In Conversation

In literary ‘experiment,’ Jill Richards finds a new voice

Four novels be Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet”: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of a Lost Child.”

In the summer of 2015, Yale scholar Jill Richards took part in a literary experiment with three other academics and critics: They read and critiqued, via emails to each other, the four novels (and international bestsellers) that make up the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet”: “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Story of a New Name,” “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” and “The Story of a Lost Child.” The series recounts the long and sometimes tumultuous friendship between the fictional Elena (Lenù) Greco and Rafaella (Lila) Cerullo in post-war Naples, and has been widely praised for its depiction of female friendship and for weaving the story of that friendship into a larger tale of an Italian neighborhood and of national politics. 

Richards — an assistant professor of English in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and affiliated faculty member in the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program and the Multidisciplinary Academic Program in Human Rights — and her collaborators never expected their unusual exercise in literary criticism to result in a book, but it has. “The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism” was recently published by Columbia University Press. Its first part collects their informal correspondence about the Neapolitan Quartet. Its second part offers essays about aspects of the novels. By combining personal anecdotes and reflections with their scholarly critique, the collaborators’ conversation has the feel of a virtual book club.

Richards recently spoke with YaleNews about the book and her collaboration with co-authors Sarah Chihaya, assistant professor of English at Princeton University; Merve Emre ’15 Ph.D., associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, and Katherine Hill, assistant professor of English at Adelphi University. 

What was your relationship to your three co-authors when you first started this project?

Sarah Chihaya was our linchpin; she reached out and gathered us together. I didn’t know Merve well or Katherine at all when we started. But Sarah and I had been housemates in graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. When I think of the intellectual pleasures of talking about books with friends, I think about hanging out in our kitchen at the house on Milvia Street, with everyone cooking or snacking, during these conversations that just went on and on and on. You might pick up a thread and then come back to it a few days later, when you passed one another on the stairwell. And we were not just housemates but friends, so whatever was going on in your personal life would be mixed in, the break-ups and family drama, with what you were thinking about George Eliot or romanticism, because those were all things in the air and it was just one big conversation.

What was your goal?

It was a strange moment when we were new to our academic jobs and felt alienated from the sort of scholarship that was expected to go in the tenure file. We were trying to figure out how to think and write in ways that felt exciting on their own terms, rather than checking off a box for someone else. But it was also just supposed to be a summer series of a few articles, not a whole book. Really I shouldn’t even answer as a “we,” because part of the point is that we don’t write on behalf of each other. Everyone writes on their own terms, as an “I.” So, personally, I was newly single, newly gay, living alone for the first time on a new coast, and just out of a very stressful first year of a tenure-track job. Getting that job felt like a miracle for which I ought to be only grateful, not burnt-out. But I was burnt-out. I remember feeling like the series was a life raft: Right then I really needed some academic and feminist solidarity. 

What do you mean by “collective criticism”?

The term is meant to designate that we write back and forth to one another, but do not merge into a seamless voice. Rather than a collaborative mode where each sentence belongs to the authorial group, a “we,” collective criticism is more of an epistolary back and forth, of one “I” writing to another in letters, each in her own voice. It is a conversation that builds on what came before, but we don’t necessarily agree or move towards a singular argument. 

How do you think this new, more informal mode of criticism improves upon traditional literary criticism?

The collective mode lets you see the process of thought, really how thinking gets made and changes over time. It allows you to write about how you changed your mind or were wrong. There are all these things that you end up erasing in a scholarly article: any waffling, confusion, or anecdotes that don’t contribute to the final argument. In a scholarly article, your writing is supposed to be clean and argumentative, clearly marking out its intervention in the field. Our way of writing allowed for the kinds of genres that were closer to conversation, in part because they took up whatever was happening in our lives as we were writing. 

What was the appeal of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet?

It is long! We wanted something that would go on for several volumes. And none of us are specialists in Italian literature, so it felt a bit far afield from our “official” work, almost like a vacation. 

Each of you weaves in the personal or intimate with more academic critique: tales of depression or other personal hardships, commentary on the weather, travel, etc., creating almost a second story about friendship. Was this a refreshing respite from academic writing?

Yes! In my academic writing, the personal is always there — it is what drives me to pick a certain question or keep returning to a set theme. But normally I just don’t acknowledge that. To do so would be like breaking the fourth wall, or seem unscholarly. You can use the first person in academic writing to say “I argue that,” but you don’t usually say, for instance, that you are writing on a particularly hot day without air-conditioning or writing while you are pregnant. You don’t say that you personally like or don’t like something, especially not because it reminds you of some aspect of your childhood, an ongoing struggle with illness, or how you feel trauma in your bodyIt was so refreshing to just acknowledge some of the motivations behind the questions I ask and the topics that obsess me. And that acknowledgment set the argument going in an entirely different direction, one that felt just as difficult and rigorous as my scholarly work, but of a totally different modality.

How did the project relate (or not) to your academic and teaching interests?

This comes out more in the longer essay, where I write about the queer counterfactual. I wanted to write about queerness because it is what I’m interested in, but it is not what “The Neapolitan Quartet” is about. So I wrote about that problem, when a book doesn’t quite do what you want it to do. This involved a deep dive into the kinds of fan cultures that emerge around ostensibly heterosexual works in order to reimagine them differently, to literally re-write them as queer so that, for instance, the female leads fall in love with one another. That sort of fan fiction isn’t particularly respected in academic circles, but it provided a way to think about the sorts of desires we project onto the marriage plot in particular, and how queer theory might approach a novel apart from a focus on homosexual characters.   

A standard book club question that can’t be avoided: Which character — Lenù or Lila — do you most relate to?

You know, from book one I always identified with Lenù, the bookish, awkward, not-glamorous one, but really now that I’ve finished the series I’ve started to think of them as a single compounded character. Lenù is only herself in relation to Lila, so when I look back at them I imagine this amalgamated creature, where the one creates the other, which then makes the other, almost like the set of chemical reactions you need to make bread rise. All the words I can think of to describe Lenù come across in relation to Lila: Lenù is not-as-glamourous, not-as-dangerous, not-as-beautiful, not-as-brilliant. But none of that even makes sense unless you have the two women set together. And on her own terms, by the end of the quartet, all that not-as has made the ever-hustling Lenù entirely formidable, so then the relations of value shift back again in the other direction. 

There’s been much speculation about the true identity of Elena Ferrante. Did the four of you speculate about this as well? 

I remember at some point a conversation that basically went, “Oh my God, please let her not be a man.”

You exchanged letters in 2015 and then added individual essays about the novels in 2018. Did the lapse in time change your perceptions of Ferrante’s novels?

Yes. In my letters I praise the novels as this saga about female friendship, one that allows friendship between women to possess the kind of complexity usually afforded to romantic love. When I first started writing the letters, I was so excited to see the matter of female friendship finally take center stage, to be figured as the kind of infinitely intricate, life-sustaining, seasonally shifty, ever-changing beast that I knew it to be. But then when I was writing my longer essay, I started thinking about the ways that this claim assumes that female friendship and romantic love are mutually exclusive. It assumes that romantic love has to involve a man. So that framework doesn’t leave space for queer attachments, or the ways that female friends might be ex-lovers or current female lovers might turn into future friends. And the only reason I even thought about that framework as a problem was because I started writing about myself, and realized that the rubric I was outlining for Ferrante left out a central component of my own experience, namely the overlap (shifty, knotted, complicated indeed) between female friends and lovers. 

What did you learn from this project, and does it influence your work with students in the classroom?

It’s changed the way that I teach students how to write. This fall, I’m going to have my junior seminar students write collective criticism, in part because COVID closures makes traditional research papers difficult. I’ll put the students into smaller groups and then have them write letters to one another, in sequence, using whatever mode they want: autobiography, screenplay, short story, podcast. The only rule is that you have to respond in some way to the writer that came before you. But I also want this to be an exercise in naming and breaking the rules of literary criticism. So often I have found myself just telling students to write one way and not another, because that’s the way it’s done. Now I want them to locate the rules about literary criticism themselves, to try it both ways, and then think about what each mode affords. It’s a class about young adult fiction and the end of the world, so we will all already be in a speculative frame of mind. 

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