Elena Ferrante and the Right to Hide Your Identity

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

A literary firestorm erupted when Claudio Gatti, an Italian investigative journalist, unraveled the identity of Elena Ferrante, the tremendously popular author of the four volume series, The Neapolitan Novels, and several other books. Ferrante carefully had kept her identity hidden since the publication of her first book in 1992.


In October last year, Gatti unmasked Ferrante, with simultaneous publications in the Italian paper Il Sole 24, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Mediapart (a French investigative journalism site) and The New York Review of Books. He explained how he figured out who was behind one the best-known pseudonyms of any living author. Gatti adopted the simple but effective strategy: Follow the money. A trail of royalties led to a Rome-based translator of German literature, Anita Raja, wife of the well-known Italian writer, Dominico Starnone. Gatti went one step further and found a number of expensive houses and apartments in the name of the couple, and concluded that this allegedly was the proof that Anita Raja was behind the Elena Ferrante pen-name, though neither the publisher nor the publisher ever confirmed this.


After the publications, reactions started to flow in from Italy, as well as abroad. Sandro Ferri, Ferrante’s publisher, told The Guardian he was appalled by the attempt to unmask a woman who has purposely steered clear of the limelight and has always said that she only wanted to write books. “We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting,” he told the Guardian. “Searching in the wallet of a writer who has just decided not to be ‘public.’” Most of Ferrante’s readers seemed to agree, and were anything but pleased with the revelation of the real identity of their idol. Fellow novelist and Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, added some explicit condemnation on Facebook: “Seriously though, who is this NYRB [New York Review of Books] Elena Ferrante article for? What kind of person supports this shit and cared to find out?”


Claudio Gatti himself seems to justify his disclosures against the explicit will of the writer with several arguments. He refers to an interview in 2003, where Ferrante mentioned Italo Calvino, who once said: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.” And Ferrante commented, “I’ve always liked that passage, and I’ve made it at least partly mine.” Gatti concludes: “...by announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.” And at the end of his article, he drops another argument: “...the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known. But her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves.”


The articles that were written about the whole affair all mentioned the obvious history of writers using a pen-name. Whether one finds oneself at the wrong side of power, or being of the “wrong” gender, or just want to be able to write other books, without the public knowing this, a pen-name can create the necessary artistic freedom or even save the author from deadly consequences of speaking out freely.


Most of these articles are at least, in part, about a moral argument. That it is morally wrong to disclose the identity of a writer who explicitly chose to hide behind a pen-name. On the other hand, there is the argument that fame somehow justifies an intrusion on the self-chosen anonymity. One could go one step further, however, and wonder whether the law offers any safeguards against the intrusion of the writer’s privacy. This question has received barely attention in the media frenzy after Gatti’s publications, though its importance seems to be evident. Not only in this particular case, but even more so in the polarized atmosphere in general, both in Europe and the US.


To shed light on this question, I spoke with Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, a trade-union for writer, illustrators and literary translators, and based in London. She responded enthusiastically:


“The UK is a signatory to the European Convention on human rights which states that Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. Under that provision an author would possibly be entitled to take action if her identity were revealed. But that right must be set against the freedom of expression in the same Convention. There may be finely balanced questions as to whether revealing an author’s identity would be in the public interest if they wished to remain anonymous and it would depend on the particular circumstances. I would certainly suggest that if there were no special circumstances then there is no public interest in knowing the true identity of an author who wishes to remain anonymous. Useful guidelines are set out in the 2006 case of McKennitt v Ash.”


In the latter case, Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian folk singer, sued in the UK to prevent publication of extracts of a book written by a former friend, on the grounds of privacy. She won the case, and the verdict was confirmed in appeal, and later after a final appeal.


Besides the general principles set out in the European Convention, even more specific legislation can be applied to writers using pen-names. I sat down with Daniele de Angelis, associate at the Milan office of the international Bird & Bird law firm, and specialized in copyright. I asked him to tell a bit more about the protection of writers in general, who want to use a pseudonym and keep their own identity hidden?


“The issue is very interesting also because it appears to be unexplored and thus complex. Let’s see it from Italian copyright (ICL) standpoint. According to ICL, author has the so called moral rights: that is, among other things, the paternity right. Paternity includes the author’s right to be mentioned as such. Paternity also includes the right to decide that works are communicated to the public without mentioning the author or under a different name (pen name) that hides the actual person of the author. In general terms, paternity right may be infringed by any behavior interfering with the author’s decision to remain hidden. In principle, the mere fact of the revelation interferes with author’s decision, and thus may infringe paternity right. Under specific circumstances criticism and journalistic purpose may fall within exceptions and limitation to copyright. However, exceptions do not limit moral rights, that should be always protected.


“The thoughts are based on Italian law, to be sure. Of course they should be in line with, in particular, the protection of information recognized by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Court affirmed on several occasions that copyright may justify restrictions to the freedom of speech and information. National judges have to consider the balance between public interest on the information and private interest of the right owner, in every different case.”


Both Solomon’s and De Angelis’ summaries of some relevant principles of both human rights and copyright seem to suggest there is more to the Ferrante and other cases than just a moral argument. Cinnamon Stephens, a lawyer and consultant in this field, working in Seattle and Amsterdam, further adds to this point. “Anonymity has played a very important role in allowing people to express thoughts, creative, political or a combination, safely. Absent some showing of anonymity as a shield to protect someone doing harm to people, I don’t think there is any right to pierce it.” The bottom line seems to be that, in principle, both copyright law and human rights law demand that anonymity to be respected. Exceptions to the rule can be based on a clear collective interest in knowing the identity, for example when it related to crimes, national security or other evident circumstances. The mere news, per se, is no firm base for such a collective interest. When one returns to the arguments that were used to justify the breaches of Ferrante’s privacy, that is her fame and her alleged lies about herself, it is evident that they do not, in any way, substantiate a collective interest that would justify to unveil her identity. Thus it seems that the unmasking of Elena Ferrante was more than a morally-questionable adventure in the eyes of her admirers, but also an action that clearly violated Italian law, given the known standards embedded in Italian and European law and jurisprudence that protects authors who freely chose to keep their identity hidden.


Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.