‘The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism’ by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards (Review)

A recent post saw me make my way through an in-depth, academic look at the work of Elena Ferrante, but (as you’d hopefully know if you’re a regular reader) there’s more than one way to approach literary criticism, and today’s review looks at a rather different take on the Italian writer’s work.  How is it different?  Well, it adopts a far lighter attitude, of course, but the biggest difference is that unlike Tiziana de Rogatis’ solo effort, my latest read is an experiment in team-work and (aptly, for a book on Ferrante) friendship.  Let’s see whether four heads really are better than one…

You can’t always learn much about a book from its title, but in the case of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press), I suspect you can hazard a fairly good guess as to the contents.  Back in the (northern) summer of 2015, four female American academics – Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards – decided to spend a few months reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels at the rate of one book a month, taking turns to reflect on the reading experience in a series of letters.  In what seems more akin to The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants than traditional literary criticism, the writers took it in turns to share thier views on the books.  The others reflected on the letter, with one of them then taking up the challenge to respond – and so on.

These letters first appeared online in the journal Post45 under the project name of ‘The Slow Burn’, and they make up just over a hundred pages of The Ferrante Letters.  After that, each of the four writers contributes their own, far longer, reflection on a facet of the Neapolitan Novels that particularly intrigued them, with the books supplemented by an introduction and a few bonus letters supplied by readers (academics) who had been swept along by the original project and wished to make their own contribution.  It all makes for a slightly fragmented work, but an interesting one, nevertheless.

The Ferrante Letters takes a rather different approach to that of  Elena Ferrante’s Key Words, and not only in its focus on the Neapolitan Novels rather than Ferrante’s whole body of work.  The letters making up the first part of the book were written during the reading process, not after, meaning the writers had less chance to reflect and no foreknowledge of what was to come in the series.  This provides our four academics with an opportunity to cut loose, free of the usual restraints; in effect, it’s an exercise in long-form brainstorming.  Richards acknowledges both the joys and the limitations of the approach:

Looking backward, I realize that there must be seasons in these novels, but in my imperfect memory, one prone to melding what is fictional and real, all of it, everything, seems to have taken place during the hottest day, at the end of a long summer.
p.89 (Columbia University Press, 2020)

She’s not the only one to mention that these letters have just as much (if not more) to do with personal impressions than analysis.

From the start, the style and language used also reflect this freedom.  Richards coins the phrase ‘L & L’ and bemoans ‘mansplainers’; Hill finds herself firmly on ‘Team Lenù’; Emre, describing Lila’s notebooks, envisions them as ‘a mean girl’s burn book’.  It’s Richards again with the best line of the book, voicing the thoughts of a thousand Ferrante readers when she kicks off the letters on the third of the four parts:

Oh Nino, why are you such a tool? (p.84)

Yet, in the same way Ferrante’s writing lulls the reader into a false sense of security, the four new friends here aren’t quite as casual as it might first appear (they’re academics, after all).  In between catty remarks about the men of the novel and chats about their summer holidays, they cleverly tease out themes, examining what Ferrante has to say on topics such as friendship or feminism.

However, as interesting as the letters are, they do feel a little bitty, and for me the longer essays each writer produced after the project provide greater insights, with the extra space allowing them to build on their ideas.  In her contribution, Chihaya echoes de Rogatis’s views on genre, and the difficulties of pinning the nature of the books down:

The rich “weave of events” that comprises L’amica geniale is tinted and illuminated by the different tropes of discourse and motifs of character or plot type that given genres introduce, but the book as a whole refuses to conform to the conventions of a single one.  Indeed, the book refuses to conform to the conventions of the writing of narrative – most importantly our desire to trust it – as we expect them in a realist novel full stop…” (p.132)

Hill goes further with this, exploring how the pseudonym ‘Elena Ferrante’ provides the writer with a new tool to attack the genre of autofiction, the mystery of her identity strengthening the fiction she creates.

My post on Elena Ferrante’s Key Words described my personal route into the Neapolitan Novels (Lenù’s uneasy path between classes), and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Ferrante Letters is seeing the same process at work in these four writers, albeit in different ways.  Hill very much identifies with Lenù, walking the awkward, excrutiating path of a nascent writer, while Emre focuses far more on the theme of motherhood (unsuprising for someone with young children).  Richards’ approach seems to be the most political, with mention of a conference of the left and an essay taking a Queer approach to the quartet.  By contrast, Chihaya is fascinated with Lila’s lifelong desire to simply disappear, eventually revealing her own thoughts on the matter…

The aim of the book seems to be to show an inclusive approach to literary criticism, with a focus on the collective nature of the project, and the addition of the bonus essays reflects this.  Yet, in some ways, The Ferrante Letters feels more exclusive than inclusive, with its casual nature not disguising the writers’ real identity as academics.  They’re all Americans women of a certain age who are part of the in-crowd, successful and feted, and at times it has the feel of an an episode of Friends: we can see them having fun, but we’re looking in through the window, not sitting on the couch with them 😦

Overall, like any experiment, The Ferrante Letters has its ups and downs, with some of the letters and essays more enjoyable than others, but it’s bound to make for interesting reading for most Ferrante fans.  It provides nice insights into why other people enjoyed the novels, and even if you won’t identify with all of the contributors, their reactions to Lenù’s development, and their disappointment both with how the books ended, and the fact that they ended, are very familiar.  I’m just left with one question on finishing…

…I wonder if they’re all ready for Ferrante’s new book? 😉

2 thoughts on “‘The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism’ by Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards (Review)

    1. Kaggsy – Definitely worth a try. If you’re not keen on diving into the quartet, starting with one of her earlier, shorter novels is a good introduction, especially ‘The Days of Abandonment’ 🙂


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