The narrative that important, authoritative female novelists ultimately owe their brilliance to men refuses to die as we close out 2017—and it’s ensnared one of our newest literary stars. The plagiarism allegations against The Girls author Emma Cline, leveled by her ex-boyfriend, have set off a bruising legal battle and exposed Cline’s personal life. But more than just sordid, they’re a public attempt to silence a young and intriguing literary voice.
The initial claim was that Cline stole part of the book from her ex using spyware. But the story of the lawsuit reads to a casual observer almost like a blackmail attempt, for which Cline has just countersued. According to reports in the New Yorker and the New York Times, the initial complaint—signed by lawyer and Weinstein defender David Boies—contained pages of information on Cline’s sexual habits, with the implicit threat that unless she settled for a large sum, they’d be released publicly.
“I never, in any scenario, could have imagined publishing a novel would have resulted in a bunch of lawyers combing through records of my porn habits,” Cline told the New Yorker. In the second, post-Weinstein version of the complaint, those pages were gone, but the damage to the writer is done. Cline told the Times that she has missed out on priceless time and energy she’d need to write a follow-up novel, calling it “a loss I don’t know how to fully comprehend.”
But as we’re made to pore over lurid details of naked pictures and Craigslist-arranged assignation, a more important and jarring question looms: how could anyone ever think any part of that book was written by a man?
A riff on the real-life story of the Manson girls, The Girls was so firmly rooted in an experience of female adolescence—specifically white, female, disaffected, angry, horny, suburban ’60s adolescence. It was a book about being a certain kind of girl. It was a story about the banality of young female anger and violence. Many readers remain willing to give men authority over these themes; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity follows another directionless young woman into a web of violence. Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides channels suburban female self-harm directly through the collective male gaze. Yet The Girls felt exciting because that gaze was so deliberately absent, its Manson figure so peripheral to the titular characters’ toxic interest in each other.
The assertion that Cline, however subtly, owes her brilliance and accolades to a male hand is recurring in literary circles whenever a woman pens powerfully—like when some critics thought Elena Ferrante was a pen name for a man, even though the Italian novelist’s Neapolitan works told a story that felt so subjective, so deeply and unquestionably female. These novels, too, were a portrait of a lifelong female friendship (or frenemy-ship), set against the backdrop of a community that experienced poverty and domestic and mob violence. In Lila and Elena’s desires for escape, fury at the world and obsession with each other, many of us who succumbed to Ferrante Fever saw an exhaustive exploration of a female psyche—not necessarily ours, but someone’s. That felt new and thrilling. And like The Girls, which commanded a huge advance and was the the big book of its season, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels dominated online and in-person literary discussion for months, with avid woman fans taking the lead in the analysis.
So naturally, Literary Men were suspicious. For months, rumors swirled in the Italian and international press about the reclusive Ferrante’s true identity. Finally, she was doxxed by Claudio Gatti, a swaggering male journalist who claimed to have discovered her purported identity. Snooping through real estate and other holdings, he pinpointed her as Anita Raja, married to Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. He even went so far as to, again, float the idea that the books were a “collaboration” between the two writers.
He went forward with his quest despite Ferrante’s very clearly expressed wish to be left alone. “I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present,” she once said of her decision to remain anonymous. “To relinquish it would be very painful.” Artists and writers who are not white men continually have to fight back against a public obsession with their personal lives, a desire to link those lives with their work as a way of diminishing their talent. This is what Ferrante avoided by being anonymous, and what Gatti and others foisted onto her.
Both of these novelists achieved something rare in the literary world: books about female experiences that were critically lauded, widely read, and constantly-discussed events. They were staking out specific women’s emotional territory as universal and worthy.
And poof! Both just happen to have been undermined by men questioning their authority and even denying their (or any woman’s) authorship. Both female authors were each then further punished by an unwanted act of privacy invasion. Those twin intrusions—the outing of Ferrante’s identity and the exposure of Cline’s sex life— both attempted to permanently put asterisks on the discussion of these women’s writing. In both cases, it remains unclear whether the work will eventually surpass the “scandal” in people’s minds—many readers have vowed not to think about Ferrante’s unmasking or acknowledge it. But at least temporarily and at least for some readers, Cline is reduced to the ex-girlfriend of the guy suing her. Ferrante became the wife of another novelist.
All this recalls another agonizing literary moment from recent years: In 2014, novelist Jaqueline Woodson was called to the stage to receive her National Book Award for her masterful verse-novel about her own family, Brown Girl Dreaming. After her speech, her friend and presenter Daniel Handler made a crude racist joke. “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from,” Woodson later wrote.
Clearly, the elevation of diverse stories to a position of centrality in literature still provokes backlash, even from friends in the form of a “joke.” The message sent to other writers whose subjects and identities have previously been marginalized is that even if you do succeed, someone will be waiting to humiliate or discredit you, or simply shrink your stature. And even though readers have rallied around all three these writers in the face of insults, the effect is still discouraging. Because many serious artists want, in Ferrante’s words, “To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies.” A stupid joke, a cruel lawsuit, an unwanted journalistic investigation—all these acts do their part to yank that freedom away.