Who is Elena Ferrante? To this question there are three main responses: The first, found among 99% of humanity, is, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” The second, found among millions of avid Ferrante readers, is, “I know ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym, but her publishers say she is a woman from a rough working-class neighborhood in 1950s Naples who struggled to acquire a classical education—and I believe them, because no writer from a different background, especially no male writer, could possibly express so powerfully the deepest and most forbidden emotions felt by every woman on the planet!” The third response, found among an indeterminate number of sceptics, is, “I don’t know, and though mildly curious, I don’t much care.”

Until recently I belonged to the first group, the 99% who neither know nor care. But then I watched the eight-part HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, the first of four “Neapolitan Novels” published between 2012 and 2015, and finding it quite extraordinary, I delved into the novels and the voluminous body of criticism about their mysterious author. But instead of joining the fans, I joined the sceptics. This is because, with very few exceptions, Ferrante fandom overlaps with Ferrante criticism in ways that are not only

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