This month I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—which, yes, are as good as everyone keeps saying. And which it took me months to pick up, despite the fact that everyone kept saying how good they were. I think it took four direct recommendations before I finally sought out the first in the quartet, My Brilliant Friend. I’ve been trying to figure out what took me so long (besides needing time to warm up to the cover design...), and my working theory is informed by the fact that this month of Ferrante has coincided with the last several episodes of the current Game of Thrones season, as well as the release of a new season of Orange is the New Black.
It’s a fact that predates the Internet but also used it to take an evolutionary leap forward: it’s easier to recommend, easier to discuss, easier to spread a work based on spectacle than one based on a diffuse sense of quality. In the hours and days after each new episode of Thrones, for example, my social media feeds are full of people dishing on what happened—some of the analysis veiled to obscure the plot, some less so—and others angrily protesting the spoilers. And there has been such backlash about one Event of OitNB's new season that I've been able to hear all about it, weigh my options, and abstain from watching—without even trying to seek out details.
This may be debatable, but I'd say that Ferrante has—in certain corners of the twitterverse—comparable hype. But I’ve never had even a minute event of any of her novels spoiled for me—not by any of the people excitedly discussing her work online or in person; not even by the people I explicitly asked, “So what happens in these books? What are they about?” The answer, from everyone, in full, was: Naples and female friendship. And nobody knows who the author is. And you should really read them, because they’re great.
This was coming, of course, from close and thoughtful readers—it wasn’t that they’d missed Ferrante’s plot. And though I’m only halfway through the series, I can say already that a huge amount happens in these books. I’m only being partially being facetious when I say the Neapolitan novels and Game of Thrones feel similarly scaled—these are both worlds variously full of mysterious, possibly supernatural, and hugely violent dangers; there’s a constant threat of larger global conflict; absolutely everyone is out for revenge. And the women are wresting control of their stories in a world in which tradition is against them. But it doesn’t feel possible to enumerate the plot events of Ferrante’s books…or maybe it’s just that to do so would be beside the point. It’s not about spectacle, the water-cooler element of “what happened.” So far, I have not reached any plot event in Ferrante that I would have shrieked “no spoilers!” to hear about beforehand. These books set out to explain the human condition through building description, rather than a chain of events. There’s nothing to spoil, nothing to “ruin,” because the cumulative experience of reading them is the point.
Unless: Ferrante’s identity itself is the spectacle. Because every recommendation I received did include the specific, titillating note that she writes under a pseudonym, and that nobody knows her true identity. Perhaps this is the water-cooler anecdote, the Really? factor that captures both recommender and recommendee’s imaginations so there’s no time to discuss any of equally scandalous events in Ferrante’s novels.
Ferrante, though a veteran novelist, is certainly a writer of the moment these days. Whether the hype lasts at this level will depend on whether we turn out to be more interested in the complex, slow-moving, quietly devastating content of the books, or the flash-pan sensational question of their author’s identity. I don’t mean to present a false dichotomy of spectacle vs. quality—they are of course not mutually exclusive; great works often shock, gentle, describe, and explain at once, among much else. But in general, sensationalism doesn’t age well. When we talk about a work largely or exclusively in terms of “what happens,” it means in part that the soul of that work can be boiled down into a nugget of conversation the length of an elevator ride. Possibly that's a kind of failure; it may be why spectacle-based works, even great ones, tend to wear more, and more quickly. Traveling forward, making my own recommendations and holding these books with me, I’ll be interested to see what happens in—and, less tangibly, inside—the rest of Ferrante’s work. And heck, in Game of Thrones, too. No spoilers, but did you guys see the finale…?