This latest collection of Elena Ferrante nonfiction is from a series of columns she wrote (and Ann Goldstein translated) for The Guardian in 2018 and 2019. If you didn’t happen to read the opening introduction from the collection explaining that these are ponderings of specific questions and not pitched essay topics by Ferrante they would seem trite and unimportant. And sometimes they do seem trite and unimportant. But hidden within these are some really interesting ideas about language, fame, women, and other topics of interest. It’s almost like Elena Ferrante needed dozens of essays in order to write a few very good ones. The format is very similar to other collected blogging texts, where the import of the total project is probably better than any one given essay, but that the total still suffers from a lack of editorial oversight and good sense. There’s an essay in the collection where Ferrante describes advice on writing this way: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have travelled extensively.
Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”.”
But in the same collection she brilliantly discusses how rarely male writers credit the influences of women on their own writing (not necessarily that they don’t praise them — although that’s less common than true — but credit them in teaching them).
Whose Story is this?
Rebecca Solnit has an oddly hopeful voice given the deep sadness of the subjects she covers, and given the ways in which violence against women (in myriad forms and capacities) is a common part of the news and the common subject in this book, it’s remarkable that she’s able to do so. I think there’s a kind fatalistic depressive attitude that people on the left-end of politics have about the world right now, and I think that’s perfectly understandable obviously, but there’s also a tendency to overshadow positives, to pretend that things used to be better, when they’ve always been worse, and to miss small wins, and to extrapolate total defeat from setbacks. I don’t think Solnit has this quality. At the same time, there’s a false sense of depth in this collection that comes from what I think is an attempt to historicize from within a moment in history that feels false or untimely or misdirected.
What Solnit’s strength is throughout is to formulate an understanding of news events, politics, and cultural moments with precision and clarity in a way that is often missing in day to day coverage and in reaction and analysis that happens on blogging sites.
An example though of where she really sheds light on a terrifying and curious phenomenon is her essay about the ways in which abusive men control and attempt to control the voting of their partners.