The Function of Pettiness at the Present Time / Sarah Blackwood & Sarah Mesle

Detail from cover of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Cover photo ©  J Wheeler and V Laws/Corbis

“We can’t stop talking about Elena Ferrante” we said to each other throughout 2016—on social media, in the classroom, in pressing the Neapolitan novels upon friends and relatives. This collection of essays on Ferrante emerges from a conference panel at the Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia in January, 2017, convened by the Prose Fiction Division. The pseudonymous Italian writer, who chooses not to reveal herself beyond her writing, had come to new popularity in the US in the past few years, and we found we had a lot to say about feminism, rage, women’s friendships, genre clashes, and bad sex, amongst other topics. We still can’t stop talking about Ferrante, and we trust that when you read these lively, provocative essays, you too will join the chorus.

—Hester Blum, MLA panel moderator

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In a famous formulation, Matthew Arnold described criticism as “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Arnold’s words here imply a sense of progress, publicness, hierarchy—that, by bringing ideas to light, we can test and evaluate, mutually agree upon, their “bestness.” Arnold’s articulation remains a useful standard; even as much modern criticism has moved beyond or against his broader ideas about what’s good or “best,” criticism’s basic structure of evaluative argument still remains central to academic life and exchanges. And yet, this structure, it seems, cannot hold many forms of knowledge. What if a text, a series of novels, say, generates knowledge and experiences that can’t be contained within the consensus making world of criticism or that comes to knowledge from a felt sense, hard to describe or explain? What if you come to know something about a text that you can only share at great cost, or simply don’t want to share? What if you know something about a text because of something dark, bad, shameful, or unacceptable, that you know about yourself?

In this essay we assert that Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels turn us towards other modes of engagement: not the best that might be thought, but, in fact, the pettiest. Part of what we love about the books is that they are about people—particularly the critic Lenù—coming to understandings of the world that they can’t put up for evaluation. These are good books about people acting badly, most often in variously petty ways. Reading these novels about bad feeling has made us feel good. But reading evaluative criticism about them has made us feel, strangely, bad. We have found in the case of the Neapolitan novels, that the border between our thinking and feeling became even more vexed and blurry than usual. By thinking in this essay through the good and bad feelings the novels contain, describe, and generate, we hope to come to a clearer understanding of our own sense of the possibilities and limits of criticism, as it applies to these novels, and to our lives as critics, in this fraught present time more generally.

1: Pettiness

What does it mean to call something petty, or to be petty yourself? Pettiness has to do with being out of scale. We might understand pettiness as a relation between attention and object of attention: you are being petty when a small or seemingly irrelevant detail generates disproportionate irritation; you are also being petty when irritation leads you to pay disproportionate attention to a small detail.

This petty state is often where we found ourselves in response to much criticism about the Neapolitan novels. Something about it irritated us. Criticism about these novels felt inadequate to the largeness of our feeling and thinking about these novels. The only talk about Ferrante we liked was private, non-argumentative. The critical takes, the arguments about authorship, the interpretive discussions placing the novels in various literary contexts and genealogies: all of it, bizarrely for people who passionately do critical work for a living, seemed mostly useless and entirely missing of the point. However: what was the point we so felt everyone else was missing? And why was it all so irritating?

Part of the problem, of course, is the Neapolitan novels’ popularity and their ability to generate, basically, a fandom: when an object lives in your fanatical heart, it can be irritating to find it discussed, analyzed, praised elsewhere. It is irritating because it is irritating to discover that your heart is not the only place where that object’s truth might be revealed.

Another possibility is that the irritation is a historical symptom. The years of Ferrante fever in the United States have coincided with the collapse of things more generally—politically, psychologically, informationally. We exist in a state now where the ability to demonstrate or assert what is “best that is known” is under particular stress. It’s clear that criticism in our present time—the best that is known, consensual knowledge—has a vital role.

And yet the collapse that makes criticism urgent has another side effect too: it makes us crabby. And thus a variety of other forms of knowing and interpreting—gossip, subtweets, textspeak, side eye, backchannels—strike us as also, at the present time, particularly useful. These petty modes are insufficient to the role of understanding either literature or our present, and yet they are still, we would claim, necessary. At the very least, as we will show, they are necessary to a fuller understanding of the Neapolitan novels. The novels’ pettiness is substantive and specific; they are an expression of petty feeling all the way down.

The question the novels seek to answer—what happened to Lenù’s friendship with Lila?—is not a critical question; what went wrong is not a matter of reason or clarity.  For what would it mean to evaluate a friendship in terms of “the best that is known?” How, in friendship, literature, and politics, do we evaluate what’s good, what’s interesting, what helps and what hurts? What standards guide our judgements, where do the standards come from, and whose power do they support or undercut?

Lenù is a critic and a novelist, and yet neither of those modes of writing or evaluation have helped her answer the most urgent questions she has. For Lenù, criticism is not even an objective mode of evaluation: instead, it manifests narratively mostly as a series of bad boyfriends and bad moms, counterweighted for a while, Nancy Meyer-ishly, by increasingly nice apartments. In other words, as a life.

2: Backchannels

The Neapolitan novels are about marriage, women’s friendship, creative life, and politics. Although Lenù has built her adult life out of writing in and for publics, the prose we are reading seems deeply private: it is the material she cannot share with the world around her. It is significant that the content of the novels—an exploration of a specific friendship under conditions of poverty and patriarchy—takes a form that we might describe as a “backchannel” between Lenù and the reader. Backchannels in our contemporary world run the gamut from geopolitical intrigue to bitching with friends: Jared Kushner emailing furtively with Russian politicians, but also the more everyday flows of information in secret Facebook groups, DMs, gossipy texts. They are a place where people put knowledge they are not supposed to share; express irritation about things that are not supposed to irritate them; and indulge hysterics over things that are not supposed to be funny. In backchannels you reveal the aspects of yourself—aspects that feel unlikely to be legitimated by a wider public—to the people you believe are already on your side. Essential to this form, too, is the response it assumes: agreement and, crucially, reciprocity. Putting your worst or most outrageous self, your secrets, in a backchannel anticipates that the reader will reflect their illegitimate selves, their secrets, back to you.

If we think of the novels as backchannels, we can imagine them as bringing to light the question of what “can’t” be brought to light, and why. The novels are soul-baring but in an intimate, secretive, whispering sort of way, and they elicit intimate, secretive conversation in us, their readers. Lenù is telling us things about herself that she does not want to be known. So what is lost in responding to this voice in the idiom of criticism? Because criticism’s task is so fully on the side of illumination, publics, consensus, it seems categorically to violate the intimate mode the novels’ form both takes and encourages us to inhabit. Criticism’s idiom is optimism—the idea that, even in critique, it can produce new knowledge, better understanding. The backchannel’s idiom, to the contrary, in its expectation of the reciprocation of illegitimate knowledge and feeling, is pettiness.

Let’s consider one moment that illuminates how the novels understand the intersection of petty feelings, politics, evaluative consensus, and the backchannel form. Home for Christmas at a time she initially considers a pinnacle of her life, Lenù’s daughters lead their husbands and boyfriends over to the bookshelf and take down her books. They read them aloud, “ironically,” and laugh with one another over their mother’s self-seriousness, her prose’s belief that it might change the world. Their critical pettiness is hurtful, of course, but the true pain comes from the fact that Lenù recognizes some truth about herself in their insufficiently private backchannel. Overhearing them laugh about her books, Lenù realizes that her entire critical and creative life might be “reduced merely to a petty battle to change [her] social class.”

In this moment, crucially, Lenù cares less that her daughters are being petty gossips and more about the prospect that not only her creative work but also her politics have been small and wrong because they focused too particularly on her life rather than on substantive social change. While writing about the politics of literature, she has in fact mostly been focused on herself and her own comforts.

While it might be a surprise to Lenù to discover the pettiness of her own ambitions, it is not surprising to us: by this point in the series, we have spent many pages in close company with Lenù’s petty, selfish emotions, the petty details of her daily life. We have cheered on her petty battle to improve her life in any limited way that she can, just as we are invited not to condemn her daughters for their pettiness toward their mother. The novels succeed in being generous toward their characters’ bad acting not despite but because the novels pay close attention to details, because, in fact, they celebrate, out-of-scale attention. Dwelling in pettiness is how the novels generate their pleasure. They invite us to respond with our own out-of-scale fears, irritations, and concerns, rather than with our big-picture understanding.

3: Scale

Consider, for example, how Ferrante structures her novels to insist on the narrative force of small details. Lila’s marriage is over at its beginning because she focuses, obsessively, on a profoundly “trivial” detail: the sociopathic Marcello Solara shows up at her wedding wearing shoes she had made by hand, which he had long pursued and she had long refused to give or sell to him. What’s more, she realizes, her new husband Stefano is the one who has given them to him. Lila’s white hot rage over this detail is out of proportion, most others in her community agree—Stefano, the Solara brothers, even Lila’s brother all encourage her to look at the big picture, to give up caring about this small thing so that a larger social and economic prosperity can be secured. But we readers see the situation more clearly: the shoes are the big picture—they are her art, the “small” thing she thought she could keep out of the marriage market even as she consented to its broader practice. The novel emphasizes this interpretation to us by treating the discovery of the stolen shoes as a cliffhanger, meriting the weight of the whole first novel’s concluding sentence. And the men know this too, know that the shoes are of great significance, even as they speciously urge her to not be petty.

Lila cannot let the drama of the shoes go because the shoes’ significance is one of the only forms of power she has: we would call her exercise of this power “sideways,” a way of grasping for small, satisfying but rarely honorable victories inside a conscripted life. Denied, by virtue of gender and class, official means of social power, she engages in a sort of social guerrilla warfare.

Our sense has been that the pleasure of the novels comes from its petty details, but that criticism demands a sort of direct frontal interpretive attack that is counter to both the sideways power the novels describe and praise, and to our readerly experience of them. Criticism does often make space for trying to understand “sideways power”—as subversion, as critique, as counter-narrative. But, we would argue, once elevated and illuminated by criticism, conscripted and sideways power can suddenly look ennobling when, really, it very much is not.

The novels’ frank interest in its characters as dishonorable bad actors set within an even more dishonorable and bad-acting social world, its attention to the pettiness and petty details this scenario generates, is what makes us love them. The Neapolitan novels are the 1500 pages that Lenù writes to herself, to us, when all the other ways she has of communicating—direct political writing, literary criticism, even literature—have become dissatisfying to her. The novels are the place where she puts her pettiness: they are her secret Facebook group, the corner into which she has been backed and from which she speaks. What would it mean, as critics, to join her there?

4. Refusal

There seemed to us, thus, to be a mismatch between the novels’ dissatisfaction with public writing and the act of publicly writing about them. As critics tried—in essays, even in Facebook threads—to fit their encounters with the novels’ pettiness into critical forms, the pettiness lost its vitality, was in fact called out as petty, which was, in our experience, irritating.

We tried to scratch the itch of our irritation in our own writing about the Neapolitan novels. It’s only now, thinking through our motivating questions about pettiness, that we’ve realized how our critical modes shadowed the content of the novels: they are somewhat bad-acting, ignoble refusals. Refusals to engage in the productive, consensus-building arguments of criticism, refusals to consider the big picture, refusals to elevate ourselves beyond our petty complaints.

Our goal, we realize now, was to create in readers the irritation we were experiencing: the irritation of having an insight or objection that could not be spoken within criticism’s evaluative rules of play. We wanted to make polemic claims without making argumentative ones—that is, we wanted to make arguments while making it difficult or impossible for anyone to argue with or against us. We wanted to say something that asserted itself as the best without subjecting itself to the test of bestness.

Consider our claim that “taste is just another name for misogyny.” We made this assertion in a listicle of sorts that we created to express our deep love for the Neapolitan novels’ infamously trashy book covers. Rendered in pastels, featuring imagery seemingly drawn straight from the Christian women’s romance section of the bookstore, the book covers, everyone seemed to agree, were at odds with the rigor and insight of the novels themselves.

Our essay sought to interrupt what seemed to be a consensus opinion that the covers were, obviously, “bad.” But we didn’t want to argue that they were, in fact, “good.” We wanted to poke at what we maintain are the misogynistic value claims about good and bad taste. Critics seemed to agree, no matter where they were writing, that the “cheesy romance novel” quality of the covers was antithetical to good writing, good thinking, or even a good account of anarchic emotional life (and thus that if the covers had any merit, it was ironic, still buying into the same standards of taste). Yet, we argued, this was wrong. We wrote:

the Neapolitan novels, which are about poor women with restricted access to education (and the class mobility that aesthetic taste enables), look like books that might be sold to poor women with restricted access to education. Note that literati readers love to identify with the characters, Lila and Lenù, who are women who use reading to escape their lives. So why are we so unwilling to consider ourselves to be anything like the women who are Lila and Lenù’s real world reading counterparts? Why are we so determined to stand against their reading practices and aesthetic tastes?

Our answer to this question is what we’d like to focus on here:

This sentence stages our most polemic claim—“taste is just another name for internalized misogyny”—as a truth claim at the foundation of an argument rather than the argument itself. More, the claim can’t hold, argumentatively: it is out of scale with itself. It contains a multitude of debatable assumptions about how taste, culture, gender, and even psychology work, yet we were uninterested in debating any of them. Because the very fact of having to debate them, carefully, with evidence and expertise, dissipates the deep feelings—of love, of irritation—that the covers cause us to feel and, importantly, what the discussion of the covers lead us to know but to know other than through agreed upon standards of argument. The knowledge, here, came from the accrued feeling of living for years in a world that finds a pastel aesthetic distasteful. Criticism’s carefulness would defuse the power of experience behind this claim.

Our second essay on Ferrante simply asserted, over and over, that men (all men)—after one specific man outed Elena Ferrante’s real identity—should shut up, just shut up, about Ferrante “forever, or at least for this week.” Where the piece about the book covers at least gestured toward the possibility of an argument, this essay refuses argumentative structure in the most fundamental way. Where the piece about the book covers made a deliberately broad polemic claim about how misogyny shapes taste, this piece instead makes a deliberately impossible claim and supports it only with a shrug and an exclamation point: “Sorry!”

The satisfaction of writing a piece like this is difficult to overstate. The exposure of Ferrante—and particularly the smug tone that exposure took—was something that made us angry, and yet writing an essay explaining why would not have resolved that feeling, partly because to write that essay would have been to enter into an argumentative exchange that would simply elicit more of the writing that angered us in the first place. Instead, our goal was to make a context in which even well-meaning exchange was disabled.

And, it seems, many others felt this way as well: the piece was a tremendous success by a couple of metrics. Its page views and audience reach showed that it resonated, and that it resonated partly because it did something so entirely different from the many argumentative claims cultural critics jumped to articulate in the week after the explosive unveiling of Ferrante’s identity.

We might also measure the forcefulness of its impact in another way, one that we hope shows that we are not making an ideological or political claim about the positive value of this mode of writing: it’s the only thing we’ve ever run in Avidly that ever provoked a rape threat.

What to do with this, we really don’t know—would a clearer argument, more engagement, have prevented the rape threat? Probably not. But it does seem clear that something about the shamelessness of how the original piece made an unsupportable claim, the refusal to inhabit “legitimate” modes of exchange, is part of what provoked it.

5. Women

From pettiness to rape threats, obviously the underlying concern of this essay has been how gendered experience shapes criticism. Despite the fact that scholarship has worked for decades to describe how gender enters into criticism, it remains an unresolved question, and we would posit that this may be because the form of criticism itself disallows admission of the emotional experience in which gender most forcefully resides. Claiming that gender is an emotional experience is not at all to deny that is also an embodied, interpretive, and economic one—instead it is to say that all these conditions combine to generate an emotional state, and that often the state of those who fall under the sign “woman,” and who seek to speak about that experience, is one primarily of irritation: not quite a wound, but a rawness. (Perhaps that’s why so many of us spend so much money on salves.)

Criticism would agree that misogyny is omnipresent and yet rarely makes space for the sort of sweeping claims that might capture the irritated experience that such omnipresence generates—for example, criticism cannot (and this is not only a weakness) hold the claim that taste is only internalized misogyny, even though the omnipresence of internalized misogyny makes that claim feel true, and the feeling is politically and critically necessary if we are to capture the experience of gender. The Neapolitan novels feel weirdly capacious to us because they have allowed space for ugly feelings to exist, and importantly not only in their fictional depiction. One thing that this ugliness has allowed us is new purchase on the experience of reading, interpreting, and practicing criticism as women. It seems to us, personally, and as women, that to love these novels is to hate how most everyone else talks, argues, and makes claims about them. In fact, to love these novels, as women, might be to hate everyone; that hate might be one of the best (yet still limited) tools we have to understand how gender continues, obstinately, to shape individuals’ entrance into interpretation.

Because obviously these books are gendered, are about gender, are written through, read in, and talked about in a condition of gender. This is difficult to talk about, because gender too is all petty differences. When we leave pettiness for criticism, we feel a pressure to transcend gender’s petty differences into a space where interpretation and meaning can be debated, discussed, and agreed upon. But the thing that’s just true—this is another sweeping, untenable, and necessary claim—is that women lose more, and have more to lose, in that space.

One thing that they lose, often, is their petty experiences of womanhood, which could also be (but so rarely is) called “knowledge.” What we “know” about these novels, what we glean about how, for instance, they bind the life of the mind to the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot, has to do with the fact that we read and think and write about them from a world still largely dictated by the fucked-up-ness of the marriage plot—a plot which in our current moment inscribes ever more lives. What we know about what the novels say about labor, writing, friendship, and political movements comes similarly from personal, and often unflattering or uncomfortable, knowledge accrued through women’s just-below-the-radar-of-legitimacy experience.

Here it is worth saying that “woman” is obviously a troubling category. 2017 is a year when the world has emphasized both how radically women are vulnerable as women, with pussies to be grabbed, and also has made the violence that white, straight, middle-class women do to others crystal fucking clear. (Trump’s voting block depended precisely upon the pettiness of white women.) Further, we can’t even use the word “woman” without mobilizing a language that is inherently false, and heterosexist, in its understanding of what it means to be human. Perhaps “woman” is a word that should have no force in criticism. Many people think this, and we see their point.

Yet we—we, the writers of this piece—are uncomfortable with the way this formulation allows human knowledge, here literary criticism, to hopscotch yet again over the responsibility to understand the particularities of women’s experiences, in the way that science and medicine and economics and history often have done. (Here we are reminded of Virginia Woolf’s repeated quests in A Room of One’s Own to learn about the history of women: returning to the shelves of knowledge again and again, she finds hundreds of years of nothing there.)

And more, we think of Lila, in the Neapolitan novels, speaking in public about the abuse and harassment experienced in the factory, and the sexual form it takes for women, and then facing, in private, Enzo’s well-meaning concern: does this happen to you? he asks. Admitting the forcefulness of woman as a sign, here, its universality, would be for Lila tantamount to taking on another womanly task: comforting men who, like Matthew McConaughey looking mournfully at pictures of rape victims in True Detective, are burdened with the difficulty of living as men in a world where men do, over and over, such terrible things to women. We love Lila for being too tired to give a shit. Exhausted, she lies to Enzo: oh no, nothing untoward ever happens to her at her workplace, just because she’s a woman, just because it happens to every woman. Nope: everything is fine.

This is the tension of the sign of “woman”: that it is out of scale, simultaneously universal and particular, simultaneously useful and an obstacle, outmoded. We have to talk about it, and yet can’t: the reasons we can’t are always already undone by the misogynistic structures that adhere white women to patriarchy and also give a gendered form to the basic selfish pettiness of the human, beyond gender. Gender has never been the “best that is known or thought.” This has historically almost always been a problem for criticism. And yet in the Neapolitan novels, it is also an opportunity.

6: The Present Time

The Neapolitan novels, in form and content, necessitated for us a consideration of pettiness: of how pettiness, gender, criticism, and politics interact. By way of conclusion, we’d note another sphere where pettiness’s forceful ambivalent power seems necessary to consider: the election of Trump, the world’s pettiest candidate, over Hillary Clinton, a candidate who (because she is a woman, rather than for her questionable politics) was evaluated in the most petty way.

The number of ways pettiness infused the 2016 election are legion and beyond our scope here (although it’s worth considering Hillary as a sort of real world analog of the Ferrante covers). We’d like to mention just one: how this campaign illustrated not just how much the world hates women speaking in public but how much the world hates, even, women speaking, in private, to one another. Hillary’s email backchannel was the issue that lost the election: America decided that it would rather give a sociopath the nuclear codes than endure the fact of two women, Hillary and Huma, talking to each other: about what? Privately sharing recipes for quiche?

This is a petty account of the 2016 election, and nevertheless a true one. Democracy, like criticism, relies on a belief in evaluative meritocracy, and the secret talk of women (and other marginalized groups) shows the limits of this belief.

In speaking about pettiness we are not making a value claim: we are making a significance claim. Pettiness is important, but it is not necessarily good. It is not, as we have said, ennobling. Terrible people use it to terrible ends; brilliant people use it to brilliant ends. But assuming that pettiness is something that critics can “get over” on their way to “knowledge” is a mistake, and it is partly a mistake because “getting over pettiness” repeats the very political, often misogynistic, blindness it aims to reveal. In a better world maybe we wouldn’t need pettiness. But that seems not to be where we live.

Pettiness is a strategy used by many different people who must scavenge for legitimacy at the boundaries of “the best that is known and thought.” It’s useful not just for “women,” but also it is useful for “women,” and particularly for understanding the small and distasteful categories of gendered experience still rarely countenanced in traditions of criticism. In the places where criticism about categories of sex and gender are carried out—seminar rooms, lecture halls—the caretaking labor of ordering snacks, vacuuming, and finding ziplock bags for the graduate students to take home leftovers reveal structures that are powerfully gendered, raced, and classed. These are acts that produce and reproduce the contexts where criticism can take place, and yet like most reproductive experience (biological and social) goes irritatingly unnoticed.

Getting back to the questions that have animated our inquiry—But what was the point that others were missing? And why was it all so irritating?—we might now answer simply, and more than a little elliptically, that the irritation itself was the point everyone else was missing. Here were these novels that delivered an avalanche of petty details about living under patriarchy, and thematized the failure of evaluative criticism to soothe these irritations. The novels represented these huge, often traumatic, things—rape, loss, poverty, abuse, marriage, friendship—through a sort of particularized, petty dailiness that was revelatory because it was so true to the grinding quality of these experiences. And, more, the novels suggested that this irritation wasn’t something to be gotten over on the way to producing the best of what has been thought in the world, but rather the thing that makes for better, more honest readers of relationships, art, truth, and the world.

The unattractiveness of the novels’ irritations, their details, the stinginess of them, infuses us with a kind of ecstatic bitterness that is the opposite of consensus making or persuasion. It is aligned with the lived-ness of gender, with the deauthorization of all those whose lives never stand as common sense. This bitterness reminds us that it is always a privilege to have the luxury of leaving pettiness behind.

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This is the third in a quartet of essays on Elena Ferrante’s writing. See also the firstsecond, and fourth essays in the quartet, by Christina Lupton, Pamela Thurschwell, and David Kurnick, respectively.

Sarah Blackwood & Sarah Mesle

Sarah Blackwood (PhD, Northwestern) is Associate Professor of English at Pace University. With Sarah Mesle, she is the co-founder and co-editor of Avidly and the forthcoming short book series from NYU Press, Avidly Reads. She’s finishing a book about nineteenth-century portraiture and inner life, and has published scholarly essays on nineteenth-century literature and art in American Literature, MELUS, and elsewhere. She’s written for The Awl and Los Angeles Review of Books, and currently writes a column about motherhood and literature for The Hairpin.


Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is Senior Editor at Large at the Los Angeles Review of Books and Assistant Professor (Teaching) at USC. With Sarah Blackwood, she is the co-founder and co-editor of Avidly and the forthcoming short book series from NYU Press, Avidly Reads. She has written about gender and popular culture for venues ranging from Studies in American Fiction to InStyle Magazine. You can follow her on twitter.