Adam Kirsch on writing and cultural appropriation

Just to show how ridiculous is the claim that writers should generally avoid producing fiction about “marginalized groups” unless they belong to those groups (see here, here and here re the Lionel Shriver affair), have a butcher’s at a new kerfuffle: that involving “Elena Ferrante,” an Italian author of wildly popular novels, especially the “Neapolitan Novels”, a series of four books about two poor girls from Naples. Here’s the last one of them:


Ferrante was known to be a pseudonym, but had closely guarded her (or his) real identity for years, despite many speculations.  Some people said that only a woman who wrote those books, and a woman who, like the protagonists, had known deep privation. Others, presumably sexist, said that no woman could be capable of writing such books, and even though I haven’t read them I find such a claim extraordinarily stupid in light of the history of wonderful novels written by women. But the going idea seemed to be that “Ferrante” must have had some of the experiences of poverty of her subjects, and have lived in Naples.

The falsity of that view has now been revealed in an article by Claudio Gatti in the New York Review of Books, showing with little doubt that “Elena Ferrante” is neither from Naples nor was poor: she is a translator from Rome named Anita Raja. This has people up in arms, as many of them wanted “Ferrante’s” identity to remain secret.

But the main lesson is that one can write convincingly about other’s lives without having lived them, and this is the point made by Adam Kirsch in a piece in Monday’s New York Times, “Elena Ferrante and the power of appropriation.” For what we had was something that Lionel Shriver’s critics said was not possible, an empathic and convincing portrayal of people completely unlike the author. If you think about it, though, you’ll realize that the combination of an author’s imagination with her observation and research on another group’s life—or another person’s life—can produce compelling fiction.

No, the two Neopolitan girls weren’t black or Muslim, but they were poor, something that Raja doesn’t seem to have experienced. Indeed, one reason Gatti revealed Raja’s identity was that he was fed up with the lies that Raja apparently promulgated when feeding her readers a few crumbs of biographical information, crumbs meant to suggest that she had indeed had a life that gave her credibility to write about poor girls from Naples.

From the BBC:

So why did Gatti do it? He says Ferrante lied in her journalistic writing in theFrantumaglia – a book of essays first published in Italy in 2003, which will be released in English with new material next month. Ferrante put it together after her Italian co-publisher, Sandra Ozzola, suggested she provide her readers with a few autobiographical details in the form of non-fiction articles.

Gatti takes issue with Ferrante writing that her mother is a seamstress, that she has three sisters and grew up in Naples. He accuses her of inventing a backstory to provide, “crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers’ appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.”

He told the BBC’s Today programme, “She lied about her personal life. I don’t like lies, and I decided to expose them.”

Ferrante’s attitude toward lying also angered him – she has previously quoted Italo Calvino, the most translated Italian writer before herself, who once said to an interviewer: “Ask me what you want to know, but I won’t tell you the truth, of that you can be sure.”

Regardless of Gatti’s motivations, though, Kirsch says what’s important: that accusations of “cultural appropriation” in literature are largely nonstarters. Kirsch:

But there are also good reasons to welcome the revelations about Ms. Ferrante. In recent weeks, the literary world has been at war over the idea of cultural appropriation — whether a writer has the right to tell stories about people unlike herself. Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival said yes; many critics of that speech said no. But now it appears that one of the world’s best-loved writers is actually a sterling example of the power of appropriation.

For it turns out that in telling the story of poor Neapolitan girls like Lina and Elena, Ms. Raja was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself. In doing so, she was able to write books in which millions of people found themselves reflected — books about feminism and patriarchy, poverty and violence, education and ambition.

This is the paradox of literature, which is also the glory of humanism: the idea that nothing human is alien to any of us, that we all have the power to imagine our way into one another’s lives. If the exposure of Elena Ferrante reminds us of that truth, which today we are too inclined to forget, perhaps it will turn out to be justified.

Combine that with the “truth” that even members of oppressed groups are not identical to one another, which should be obvious, and you come up with the argument that although someone who has lived in a certain way may be able to write about that way with greater accuracy, that doesn’t mean that the resulting fiction is more compelling, or has the emotional resonance with readers that passes for “truth in literature.”


  1. busterggi
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    So H. P. Lovecraft hadn’t really met any Deep Ones? I’m shocked.

    Next I’ll find out that L. Frank Baum didn’t really know any Munchkins.

  2. Merilee
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Interesting! I’ve read the first two and while not loving them, think them well-wrought.

  3. Darren Garrison
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Normally I wouldn’t nitpick at a typo or autocorrect error, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how the phrase “have a butcher’s at” could occur (presumably from “have a look at” or something similar.)

    • Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      I felt like some Cockney today. This is not an error.

      “Have a butchers’s” is Cockney for “have a a look.” It’s part of Cockney “rhyming slang” so that the original phrase for ‘have a look’ was “have a butcher’s hook”, which became “have a butcher’s.” See

      I’ve added a link to the phrase above.

      • Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        But that’s cultural appropriation!

        This cultural appropriation nonsense links with the myths about the Pirahã, Hopi and Inuit languages we’ve discussed here in recent days.

        It’s the idea that human beings can be so utterly different they can never truly understand each other. Linguistic relativism puts that idea on a pseudoscientific footing.

        • Posted October 7, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          Unlike some other languages, English has no built-in grammatical tool to indicate whether the narrator describes seen/experienced or heard/read-about events. This proves that the English and their descendants have some biological deficit of their ability to assess reality and relate to it. This deficit inevitably and severely hinders the ability of people of English descent, and of all others who have stupidly adopted their language, to administer justice and to develop science. To prevent further spread of such disastrous deficit, the use of English as lingua franca and especially as language of international scientific publication must be immediately abolished.

          Of course, many English speakers are credited with outstanding scientific discoveries. This only proves how far we are from the truth when we use English: it is beyond doubt that the alleged English-speaking discoverers have appropriated their achievements from other people.

    • Christian Childs
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      A well known English expression from Cockney rhyming slang: butcher’s hook = look, abbreviated as usual to the non-rhyming part of the expression.

  4. Kevin
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Wait, Rowling never possessed the philosopher’s stone? Merlin’s beard, those books must have sucked.

    • Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      No Muggle should have ever been allowed to write a book about wizards.

  5. eric
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    On the broader point of identity politics, I fully agree with JAC (and support the author against her critics).

    But now I’m going to quibble: I have to agree with Gatti that making up fake autobiographical details is something she shouldn’t have done. To be clear, I think in some cases this is okay. Back in the bad old days when publishing houses were blatantly sexist, it made sense for women writers to deceive-through-implication that they were men by using a male pseudonym. And maybe in some areas of writing, that’s still a reasonable thing to do. But this is an established writer. With two or three popular books under her belt and a publication house that recognized and supported her anonymity, she really doesn’t (IMO) have any good justification for resorting to lying about her background. This particular tale-telling looks more like an attempt to boost sales, not an attempt to overcome a socially unjust publishing bias.

    • jeremy pereira
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      If you want to remain anonymous, you can’t tell the truth about your background.

      • eric
        Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        True. I wasn’t implying “say nothing” was an immoral option. Both “say nothing” or “say something truthful” are both fine responses. “Say something untruthful” is generally not.

        [shrug] Maybe there was some satire Gatti missed and so I missed by reading his comments.

  6. Robert Bray
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Why is that which is so obvious to me anathema to the ‘cultural appropriation’ warriors? We all have, and use, imaginations. And perhaps our imaginations are an evolutionary product of our ancestors’ ‘theory of mind.’ Not only may we appropriate; we can’t help but appropriate. Artists and writers simply do it better. Here are a few crucial lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey,’ words that, for me, beautifully embody the human imagination’s wonderful creative power:

    And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
    With many recognitions dim and faint, …
    and of all that we behold
    From this green earth; of all the mighty world
    Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create, And what perceive. . . .

    ‘half create, and what perceive’–yes!

    • Historian
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      You make a great argument and the lines from Wordsworth are terrific. As I think about it, cultural appropriation is not only not a bad thing, but a good thing, since it honors the “appropriated” culture or at least considers it worthy of understanding by non-members. I differentiate between appropriating from another culture and mocking it.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Thanks for your kind words, Historian. One of the things that most baffles me about the post-modern left is its indefatigable war against universals. Now I know little about African civilizations, a bit more than a little about South Asian and Chinese ones, so I cannot generalize as I might wish. But I have never heard from the rest of the world such negativity about humanity as one thing as I daily hear from our own western left.

        Adam Kirsch echoes Terence’s ‘I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me.’ Biology points toward universality, as do language (despite the panoply of languages) and physical anthropology. This outcry over appropriation is a contemporary anomaly, one hopes, culturally myopic, but corrigible through better lenses.

  7. Claudia Baker
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    And did Ellis Bell never experience a Heathcliff-like romance? Shock!

  8. Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Many years ago (I think it was in the 80s) Virago published a collection of stories by “Rahila Khan” about the lives of Asian women. They then found out the true identity of Rahila Khan – viz, a Church of England vicar named Toby Forward. To their shame Virago withdrew the book. Why? They thought the stories good enough to publish when they assumed they were by an Asian woman; if the stories were actually by a white Englishman, doesn’t that make his imaginative achievement and empathy all the more impressive? What was going through their minds when they withdrew it? Toby Forward is now a successful writer of children’s books, by the way. No publisher has withdrawn his books on the grounds that he is not a child.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    And talk about appropriation, how can these atheist write about religion. What could they possibly feel or know about spirituality. How could they criticize. Maybe without all the baggage they can do a much better job of it.

  10. Posted October 5, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    A fictional author with a fictitious biography? That’s almost as reprehensible as S. Morgenstern and his appropriation of pirate experiences.

    • eric
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I see a difference. Maybe it has to do with the timing, with this bio coming well after her successful publications. Or maybe it has to do with the genre – a tongue-in-cheek bio for a tongue-in-cheek book seems to me just an extension of the comedy, not like this. Here, it seems more to me like an author became successful, was then pressured to feed false information to the rumour mill in order to sell more books, and acquiesced. That’s not praiseworthy behavior. Not super bad, either, but not her best moment.

      • Posted October 5, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        I’m totally indifferent to fictionalized authors. They’re part of the process as far as I’m concerned. One of the latent points of contention here is whether authorship matters at all to the value or meaning or resonance of literature. I don’t think it does very much, unless it contributes to the story in some way.

        • eric
          Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure a fictionalized author = a pseudonym. “eric” is a pseudonym but not a fictionalized person. In contrast, Stephen Colbert’s character on the Colbert Report was a fictionalized person even though his name wasn’t pseudonymous. If Stephen Colbert in that character had waxed poetically about growing up in a conservative family, it would’ve been funny, not lying. Part of the schtick. If I do it, its lying.

          Even the Wikipedia entry for your example recognizes the difference. It starts “Simon Morgenstern is both a pseudonym and a narrative device invented by Goldman to add another layer to his novel…” As far as I can tell, “Elena Ferrante” is not a narrative device.

          . But I haven’t invented a different personality for my posts.

        • eric
          Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure a fictionalized author = a pseudonym. “eric” is a pseudonym but not a fictionalized person. In contrast, Stephen Colbert’s character on the Colbert Report was a fictionalized person even though his name wasn’t pseudonymous. If Stephen Colbert in that character had waxed poetically about growing up in a conservative family, it would’ve been funny, not lying. Part of the schtick. If I do it, its lying.

          Even the Wikipedia entry for your example recognizes the difference. It starts “Simon Morgenstern is both a pseudonym and a narrative device invented by Goldman to add another layer to his novel…” As far as I can tell, “Elena Ferrante” is not a narrative device.

          • Posted October 5, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

            I don’t really see the difference. If you’re only enjoying a work of fiction because of your conceptions about who wrote it, the mistake is yours. If “Elena Ferrante” falsely claims expertise in differential equations and produces a highly praised textbook on the subject with no known errors, it still wouldn’t matter even she described herself as a time traveling martian from the year 3000.

  11. Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    It seems to be a sociological law that movements that work to improve conditions of the oppressed start to take off when they get a critical mass of “outsiders”. (For example, women’s rights advocacy snowballed when there were enough men involved.)

    If outsiders are now in danger of “cultural appropriation” or whatever, it might be self-destructive to make this warning.

  12. Posted October 5, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how well developed a sense of empathy people who think you can’t see, or write about things, from another person’s perspective have.

  13. Lurker111
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Exactly. The value of a character in fiction is believability. If a character is believable, then it doesn’t matter who the writer is.

    Crap’s sake, if all I could write about were aged, paunchy white male curmudgeons, I’d bore myself to death.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    We are seeing the upward spiraling trend that is characteristic of the regressive left. What ever they react to, there is this trend of increasing sensitivity to where they are over-sensitive.
    Cultural appropriation used to be where a culture assimilates and distorts a minority culture, reducing it to mere stereotypes as that culture all but disappears. The Western Hollywood Indian is a good example.
    Now it is any burrowing from a minority culture, even though that culture is very much alive and its people are doing well with keeping their culture.

  15. Jenny Haniver
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m a victim of the inverse effect of the need for “authenticity” in literature. A tyranny of authenticity has been visited on me. Decades ago, I published a novel set in the American South, in what some would call an “underclass” environment. It is a “cult classic” in certain circles and has been used as a text in college lit. classes, and has been the subject of academic inquiry. But I don’t come from the South or from the underclass; yet some found it so powerfully authentic that, to this day, many people insist that I do come from directly the milieu I describe in the novel and am called a liar, or otherwise pathologized when I protest. This negates the facts of my life and my familial history, much of which is demonstrable beyond the shadow of doubt. People have told me with great sympathy that they can only imagine “how difficult it was [for me] to have grown up in deep poverty.”
    Because a plot device involved hoodoo (purely a plot device, derived from both American Indian and African practices), many insist that I believe in voodoo and hoodoo, and my profession of atheist absolutism (I grew up in an atheist household) is regarded as a risible attempt to insinuate myself into the dominant culture. I’ve even found some academic papers and books which mention the novel cite it as an example of indigenous women’s spiritual beliefs! This book written by an atheist! Even my claim to higher education is seen as symptomatic of a pathetic pathology, some sort of “thought disorder” which needs treatment! All this has been extremely destructive psychologically, socially, professionally and in other ways as well, and it persists to this day. I have come to despise the literary world – at least that part of it I come in contact with.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted October 5, 2016 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      It is indeed a real problem. The sad thing is that fiction needs a warning label from the Writers Guild of America: The characters in this story are fictional, and do not represent, nor reflect, the lived experiences of any person, living or dead, including the author.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted October 6, 2016 at 1:03 am | Permalink

        If only such disclaimers would do the job. What can’t be overlooked,however, is that apparently the author actively courted the conflation; this, for me, somewhat vitiates this particular case as being emblematic of the problems of “cultural appropriation” and authenticity vis-a-vis fiction. No such claim would have been made here. And the case of J.T. LeRoy also comes to mind because of two documentary films about the furor surrounding the authorial “authenticity” of literary entity. Talk about a consciously concocted and elaborate literary imposture! Layer upon layer of fiction, which spilled out into reality, even involving a body-double, and other shenanigans, all to create an aura of authenticity for the writing published under the name of “J.T. LeRoy.”

        Your comment (#14) re what cultural appropriation used to mean and what it has now come to mean, is well taken.

  16. keith cook +/-
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    In S Pinker’s “the Better Angels” it has something to say about the printing press and it’s role in the pacification and civilizing process of humans.
    In a nutshell, namely and not limited to, the influence of novels on one category of human about another, the sharing of family and societal values, the everyday struggles, internal strife and joys.
    Those that cannot write and articulate, vulnerable and weak without representation have been spoken for by others (whatever their motivations and standing) and in effect widening the circle of inclusion as it were.
    I fail to see why someone like Yasmin Abdel-Magied cannot see this it so obvious. Perhaps that is the problem here.

    The only criteria for me is, apart from the flow of the story, does the author ring true and carry ‘their’ weight with the authentic discourse it deserves, if so, at best we learn and are moved and i guess, entertained.
    I no longer read novels though, just science based books, news stories, papers, WEIT and others daily and when i can.

    • Posted October 6, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes. We need more of this “cultural appropriation”. Our culture is built on it – actually, all are – because cultures don’t segment neatly, and ideas travel.

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    Writers accused of cultural appropriation should respond as Flaubert did when asked about the adulterous young bourgeois housewife who had served as the protagonist of his magnum opus, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.

  18. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 5, 2016 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Who gives a toss *who* the author of a book is, or whether they’ve told the truth about their background? I think it’s absolutely in order for an author to remain anonymous, or to invent any story (s)he likes to satisfy nosy inquiries.

    Oddly enough this doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the likes of Messrs Rowling, Tolkien or Pratchett, who – whatever their background – have almost certainly never been sorcerers, hobbits, wizards, witches, vampires or werewolves. If they had been constrained to write only of people of their own cultural background their books would have been dull, to say the least.


    • steve
      Posted October 6, 2016 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      Who is allowed to write for the illiterate, deaf, dumb, and blind autistic with intellectual deficits?

  19. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted October 6, 2016 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    For what cultural appropriation really means, read Rebanks: A shepherd’s life. Thousands of years of farming and shepherding life in the UK Lake District were obliterated, when Wordsworth started enthusing about the place, ignoring the hard life that made the human trophic cascade possible.

    Ferrante is no realist or “immersion journalist.” She writes about the poor for the rich – who buy her (in Italian poorly written) books and have no inkling about what it really means to be poor. She is pandering to our guilty sentimentality. Ferrante’s broad success would tend to support this contention; so her hiding behind a pseudonym to avoid the criticism that she writes from ignorance.

    • Aldo Matteucci
      Posted October 6, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

      The matter may be explained in ecological terms.

      There is a niche for “Neapolitan realism.” Ferrante has successfully occupied it, displacing others.

      Her success rests not on being true to trope, but by adjusting the text to suit the market. It is a successful form of parasitic mimetism.

    • Posted October 7, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      A look at the covers of Ferrante’s books shows to me that you are likely to be right.

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