As It Happens

Jeanette Winterson calls out 'low-grade, grubby' journalist who unmasked author Elena Ferrante

Author Jeanette Winterson says journalist Claudio Gatti was wrong — as well as sexist and malicious — to unmask anonymous writer Elena Ferrante.
Author Jeanette Winterson (left), says investigative journalist Claudio Gatti is malicious and sexist for unmasking author Elena Ferrante's identity. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Claudio Gatti probably didn't expect to be cheered for unmasking the anonymous writer known as Elena Ferrante. But the Italian journalist did it anyway.

Last week on As It Happens, Gatti explained to host Carol Off why he decided to reveal what he believes is the author's true identity. He says he did it because he felt she was deceiving the public and playing games with her readers.

That argument didn't wash with many people. Among those criticizing Gatti is British author Jeanette Winterson. As It Happens guest host Helen Mann spoke with Winterson about why she thinks Gatti's unmasking of the Ferrante is "sexist" and "malicious." Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Helen Mann: Ms. Winterson, what do you think of Claudio Gatti and his journalism?

Jeanette Winterson: I only know him through his piece on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante. I was very shocked and disturbed by it. To me, it felt like a violation. It felt unnecessary. I wondered what part of anyone's life can be private when someone else, unknown and unasked, can simply decide to tell the public what they think the public should know.

HM: I guess the thing is that investigative journalists, by their very nature, want to get to the bottom of these kind of mysteries. Why is it wrong for him to have done that and then publish the investigation into her identity?
It does feel sexist to me. I think there's something about it that is meant to humiliate her. It's also malicious because she says that she can't write unless she's anonymous.- Jeanette Winterson
JW: I don't know if it's wrong. I just think it's low grade and grubby. She's not a politician. She hasn't been bribing anybody. She's not a celebrity in the usual sense of the world. All she has done is made money, paid taxes, by selling books. If your personal bank accounts are then fair game for anyone to read, which we mustn't forget this is what he has done, he has gone into her bank account. He had a look and decided she's earning far too much money as a translator. I cannot see any justification for that — it's not in the public interest.

Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claims to have exposed the identity of best-selling author Elena Ferrante. (Domenico Stinellis/AP)

HM: You have also said that this was a sexist act. Why?

JW: Oh, because men always know better than women, don't they? So a woman says I want to write on my own terms. I don't want to do publicity. I want to be this Elena Ferrante. She never pretended that Elena Ferrante was real. She's always been very clear about that and she's always been both gracious and simple in her interviews. I don't see that some guy should come along and say to a woman, "Sorry you don't know your own mind or even if you do I'm going to tell everybody something different." I really dislike that.

JW: He says that she has relinquished her right to anonymity. I don't think that's proper. It does feel to me like the short skirt — "she was asking for it" — argument. That somehow she deserves this because she is famous. She has to be paraded in front of the public in a way that she never wanted. All she asked was that she should do her work in her own way. It does feel sexist to me. I think there's something about it that is meant to humiliate her. It's also malicious because she says that she can't write unless she's anonymous. So this is a guy who is prepared to destroy a woman's career because it suits him.

Author Elena Ferrante, who has long guarded who true identity, is best known for a quartet of novels set in Naples.

HM: Mr. Gatti says that the idea that she forfeited her right to anonymity isn't just because of her fame as an author. He points to her publication of a book billed as a memoir that contained untruths about herself.

JW: Oh, he is so self-righteous, isn't he? Annoying little man. We all know Elena Ferrante is a fiction. Therefore, if you're going to have a fiction about a fiction, you're not pretending anything. She was playing. It was a game. Writers like to play. We like to write. We are creative, playful creatures. We all know people use aliases. We all know that people invent self. If you can't do that in the most playful and creative places, you can't say, "Alright I'm inventing somebody and now let's make a whole life for her just as I do with the characters in my book." Why can't we do that? Are we really so leaden? Are we really so heavy? Are we really so reality TV obsessed that everything has to be boiled down to: is this true or is it a lie? Why can't we have an invention? Why can't we have a creation? What's the matter with this guy? Maybe he's never read any book?

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Jeanette Winterson.