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Despite the Schmaltzy Book Covers, the Neapolitan Novels Are not “Chick Lit”

A decision defined as “subtle genius”, if the kitsch covers perpetuate the stereotyped classification of the series as “chick lit” it’s not genius

by Steven Jacobs
In a class I was taking I was asked to offer the male perspective during our biweekly discussions, a task that I found as arduous as fully connecting with the female characters and their daily struggles. What does a male perspective even mean? There are all kinds of males, after all...

Elena Ferrante, now known to readers and spectators internationally, may easily be the most famous contemporary Italian author in the world, especially after the violent unmasking carried out by the journalist Claudio Gatti, which revealed the identity of the notorious pseudonymous writer. 

The incessant fad for her literary works has been rightfully dubbed, ‘Ferrante Fever,’ a phenomenon discussed at length in the homonymous documentary featuring Hillary Clinton. Making more of an impact were by far the Neapolitan Novels, debuting with the highly praised My Brilliant Friend, which sold over 10 million volumes in more than 50 countries. With recurring themes strongly dedicated to the female experience, it is not shocking that the main readers are mostly women; however the series was able to cross the gender border and enamor some men as well, such as James Franco, Roberto Saviano and James Wood.

Although the tetralogy is evidently written by a woman, about women, and for women, its frequent classification as “chick lit” is completely unfitting to its content and is also harmful to any possibility of actualizing a social change or widening Ferrante’s audience. Calling the books “beach reads” or “soap operas” is nothing but a condescending and ghettoizing dismissal. But why has this label been assigned to the tetralogy? Surely a portion of the fault lies in the unwillingness of many men to explore novels where the two protagonists are women and almost every male character is unsavory. In any case, another large portion of the fault can be attributed to both Elena Ferrante and her publishing house.

Despite the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover,” this is completely inevitable. The statistical data obtained from a poll conducted by the “Book Smugglers” indicates that 79% of people believe that the cover of a book plays a decisive role in their choice to purchase it. Elena Ferrante’s covers are quite disappointing because they falsely indicate that the content of the tetralogy serves merely as milk-and-water, feminine entertainment. The butterfly wings and backwards facing women wistfully gazing at the sea strongly limit the readership. If not already aware of the series’ multifaceted riches, the average male would probably not choose The Story of the Lost Child, for example, if he were to see it on a shelf in a bookstore. This is really a shame because the protagonist, Elena’s, incredibly personal perspective offers the male reader the unique opportunity to experience the innumerable vicissitudes that women have been facing since the 1950s. While it is undoubtedly a series that every man would benefit from reading, it does not  talk exclusively about femininity, but also discusses Italy’s postwar history, social mobility, and the invention of the computer and television, all through a plot so suspenseful that it’s almost a thriller. 

Yet there are people that find the schmaltzy covers as brilliant as Elena and Lila. For example, the artistic director of the publishing house, Europa Editions, says that they actually were afraid that people would not understand their decision to dress such a refined story with a touch of vulgarity. This decision was even defined as “subtle genius” by a journalist from The Atlantic. But if the kitsch covers perpetuate the stereotyped classification of the series as “chick lit” and turn men off (and also some women), who make up 20% of fiction readers according to some polls, I do not see any subtle genius.

However, I believe that the male reader should be more comfortable while reading a book that clearly talks about women, because it allows him to grasp the full picture of our world. Having read the Neapolitan Novels twice, I have shamelessly brought them to many public places and they have cued different reactions. A friend of mine, after seeing the cover cluttered with butterfly wings, fairy costumes, and a magic wand, said, holding back the laughter, “it looks like a ‘chick flick!’” In the New York City subway I even heard some people say “look, he’s reading a girl’s book!” Perhaps a more neutral cover would push those who do not want to feel “seen” to buy it. Since the Australian covers are much less gendered, it would be interesting to compare the number of male readers of the tetralogy there compared to America and Italy. Although I must admit that this would be difficult to do considering, for example, the various cultural differences in each country.

There are definitely many other factors besides the badly-chosen book covers that influence the readers’ gender makeup. The dramatic plot strongly focused on female emancipation naturally attracts more women, who already read almost two times the amount of books that men do.  

Likely, I would not have chosen My Brilliant Friend while browsing in a bookstore. I only devoured it because it was a part of my Italian literature class at Marist College, where I was the only male student. Quickly thereafter I became addicted to Ferrante’s incredible writing.

It was in this class that I had to offer the male perspective during our biweekly discussions, a task that I found as arduous as fully connecting with the female characters and their daily struggles. What does a male perspective even mean? There are all kinds of males, after all, especially nowadays thanks to an increase in acceptance for identities traditionally considered deviant like the transsexuality of Alfonso, Elena’s classmate, for example. I know I could not identify with Lila, Elena and Ada, but I could empathize with them and try to understand their suffering and how to prevent the continuous development of the patriarchal and phallocratic powers that caused so much of their pain.

Deepening one’s understanding of the female reality is the ideal outcome for every reader of the Neapolitan Novels. Attempting to put ourselves into another person’s shoes makes us more sensitive to foreign experiences and increases the possibility of a social change. Precisely for these reasons, Elena Ferrante surely would like more men to read her books.  Maybe if her publishing house had chosen a cover design closer to the Australian one, the ghettoizing stereotype of the tetralogy as “chick lit” would be less pervasive, and as a result, her already wide audience would be even more diverse, especially along the line of gender.

But it begs the question, what is wrong with classifying a book as “chick lit?” Calling a work “feminine” is not at all denigratory or condescending, but simply a description of its content, right? Many actually embrace the title, like Michele Gorman, author of over 13 novels in this literary genre, at times with the pseudonym Lilly Bartlett, and she defends it well in her 2010 article in The Guardian

Unfortunately, it is used more as a disyllabic insult rather than an exclusively descriptive label. The critics toss aside what they see as the overly repetitive formula of a heroine up against the same mundane struggles, and dismiss the centrality of the plot, also a common critique of the mystery novel. Ferrante’s tetralogy, a metaliterary masterpiece of denunciation, with characters far too raw and real to be heroic, does not deserve this pejorative and polarizing title.

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