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Rachel Cookes best graphic books of 2016

From dazzling biographies to fantastic fantasy and wry observation, the years graphic books would make great Christmas presents

When I began writing about graphic novels a decade ago, I remember worrying slightly about the supply line: would I really be able to find a good one to review every month? And it was tricky, sometimes. But what a difference 10 years has made. Im now in the awful business of running a beauty pageant: I have too many darlings, not too few. This year, especially, has been a bumper one. Memoirs, novels, biographies, reissued classics: if there isnt something to suit everyone on the bulging list that follows, Ill eat my copy of Persepolis.

First, memoir. It seems sometimes to be taking over, and this is as true in the world of graphic books as elsewhere in literature. Regular readers will know that I was waiting anxiously for the second volume of The Arab of the Future (Two Roads 18.99), Riad Sattoufs series of comics about his childhood in France and the Middle East, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. But aAnyway, a reminder: its truly great. Picking up the story in 1984, when Riad is six, the Sattoufs are now back in Ter Maaleh, Syria, a situation that seems not to be making any of them very happy. Funny, dark and occasionally revelatory, this and its predecessor are my graphic memoirs of the year.

Stan and Nan by Sarah Lippett: one for fans of Raymond Briggss Ethel & Ernest. Photograph: Sarah Lippett

In no particular order, I also loved Notes on a Thesis (Jonathan Cape 16.99) by Tiphaine Rivire, a hilarious, consistently clever account of the authors struggle to complete her PhD; Stan and Nan (Jonathan Cape 16.99), Sarah Lippetts lovely elegy for her beloved grandparents and the lost England they represent (one for fans of Raymond Briggss Ethel & Ernest); and Saving Grace (Jonathan Cape 17.99) by Grace Wilson, which relates with immense wit its young authors seemingly impossible quest to find a room she can afford to rent. While were on the subject of life writing, Munch by Steffen Kverneland (SelfMadeHero 15.99) is a satisfyingly fat and digressive biography of the badly behaved Norwegian artist.

What about fiction? The most sumptuous and captivating graphic novel of 2016 is surely The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (Jonathan Cape 18.99), a feminist fairytale, which I recommend particularly (though not exclusively) if youre looking for a Christmas present for a teenage girl. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, this book returns us to Early Earth, the magical land to which we were first introduced in Greenbergs bestselling debut. High-born Cherry and her maid, Hero, are secretly and happily in love. But their bliss is about to be interrupted. A friend of Cherrys husband, a boor and a bully, has bet him he can seduce her over the course of 100 nights (the complacent husband will be away). What will the women do? Hero, like her creator, puts her faith in storytelling, distracting him with fable after fable. A wondrously intricate book, and a witty attack on the patriarchy, this is an instant classic, to be loved and kept for all time.

Special mentions, too, for Patience (Jonathan Cape 16.99), Daniel Clowess first graphic novel for five years, a tale of (what else?) time travel, murder, wrongful conviction and obsessive love; Hubert by Ben Gijsemans (Jonathan Cape 16.99), a book about loneliness in the big city that comes with some of the most delicately gorgeous illustrations Ive seen in years; Irmina by Barbara Yelin (SelfMadeHero 16.99), a lovely, rather old-fashioned novel of imperilled ideals in 1930s Oxford and Nazi Germany; and The Return of the Honey Buzzard by the award-winning Dutch artist Aime de Jongh, which is about a failing bookshop and its troubled owner (SelfMadeHero 14.99). I also press on you In Search of Lost Time: Swanns Way, Stphane Heuets deft retelling of Marcel Proust, whether you have already read him or not (Gallic Books 19.99).

If you like the idea of graphic short stories, you could do worse than invest in Spanish Fever, Fantagraphics new best-of anthology (ed Santiago Garca; trans Erica Mena) of work by contemporary Spanish cartoonists, while Last Look (Jonathan Cape 16.99) is just a reminder Charles Burnss magnificently creepy Xed Out trilogy (XEd Out, The Hive, Sugar Skull) in one volume for the first time. A great gift. Burns, of course, is strong meat, and genuinely mind-bending at his best. Much gentler, if were talking sci-fi, is Tom Gaulds lovely Mooncop (Drawn & Quarterly 12.99), the plangent story of a policeman who lives and works on the moon. The twist here is that, the moon having long been populated (there is even a coffee shop), people are now leaving it and returning to Earth, for which reason this slim book would make a neat companion, present-wise, for Hubert. The cook in your life, meanwhile, might enjoy Hot Dog Taste Test (Drawn & Quarterly 16.99), Lisa Hanawalts ribald graphic skewering of foodie culture, which is funny, weird and definitely not one for the clean-eating brigade. The day she spends shadowing Manhattans most famous molecular gastronomist, Wylie Dufresne, is priceless.

Ben Katchors Cheap Novelties: a world of lost diners, derelict canneries and cheap souvenirs. Photograph: Ben Katchor/Courtesy of the artist

Cheap Novelties: the Pleasures of Urban Decay by Ben Katchor, a recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur grants and a cartoonist for the New Yorker, was first published in 1991 in an unassuming paperback. Twenty-five years on, and now widely considered a classic, Drawn & Quarterly has reissued it in a beautiful hardback edition (14.99). It chronicles, in black and white, the wanderings of Julius Knipl, a tramping old-school real estate photographer, through the merchandise district of New York a landscape since changed beyond all recognition by gentrification and the rise of the chain store. A world of lost diners, derelict canneries and cheap souvenirs, read this one only if you can bear the melancholy that will undoubtedly sweep over you.

New York Review Books recent move into comics is also yielding results, classics-wise. From its small but excellent list, I recommend the lost-for-decades Soft City (20), an epic vision of a single day in a dystopian world by the Norwegian pop artist Hariton Pushwagner, republished with an introduction by Chris Ware; and What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean (13.99), a forgotten innovator of American comics from the 40s. Dean draws single-frame gags with a difference: being so deeply odd and more or less unexplainable, theyre too disquieting to be funny. Certainly, you wouldnt say his work is exactly throbbing with Christmas cheer: Will the three wise men please step forward! shouts one of his solitary naked everyman figures through a loud-hailer into a black void. But in these uneasy, topsy-turvy times, paradoxically, this might just be the book that winds up consoling you more than any other.

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Jay McInerney: ‘You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes ridiculous’

With Bright Lights, Big City, the novelist established himself as the chronicler of New Yorks hedonistic 80s elite. Thirty years and four marriages later, he is still fascinated by wealth and Donald Trump though his friendship with Bret Easton Ellis is flagging …

It is more than 30 years since Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerneys first and most famous novel was published, and everything and nothing has changed. The 61-year-old still lives in Manhattan, in apenthouse a few blocks from one of his first addresses in New York. (In the early 1980s, the rent on his Bowery apartment was $375 a month. A night at the Bowery Hotel, where McInerney stayed last week while his air conditioning was being fixed, is $425). He doesnt snort cocaine in club bathrooms any more, but when hes in the city, he still goes out every night. And he retains a charm perennially described as boyish but that strikes me, today, as something more tentative, a state ofmild bafflement that seems poised between hopefulness and the ever-present threat of disappointment.

The most unwavering aspect of McInerneys life, at least as it pertains to his public image as a novelist, is his identification with the upper echelons of New York society, an affiliation that has earned him a reputation over the years as a social butterfly. McInerney is the first to say of his own experience: It became alittle unrepresentative. Successful novelist is not an everyman category, and to add, somewhat ruefully, that unlike the protagonist of his latest novel, Bright, Precious Days, who struggles to raise kids in New York on a publishing salary, when McInerneys own children were born, I was actually pretty flush.

The novelists divorce from Helen Bransford, his third wife and his childrens mother, wiped him out financially, but his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, is an heiress and a certified member of the Upper East Side social crowd, the ins and outs of which continue to preoccupy his work. In light of all this, I had expected to find someone a little mannered, a touch absurd in the Tom Wolfe style. Instead, this morning, McInerney is guileless to a degree that makes me feel vaguely anxious for him.

Bright, Precious Days is the third novel in a series, after Brightness Falls and The Good Life, and chronicles the lives of Russell and Corrine Calloway, who came to New York in the 1980s chasing a literary dream and woke to find themselves, at 50, in a small apartment with two children, one bathroom and no money for summer plans. McInerney calls this the life not lived; had he not become a successful writer, he would in all likelihood have become an editor like Russell Calloway, one of the stretched middle classes in a city increasingly hostile to anyone not on or married to a banking salary. Theyre lucky and privileged in some ways, hesays. But in other ways most 50-year-old parents would like to have some space and multiple bathrooms. These are the kind of sacrifices people make to stay in Manhattan. Is the price of being a New Yorker worth it?

This question and the assumptions underpinning it are, as with the focus of so much of McInerneys work, vulnerable to a charge of so what?. The Calloways, who live above their means and knock around town with hedge fund managers and billionaires, might move out of the city to a perfectly good life elsewhere. That they cant bring themselves to go not even to the suburbs, but merely uptown to Harlem is not a drama with wide-ranging appeal. Meanwhile, their creators view from the penthouse can come across, in these times, as a little unseemly. Beyond the exigencies of the story, the rich matter, says McInerney, because, I think as a writer its certainly interesting to observe them. And I think not enough people do. These people have a huge influence on the way that we all live. And I do think these [hedge fund] guys are usually either figures of satire or weird wish fulfilment girly romance-novel fantasy. But more often theyre objects of derision.

There is an assumption of philistinism, I say.

Exactly. And sometimes its justified. I had dinner with a friend of mine last night whos a Wall Street guy, and hes on the board of the Whitney Museum, hes the major patron of the Roundabout Theatre. Hes involved in so many cultural and charitable activities I admire that. I know him because hes a wine collector. I make fun of wine collectors; some of them are philistines. But I dont know. I try to keep an open mind.

McInerney is, famously, a wine collector himself and his enthusiasm for his billionaire chums on the scene is so artless, it feels a little grudging to hold it against him. Nonetheless, a few months ago, his old friend Bret Easton Ellis took McInerney to task, telling the Sunday Times that their friendship had cooled because Easton Ellis wasnt rich enough for McInerney.

McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis on the town together in 1990. Photograph: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Huh! says McInerney. I didnt see that! He looks taken aback. Actually, Isay, Easton Elliss first charge was that their friendship had cooled because McInerney didnt like how his friend had portrayed him in his novel, Lunar Park. I actually thought it was very fun, says McInerney and laughs, mirthlessly. He insists on saying that. I thought it was very amusing. Bret never says … you can never take anything he says straight. Hes always gone for effect. Up until a couple of years ago, Isaw him pretty regularly. I hope to seehim next month when I go to LA on book tour. We were very, very close. I think when Bret decided to leave New York he chose to reject a lot of what he left behind. He had a very hard time here in the end and I think that, basically, hes very down on New York for very complicated reasons some personal, some symbolic and Ithink Irepresent New York and his old life, including some very difficult aspects.

In their heyday, the two men, along with the novelist Tama Janowitz, formed a literary rat pack and were frequently out on the town until dawn. McInerney gives a big sigh. Personally, Im a little sad about his wholesale rejection of the city. Hes been saying for the last 10 years that New Yorks over, New Yorks over. Well, just because you chose to leave, doesnt mean everything ended.

One thing that strikes me about McInerneys image in that era is that he was only a bad boy in comparison to some perversely old-fashioned idea of the novelist. Unlike Edward St Aubyn, say, McInerney never seemed in any real danger of falling down a drugs hole never to return.

No, no, I wasnt that guy, he laughs. I was the guy who, after staying up till dawn, would feel horribly hungover and remorseful for the next few days, before I went out and did it again. What is that book of [St Aubyns], set in New York? Its just gruelling. And wonderful.

He means Bad News, the second in St Aubyns series of five autobiographical novels that describes how he nearly died from a heroin overdose while in New York in the 80s. It makes me think, Hey, Im not so bad! He was so far out there. Also, I had to write.

You werent privately funded, I say.

I wasnt. I graduated from college and my parents said goodbye and good luck. They paid my tuition, and that was it. So I was scrambling around. When I first came to New York, I was writing freelance book reviews, doing freelance copy editing. Until I published Bright Lights, I was very strapped. Which Im, frankly, grateful for. Ive seen far too many trust fund kids fail to launch in any direction except down.

McInerney with his fourth wife, Anne Hearst, in 2005. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock

McInerney grew up all over the US as his father, a sales and marketing executive, frequently changed jobs, eventually settling in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for his high-school years and graduating from Williams College in 1976. He went on to attain a masters degree, studying writing under Raymond Carver, at Syracuse University, and then moved to New York, where he set about living the rackety life that would provide the material for his first novel.

Bright Lights sold millions of copies when it came out in the mid-80s and established McInerney as an arresting new talent and, perhaps,, thanks to the vigour and innovation of that book, with its famous second-person narrative you are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning as a more literary novelist than he would turn out to be. In Bright, Precious Days, there are many good, sharp scenes that nail the social swirl and hypocrisy of wealthy New York, but there isnt much in the way of real psychological acuity, and many of the characters struggle to rise above the level of stereotype. McInerney has, it seems to me, suffered over the years bytrying to flog himself into a posher novelist than he naturally is.

Either way, he seems touchingly pleased with the good reviews the novel has earned in the US. For years, I felt like I had been paying for the success of Bright Lights, Big City; my perceived manner of life, whether its the alleged partying or being a semi-public figure, or being comfortably off. I feel like, with this book, it was finally judged on its merits. There are a lot of people out there who resented me. Ihope thats over.

Most novelists who read their own reviews can probably recite by rote the best and worst lines, but few would expose themselves to potential ridicule by doing so in public. McInerney is so game and, in this regard, so likable that he plunges in regardless, quoting word for word not one, but two Janet Maslin reviews in the New York Times, one of which is seven years old. Her review of his latest novel was a little cryptic, he says. But then when she said, Please, Mr McInerney, write another, I thought, I guess she likes it. Because her review of my short stories His idea of etiquette is holding a girls hair while she snorts a line of cocaine was favourable but very prickly.

McInerney is surely right when he says his early fame and wealth tipped opinion against him. Twenty years ago, when his twins were born, he was living in very un-writerly style in a four-bedroom co-op in the Carlyle hotel. (It was originally a two-bedroom, but, when the twins arrived, he bought the co-op downstairs from his friend Stephen Fry, and knocked through). And look I wish I had been more sensible. I wish I had invested more wisely. I wish I had bought the painting that Jean-Michel Basquiat offerred me at three in the morning, for $700. It would be worth like $30m today. I didnt invest wisely, I didnt conserve the money. I got divorced three times, which squandered money. On the other hand, I havent been a trainwreck, either. Ive been stumbling along fairly successfully.

His worst financial period was in 2000, when McInerney was overdue by a year in delivering The Good Life and living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. I was really up against the wall. I was getting divorced and trying to take care of the kids, and I had to really produce to get my way out of this. I was in debt. It was boom and bust. The Carlyle apartment mostly went to my ex-wife and kids which is as it should be. I dont regret any of that.

McInerney in 2006: he likes his fine wine. Photograph: David Howells/Rex/Shutterstock

He and his ex-wife remained on good terms, which is characteristic of McInerney. Of the various exes, he says, including the ones that I didnt marry, Im close to all but one or two. One knows men like this and they are always on good terms with their exes, always given the benefit of the doubt by their women on the basis of likability, affability and a mild but irresistible propensity to appear slightly lost. To marry four times is, of course, not a sign of cynicism, but its opposite. I am an optimistic person. I like to think Im romantic. McInerney shrugs and looks pained. I also think Ive settled down. You can only blow up your life so many times before it becomes a little ridiculous.

In other words, he grew up and is now something of an elder statesman a scary thought. Well, Ive been waiting! The trilogy is an attempt by McInerney to take a mature, panoramic view of New York and some aspects of that aremore successful than others. The publishing world is, of course, very well rendered, but Corrine Calloway runs a food bank in the Bronx and there is some excruciating dialect Dont you be talking bout my kids. Aint none ayo fuckin bidness from the characters there, to whom Corrine ministers before popping off to lunch at the Four Seasons with her billionaire lover. Imention Jonathan Franzens spat overrace the novelists confession, in an interview in Slate, that he doesnt write books about race because, I dont have very many blackfriends.

Did he? I missed that one. Oh lord. Well. On the one hand I suppose I understand that response. On the other hand, Ithink if youre someone like Jonathan Franzen, who attempts to write on the grand scale about the large issues of the republic, and of existence, I can understand why somebody noticed this omission. Its true. Now that I think about it, there arent any black characters in his books. Well, far be it from me to criticise Franzen. Hes an important novelist. But yeah, suddenly it does seem slightly surprising. McInerney laughs good-naturedly. I hadnt thought of his work in that way, but looking back, yup: white, white, white.

The current political landscape is one that, along with everyone else in the US, McInerney can only look on at in wonder. In the 2008 election, he was an early Obama supporter and says of his tenure: I dont think hes done a terrible job, given what hes faced. Im not sure who couldve dealt with that obstructionist Republican congress; a Lyndon Johnson, or someone with slicker legislative skills couldve brought them around a little, maybe, although obstructionism is the religion of these rightwing republicans.

Incredibly, Rudy Giuliani, currently stumping for Trump, officiated at McInerneys fourth wedding. They havent met this election season but generally, When I see him,I just avoid the subject of politics altogether, because I know were not going to agree on anything.

As for Trump: Hes this cartoon of aNew York tycoon, and barely a tycoon at that. I have friends in the real estate business and they say, number one, he has hugely overinflated his wealth, and number two, hes impossible to do business with; hes not trustworthy, he sues everybody. Hes not well regarded in that community.

Its the community McInerney holdsdear. And seriously, he was not a presence on the Upper East Side social world. Hes not charitable, or philanthropic and hes not social. One of the reasons many of us think he wont release his tax returns is that hes never given anything to charity in his life. As a New Yorker, I regret that hes associated with the city I love.

Whenever McInerney starts a new novel, he has to clear out of the city to Vermont, or Rhode Island, until he has the thing under way. But he always comes back. And when hes in New York, he really does go out every night. Every night, he says. Otherwise, I dont know; thats the point of New York?

It is this, 30 years down the line, that distinguishes McInerney from so many other burnt-out veterans of his city and his trade the utter lack of a jaded world view. This is a nice apartment, he says, enthusiasm rising. But most of what Im paying for is out there.

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Elena Ferrante and the trouble with anonymity

The supposed exposure of the much-feted novelists true identity has caused a lot of outrage this week. From Jane Austen to Banksy, countless artists have tried to stay in the shadows, but it only makes people want to know more

Some all-too-anonymous writers will look at this weeks exposure of the millionaire literary superstar Elena Ferrante and find that sympathy does not come out of them without a fight. Others will see a private artists freedom ruined for ever and weep for her. For writers, thats the trouble with being anonymous. It is difficult to be the right amount.

To bring you up to speed: Elena Ferrante is the nom de plume of an Italian writer (or at least a writer of Italian) whose true identity has been a mystery since her (or his) first novel, Troubling Love, was published in 1991. Until recently the mystery was confined to Italy, where various writers, translators and publishers have been proposed as possible Ferrantes. In the past three years, however, she has become a mythic figure all over the world following the success her Neapolitan novels, about two clever women who grow up poor in postwar Naples.

Then, last Sunday, the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti published a new theory. By studying public real estate records, he found that a couple connected to Ferrantes Italian publisher, Edizione E/O, had bought an expensive apartment in Rome in 2000, then another one this summer. Gatti also has documents from an anonymous source that he says show inexplicably large payments from the publisher to one member of the couple, more or less at the time you would expect Ferrante to be getting her big international royalties, and more or less in the right proportions as her sales increased. No one so far has seriously suggested he is wrong. No one likes him, either.

A mythic figure Two of Elena Ferrantes Neopolitan novels on sale in a bookshop in Rome. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

You will have noticed that I have not named the person Gatti identifies. In many interviews by email, Ferrante has said that being anonymous is crucial to her writing. I have gained a space of my own, she told Vanity Fair last August, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful. If so, then Gatti may have strangled any future Ferrante novels, a serious crime if you admire her work. At the very least, he has probably made her suffer.

In August 2006, when the Sunday Times was about to expose Zoe Margolis as the Girl With a One-Track Mind, whose explicit blogs about her sex life had attracted tens of thousands of readers every day, their acting news editor, Nicholas Hellen, sent her an email. According to Margolis, it explained all the details that identified her, including her mothers job and address. It added that they had photographed her outside her flat, but the picture was not particularly flattering. I think it would be helpful to both sides if you agreed to a photo shoot today so that we can publish a more attractive image, Hellen allegedly said. We would expect you to provide your own clothes and makeup. As the story will be on a colour page, we would prefer the outfit to be one of colourful eveningwear.

Margolis cried, and did not answer. There was no reason to reveal my identity, she says now. No reason to destroy the anonymity I had, other than to titillate their readers. Im still disgusted by their completely unjustified behaviour and I stand in solidarity with other writers who have gone through similar experiences. Months of fallout followed. Her work in the film industry became impossible. Often she had to field calls from friends who were being pestered by reporters.

Daniel Defoe, whose book Robinson Crusoe was first published under its lead characters name. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Richard Horton had the same experience. He was the police officer behind NightJack, which won the Orwell blogging prize in 2009. Like Margolis, he had begun writing anonymously because it let him be truthful without damaging his life. Like Margolis, he never planned to reveal who he was. Then he was exposed by the Times in his case, because his email was hacked. We had photographers camped outside the door and people trying to phone me at home, says Horton. The experience scared his wife and children. We had to go away for a few days until things died down. I regret what happened to them as a result of my identity coming out more than anything else.

Legally, Ferrante has no good options. As an Italian, which Gatti says she is, she would have the right to respect for her private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In order to bring a claim against Gatti or his publishers, however, she would need to demonstrate specifically that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to her real name. I dont think that public interest justifies the exposure, says Jeremy Clarke-Williams, a specialist in privacy and defamation law at Slater and Gordon, but I dont think we reach that stage, because I dont think Elena Ferrante would be able to show that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Gatti sharing details of her finances might put her on stronger ground, but she would only lose more privacy by going to court. If she wants this to go away, Clarke-Williams says, or quieten down at least, its probably better for her to do nothing, rather than launch a court case where the media can sit back and enjoy the show.

It is interesting that writers cannot reasonably expect to keep their names unpublished, given how many have down the years. Daniel Defoe published as Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift as Lemuel Gulliver (with phoney portrait). Aphra Behn published pseudonymously. So did Henry Fielding. Samuel Richardson was anonymous and Jane Austen was just a Lady. Horace Walpole, all three Bronts and George Eliot all had noms de plume, and Eliots stuck. Even today, the famously anonymous are everywhere you look. Theres the world-famous artist Banksy, and one of the worlds most famous computer scientists, Satoshi Nakamoto, who invented bitcoin (and is probably not Craig Wright). The Old Bailey has just convicted one of Britains most famous journalists Mazher Mahmood, or the Fake Sheikh of conspiring to pervert the course of justice with one of his pseudonymous stings. Then there are the bloggers, including the Gay Girl in Damascus (who turned out to be none of those things). The Guardian itself has spawned the Secret Footballer, Secret Teacher, Secret Actress and Secret Policeman. It is clear that people often do expect to express themselves anonymously. Perhaps it is just not reasonable to expect things to stay that way.

It was pretty hard to have to keep such a big secret from people family, friends, colleagues, lovers, Margolis says. When I got my publishing deal, I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but had to remain quiet. That was hard. To be so proud of something and not be able to share it is quite tough. The technical aspects are scarcely any easier. Brooke Magnanti is a research scientist who blogged as the call girl Belle de Jour until 2009 when, fearing that her identity was about to be revealed in a newspaper, she revealed it herself in a different one. She had managed six years of anonymity under intense pressure, and her own guide to online privacy shows it wasnt luck.

Highlights of the Magnanti method include: changing your email account twice a year and knowing which providers to avoid; knowing how to remove metadata from text documents and media files; learning how to use VPNs and Tor, and how to tell if your IP address is accessible; setting yourself up as a silent partner in a new company run by your accountant. At one point Magnanti installed a keystroke logger (which makes a secret record of all the buttons pressed on your computer) and found that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone.

Journalist Mazher Mahmood, AKA the Fake Sheikh, who conducted pseudonymous stings on public figures, after his conviction at the Old Bailey this week. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

Gattis justification for his scoop is vague. It centres on Ferrantes new book not a novel, but a collection of letters, essays and other pieces of nonfiction called Frantumaglia. According to its publisher, it answers many of her readers questions, but if Gatti is right, some of the answers are lies specifically that Ferrantes mother was a Neapolitan seamstress who spoke the Naples dialect, and that Ferrante herself grew up in the city until she ran away. He also contends that she is lying with a purpose: These crumbs of information seemed designed to satisfy her readers appetite for a personal story that might relate to the Neapolitan setting of the novels themselves.

To unmince those words, Gatti is saying that Ferrante wants people to believe she rescued herself through education from the slums of Naples, just as the Elena in her novels does. If people believe this, it would make the novels more than just the story of a woman overcoming poverty and patriarchy; it would make them an example of it happening for real. Seen this way, buying Ferrante becomes a kind of vote for feminism, and attacking her almost a vote against it; thus concocted sisterliness, not literary quality, explains the books success.

Whatever you believe, Im sure theres no need to explain why a man implying this would raise such fierce feelings. Even at the best of times there is a widespread view that female novelists are considered great more grudgingly than male ones. In any case, Gatti does not get close to proving that Ferrante had a scheme to deceive her readers, and proof is meant to matter to investigative journalists. Certainly, Ferrante is no Rahila Khan.

Who? In 1987, Virago published Down the Road, Worlds Away, a book of stories by a little-known British Muslim woman. Khans work, mostly about the hardship of Asian teenagers in modern Britain, had been broadcast on BBC Radio and much praised. An article in the Times Educational Supplement said that her first story almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life.

Khan was shy about her fame, perhaps not surprisingly, although she took her shyness awfully far, never meeting or even speaking to her radio editor, her publisher or even her agent. There turned out to a simple explanation. She was the Reverend Toby Forward, an Anglican vicar in Brighton who believed that fiction by vicars wasnt taken seriously. When Virago found out, they were outraged, and withdrew the book from sale. Forward now writes childrens books, and has always argued, as Lionel Shriver did so shockingly at the Brisbane Writers festival last month, that fiction writers are supposed to imagine being other people. That doesnt mean you get it right, however. For instance, he imagined that Virago wouldnt mind.

Ferrante has no need to justify her anonymity. She can do whatever works for her. Interestingly, Clarke-Williams thinks that not even proven hypocrisy on her part would legally justify her exposure in the public interest. All shes doing is writing fiction which has struck a chord, and she may or may not have had the personal experience I think a writer of fiction is expected to make things up!

The late Harper Lee never hid her identity, but did manage to stay out of the public eye for much of her life. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even so, it is worth considering her other choices. JD Salinger, Harper Lee and Thomas Pynchon have all shown that novelists need not conceal their names in order to be little-known. On the contrary, by making her identity a secret, Ferrante inevitably made it much more interesting, not least because it gave people cause to wonder whether she had something autobiographical to hide. She seems to have been drawn into all those interviews in an effort to explain herself.

She has mentioned being inspired by Jane Austen, whose anonymity made a great impression on me as a girl of 15, but Charlotte Bront is instructive, too. She published Jane Eyre as Currer Bell, with her sisters Emily and Anne being Ellis and Acton. Besides being averse to personal publicity, they had chosen pseudo-male names because of a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; indeed, rather than spending all its energy on Jane Eyre, the world spent much more on guessing who Currer Bell was, and especially which sex. This just made Charlotte more reluctant to reveal herself, which was torture when she realised that several of her literary heroes Dickens, Thackeray, Martineau were eager to meet her if she would just drop by. By the time her next novel, Shirley, was published, she was worried that her mail would be opened at the local post office. (A reminder that hacking was not invented with computers.) In the end, she gave in.

The point then, as now, as always, is that you cant seek attention for your work and hope that none seeks you. You cant choose absence. You can only choose to be yourself, or to be a mystery, and people who dont love mysteries cannot love novels either. Besides, of course it matters who the author is, at least eventually. Otherwise there could still be someone saying that Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, even Pride and Prejudice, were too good to be written by a woman.

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Elena Ferrante: literary storm as Italian reporter ‘identifies’ author

Claudio Gatti says he has solved one of modern literatures biggest mysteries but fans criticise his report as an intrusion

It is, arguably, the biggest mystery in modern literature: the true identity of novelist Elena Ferrante. But when one of Italys investigative journalists claimed to have unmasked her on Sunday, the response of many in the literary world was to ask why he had felt the need to do so.

Writing for the New York Review of Books and Il Sole 24 Ore, journalist Claudio Gatti said he had been able to identify the author of My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the highly acclaimed Neapolitan series as a Rome-based translator who once helped run a publishing imprint of Italian writers.

But her publisher and high-profile authors asked why Gatti had acted the way he did. Sandro Ferri, Ferrantes publisher and one of the few people who is known to know her identity, said he was appalled by the attempt to unmask a woman who has purposely steered clear of the limelight and has always said that she only wanted to write books.

We just think that this kind of journalism is disgusting, he told the Guardian. Searching in the wallet of a writer who has just decided not to be public.

Readers called the alleged scoop an intrusion into the life of one of the worlds most influential female writers. Some were afraid it would stop Ferrante from ever writing again, saying the story had been driven by the ego of the reporter and the New York Review of Books.

Some said there were far more worthy targets of investigative journalism.

Pamela Paul (@PamelaPaulNYT)

Who else here would rather uncover Trump’s taxes than Elena Ferrante’s identity?

October 2, 2016

Kimberly Burns (@kimberlyburnspr)

Shameful. If Elena Ferrante doesn’t write another book, it is because of the attention-hungry egos of Claudio Gatti & @nybooks editors.

October 2, 2016

Jojo Moyes, the British author who wrote Me Before You, said the issue boiled down to something very simple: that Ferrante may have had good reason to write under a pseudonym.

Jojo Moyes (@jojomoyes)

Re those last RTs. Maybe Elena Ferrante has very good reasons to write under a pseudonym. It’s not our ‘right’ to know her.

October 2, 2016

Gattis conclusion was based on his review of payments that were allegedly made by Ferrantes publisher, Edizione E/O, which Gatti said showed that the main financial beneficiary of Ferrantes extraordinary success was Anita Raja.

Rajas name will be familiar to those who have long followed the speculation over Ferrantes identity, as it has been raised in ruminative Italian press reports for years never with any solid evidence.

In his piece, Gatti pointed to Italian real estate records that allegedly showed Raja and her husband, Domenico Starnone, buying multimillion euro properties in Rome around the time that Ferrante became an international sensation.

Gatti reported that neither Raja nor Starnone had responded to repeated requests for comment.

In response to the criticism, Gatti said Ferrante was arguably the most well-known Italian figure in the world, and that there was a legitimate right for readers to know … as they have made her such a superstar.

He said Ferrante and her publishers acknowledged as much when they agreed to publish a autobiographical work called Frantumaglia, which Gatti said was full of untruths about Ferrantes personal story.

In it, Ferrante points to a quote from Italo Calvino: Ask me what you want to know, but I wont tell you the truth, of that you can be sure, saying she liked the passage.

I believe that by announcing that she would lie on her own autobiographical essay, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown, Gatti told the Guardian in an email.

Indeed, she and her publisher seemed not only to have fed public interest in her true identity but to have challenged critics and journalists to go behind the lies. She told us that she finds them healthy. As a journalist, I dont. In fact it is my job to expose them.

While dozens of articles have been written over the years speculating about Ferrantes true identity, Ferrante has always zealously guarded her anonymity, saying it gives her the protection she needs to write in the sometimes brutally honest style that millions of people have been drawn to.

Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator and allegedly the author Elena Ferrante. Photograph:

Readers and critics particularly admire Ferrante for her ability to capture the inner lives of women, a feat that the author has always suggested requires her to be shielded from public scrutiny.

Asked by the Guardian in an email interview earlier this year why she protected her anonymity, Ferrante said it was partly to shield the Neapolitan community from which she drew her inspiration. But there were other reasons, too.

The wish to remove oneself from all forms of social pressure or obligation. Not to feel tied down to what could become ones public image. To concentrate exclusively and with complete freedom on writing and its strategies, she wrote.

When asked in a 2015 email interview in the Financial Times about her characters emotional breakdowns, experiences that are described as dissolving, Ferrante said she had seen the phenomenon in her own mother.

We experience too many ties that choke our desires and ambitions. The modern world subjects us to pressures that at times we are not able to bear, she said.

In another passage, she explains the sometimes savage world she grew up in, where men could be violent to correct women.

In comments that could resonate in the media storm surrounding her identity, she wrote: Today much has changed but I still think the men who can really be trusted are a minority maybe (and this is what I tend to believe) its because male power, whether violently or delicately imposed, is still bent on subordinating us. Too many women are humiliated every day and not just on a symbolic level.

According to Gatti, Raja has worked as a German translator for Edizione E/O and helped to run an imprint there, Collana degli Azzurri, in the 1990s, which published about four books by Italian writers, including Ferrantes first novel. Among other works, Raja has translated the works of German writer Christa Wolf.

If Ferrantes identity is ever confirmed and it may never be it would at least end speculation, particularly in the Italian press, that Ferrante is actually a man.

In an article by journalist Rachel Donadio published in the New York Review of Books in 2014, Donadio said the suggestion was more telling about contemporary Italy than about Ferrantes work, before repeating the assertion that it could be Domenico Starnone, Rajas husband, or Raja.

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