist Margot’s “selfish” act of going to bed with a thirty-four year-old man so as not to hurt his feelings. “[It] implies stuff like this doesn’t happen to men.” If such a story--or “article,” or “essay,” or the more nebulous “piece,” as many called it--were published about an older woman seducing a younger man, the anonymous critics argued, then how would the Internet react? (Forgetting, of course, that the dynamic would be completely different if the genders had been flipped.) Some people talked about the story as though it existed in a liminal space between fiction and nonfiction, as if it were ever made unclear; or ignored its label and took it literally as a firsthand account of a real date and not, as Roupenian later clarified, compounded from decades of unpleasant and borderline-violent interactions with men.

More articulate but still ignorant critique dressed down Roupenian’s work as flimsy erotica under the guise of modern feminism, an easily digestible and zeitgeist-heavy take on the “me too” era. Never mind the women sharing “Cat Person” on their pages with a breathless urgency, many having never seen themselves and their experiences shown so vividly on the page (or at least not in the frequently stuffy and inscrutable New Yorker fiction section). Or the men who decried the entire work while admitting to not understanding its crux: in the story’s sole, excruciating sex scene, Margot is described as not enjoying herself while the man, Robert, is too busy to notice. 

Premise and style-wise, “Cat Person” and Elena Ferrante’s body of work could not be more different; one is a dryly written, self-contained episode with no more than three or four named characters, and the other is a sprawling series of fragmented stories, often returning to the same themes, places, and quasi-stock protagonists. But thematically, they share the same beating heart: stories about women navigating the world told uniquely through their eyes, grappling silently with the politics of gender and consent, constantly forced to rebuild themselves for men. The reaction to the New Yorker story and the instinct behind Ferrante’s public debasement by some of the Italian press must come from the same root: the compulsion to discredit women writers and their craft.

Whereas “Cat Person” is Roupenian’s first published work, and one that will impact her identity as an author for the rest of her career, Elena Ferrante chose to exist only on the page from the beginning. But the public effort to “discover” the face behind the name went far beyond harmless curiosity and into violent invasiveness. To reveal Ferrante’s identity, the tabloid journalist Claudio Gatti went through reams of personal and financial information, digging up details on the personal and family history of Anita Raja, a German translator alleged to be Ferrante, and her husband Domenico Starnone. The exposé was ultimately redundant, and other outlets were sympathetic to Raja, painting Gatti as a charlatan chasing a story better left uninvestigated. After all, the investigation seemingly existed only to prove a point. There was no way Anita Raja, as Gatti explained it, could be writing on her own; and if she was, the basis of her fiction had to be not from her own imagination but autobiographical, lifted from if not outright written by her husband. 

To Gatti’s credit, the parallels are visible. Ferrante’s purported background as written in Frantumaglia--raised in Naples with a seamstress mother and a jealous, violent father--is how Domenico Starnone has described his own upbringing. But Gatti takes this connection to another level, theorizing that the Naples depicted in the My Brilliant Friend tetralogy was pulled out of thin air, a dictation of Starnone’s life instead of a literary invention. When asked about this theory in an interview for The Paris Review, Ferrante herself expressed frustration over “this type of fantasy” shared by her critics:

"[T]he decision not to be present as an author generates ill will [...] The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. Only the label of the name or a rigorous philological examination allows us to take for granted that the author of Dubliners is the same person who wrote Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be." (Ferrante, The Paris Review)

Finally reading it in her own words, it seems obvious that the reasoning behind Ferrante’s anonymity is much more than a desire to protect her privacy: it is a rejection of the Author as a product, the capitalist urge to sell a public persona along with the books instead of letting the text speak for itself. But even beyond her “unmasking,” Ferrante is no stranger to this type of scrutiny from the literary world. The journalist Cristina Marconi points out that Ferrante was urged early on to reveal her true identity when her first novel, Troubling Love, was shortlisted for the Premio Strega Prize in 1992, and again in 2015 for The Story of the Lost Child. “Wolf pack[s] of male intellectuals” often went out of their way to belittle her work, deigning its contents “lightweight pop romance” and comparing its plots to soap operas. The success of Ferrante’s books abroad to an Anglophone audience, furthermore, proved to them that her writing had only “commercial appeal” and was without literary merit. But as this debate continued over almost twenty-five years of Ferrante’s career, the gaps in their arguments became more and more visible: the real issue with her books, according to these male intellectuals, was that they were written for and primarily read by women.

In a moment of metafiction in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Greco’s debut novel is written off in the press as salacious and unoriginal by a male professor, who compares it to Bonjour Tristesse, a novel written by an eighteen-year-old in the early Fifties, which tackled difficult subjects of sex and power but was nonetheless dismissed as “women’s fiction.” In her Paris Review interview with Sandro and Sandra Ferri, Ferrante discussed her anxiety as a young writer that the greatest narrators and storytellers were men and that her only hope of achieving success was to imitate them.  “[E]ven when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men. I didn’t want to write like Madame de La Fayette or Jane Austen or the Brontës [...] but like Defoe or Fielding or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Hugo. While the models offered by women novelists were few and seemed to me for the most part thin, those of male novelists were numerous and almost always dazzling. That phase lasted a long time, until I was in my early twenties, and it left profound effects” (Ferrante, The Paris Review).

As she matured, Ferrante discovered the “foundational” power of women writers, looking to Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters as examples, and to how the feminist movement of the twentieth century transformed the world of women’s literature. “For obvious historical reasons,” Ferrante says, “women’s writing has a less dense and varied tradition than male writing, but it has extremely high points and also an extraordinary foundational value [...] Feminist thought and practice set in motion the deepest, most radical of the many transformations that took place in the last century. I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature—they made me an adult. My experience as a novelist [...] after twenty years, in the attempt to relate, in a writing that was appropriate, my sex and its difference” (Paris Review).

Ferrante’s novels are the culmination of her years of experience existing as a woman, fragments of episodes and experiences that were translated into a cohesive, connected narrative, not unlike the experiences Kristen Roupenian confessed she’d been trying to confront for years before she finally wrote “Cat Person.”

This isn’t to say that either of these authors lacks critical recognition. Roupenian received a seven-figure book deal in the weeks following the publication of "Cat Person." Ferrante herself is welcoming her newfound prestige-treatment with open arms, joining The Guardian to pen a weekly column and optioning the Neapolitan Novels to a 32-part miniseries on HBO (home to a string of recent heavy-hitter projects aimed at women, like Girls and Big Little Lies.) But the condescending and reactionary response to work like Ferrante and Roupenian’s, I believe, will stay the same for as long as men believe that the literary world was meant to cater only to them. In the meantime, as the new guard of fiction written by and for women develops and adapts to the mainstream world, Ferrante urges that young writers cultivate a female literary tradition by creating “worlds that are not only as wide and powerful and rich as those constructed by men but more so.”

Works Cited

Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. Trans. Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2017.

Ferri, Sandro and Sandra. “Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228.” The Paris Review, 11 August 2017,
www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6370/elena-ferrante-art-of-fiction-no-228-elena-ferrante.

Gatti, Claudio. “Elena Ferrante: An Answer?” The New York Review of Books, 2 Oct. 2016, www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/10/02/elena-ferrante-an-answer/.

Marconi, Cristina. “Elena Ferrante versus Italy.” Little Atoms, April 2015, www.littleatoms.com/elena-ferrante-versus-italy.

Pham, Larissa. “Our Reaction to ‘Cat Person’ Shows That We Are Failing as Readers.” The Village Voice, 15 Dec. 2017, www.villagevoice.com/2017/12/15/our-reaction-to-cat-person-shows-that-we-are-failing-as-readers/.

Roupenian, Kristen. “‘Cat Person.’” The New Yorker, 11 December 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person.

Saylor, Brian (@KanyeTheGiant.) “How are articles like this not viewed as sexism? Idk, it just feels like it implies this stuff doesn’t happen to men. It does.” 10 Dec. 2017, 8:55 PM. Tweet.

Schwartz, Alexandra. “The ‘Unmasking’ of Elena Ferrante.” The New Yorker, 3 October 2016, www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-unmasking-of-elena-ferrante.

Treisman, Deborah. “Kristen Roupenian on the Self-Deceptions of Dating.” The New Yorker, 11 Dec. 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/this-week-in-fiction/fiction-this-week-kristen-roupenian-2017-12-11.

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