The unmasking of Elena Ferrante
The unmasking of Elena Ferrante’s identity earlier this month has led to outrage from fans and writers around the world. Why do we need to know who she is to enjoy her novels? Why can we not respect her anonymity? This reminded me of my university days studying French and Italian literature, and in particular, Roland Barthes and ‘The death of the Author.’ It’s true that when we know a writer’s background and intentions, we can’t help but apply some of this knowledge to our interpretation of their work. Indeed, whenever we read, and whatever we read – novels, fiction, news – this reading is never a solo act and is always influenced by our own previous knowledge and experiences.
But does this ‘influence’ over the writing matter? Is my enjoyment of the Neapolitan novels improved, worsened or unchanged by knowing the identity of the author? This got me thinking about the role of influence in the media, particularly for brands communicating with customers and stakeholders. Is the content itself most important factor in achieving PR success – we are always hearing that content is king – or do we pay closer attention to the content when we know who wrote it?
There’s no doubt that knowing the author’s identity is often very important. The most influential journalists have thousands of followers on Twitter, who are eager to hear the latest musings and invectives. However, is it possible to create an impactful, engaging and well-read piece of content without a name attached? In some cases yes, but the content needs to be compelling, opinionated and well-structured in order to achieve its aims. The Economist is a case in point – its content is widely respected but its features are not bylined to a specific journalist. When explaining itself on this point, the Economist stated: “The main reason for anonymity is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it.”
Of course, the mere fact that something appears in the Economist also carries considerable weight. Influence comes not just from writer themselves, but also from the publication or organisation they are writing for, particularly when it comes to contributed articles, blogs and owned content. So with our media relations campaigns, we always take ‘influence’ into account, encouraging key journalists and publications with loyal and engaged audiences to write about our clients and include their opinions in features. In this way, we can be sure the messages are reaching the right audience. When it comes to owned content, it’s about establishing the brand or an individual spokesperson as the influencer, so that when we publish content the right people sit up and take notice. These things should go hand in hand given there is so much opportunity for brands to directly engage with customers and stakeholders today.
So to come back to my initial question on whether knowing the author’s identity matters, the answer is yes – and very much so when it comes to communications. In literature too, people are always inclined to buy a new book if they’ve enjoyed previous works by the same author. While part of the success in Elena Ferrante’s case came from the intrigue and mystery surrounding the author, booksellers are now suggesting that the revelation of the real author is actually likely to boost sales.