Behind a prominent female name in Spanish detective novels: three men
MADRID – In a literary world long populated by successful men, some have cited the popularity of Carmen Mola as an example that times were changing in Spain.
Publishing under a pseudonym, the writer produced a crime trilogy with an eccentric police inspector as the protagonist, probing the underworld for clues of crimes. The public were led to believe that Carmen Mola was a married teacher who lived in Madrid, but didn’t know much else.
Mysteries, both in the storylines of the novels and around the identity of the author, were a recipe for success, selling hundreds of thousands of books throughout the Spanish speaking world. But the biggest surprise of all came this month at a ceremony attended by the King of Spain where Carmen Mola received the Planeta Prize, a literary prize worth over $ 1 million.
A team of three people came together to receive the prize. They were all men.
The revelation sparked a heated debate, which spilled over into blogs and bookstores across Spain. It has also reverberated through the literary establishment, which, like many other countries, has come under harsh judgment on gender equality in recent years.
It has long been said that Carmen Mola was not what she appeared to be. Yet some writers have asked, how is it that one of the best-selling female names in Spanish letters is in fact an invention of three men – a trio which, in turn, received the most literary award. lucrative country?
The frustration also surfaced on social media, where some women have made it a symptom of a larger problem of gender imbalance in the literary world.
Laura Casielle, a poet from the Spanish capital, Madrid, said her frustrations were mostly about the commercialization of Carmen Mola’s books at a time when women’s literature is finally receiving its due.
“Activists and writers have long struggled to gain interest and editorial space,” she said. “Seeing that the men are trying to use this moment for their own commercial gain, well, it’s going to leave blisters. “
Others felt that they had been duped by the authors or that the editors and editors had peddled a deception, while some saw it simply as a debate about creative expression.
The pseudonym is a centuries-old tradition in Europe, deployed by Voltaire, CS Lewis and Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer who is said to have worked under at least 70 fictitious names.
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George Eliot was the pen name of a writer who dismissed fictional plots written by many 19th-century women as trivial and ridiculous. And JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, said she abbreviated her name before she was known to look more masculine and avoid sexism.
But in these cases, it was often a woman who chose a male name, fearing discrimination if she used her true identity. Which raised the question in Spain: what does it mean for a group of male writers to assume the identity of a woman?
The Planeta Prize is one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world, with a monetary value that even now exceeds the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is awarded by the Spanish publishing house Planeta for an unpublished manuscript which will be printed by the company. This year, it was awarded on October 15 for an upcoming novel titled “The Beast”, which is scheduled for release on November 4.
Antonio Mercero was one of the three real authors of “The Beast” and the other novels of Carmen Mola – screenwriters turned novelists who had known each other for years. He said his critics might miss the point.
At a cafe near his home in Madrid, Mr Mercero said the decision to use a pen name was made from the start, before anyone knew the novels would be a smash hit. He insisted they wanted to focus readers on the novel at a time when social media was leaving them chasing details about the author.
“We wanted the novel to stand out on its own merits,” he said.
Mr Mercero said he felt it was a minority of readers who were upset but was still surprised by the reviews, which he said he found “a bit moot”. He said writers’ main concern when it comes to gender is to overturn a sexist convention that has bothered them, that detective books should be about men.
Carmen Mola’s novels feature Elena Blanco, a policewoman in her fifties. Her understudy is a young officer who slowly falls in love with her, a reversal of the detective story cliché that Mr Mercero said had been the key to the drama.
“The reaction seems a bit disproportionate to me,” he said of those who have focused solely on the pen name.
Still, some writers have said that giving the award to male screenwriters wasn’t fair because they had been dishonest.
“Where did these grown men hide before they did this?” Behind a woman’s name? Nuria Labari wrote in the newspaper El País.
Ms. Casielle said that early in her career as a poet, there were few female voices in publishing. But in recent years, publishing houses have been looking for anthologies of poets, and it felt like the authors were exploiting the same cultural shift.
“It was felt by women, by writers, by activists and by many readers,” she said. “And that sounds like a bad joke.”
Carmen Mola became a household name in 2018 after the publication of ‘The Gypsy Bride’, the story of Inspector Blanco unraveling the particularly gruesome murder of a woman from Spain’s Roma community. Published by Alfaguara, a division of Penguin Random House for Spanish-language books, the novel has had two sequels.
It wasn’t the first time that a female pseudonym had garnered attention, especially a bestseller. There has been speculation that the hugely popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is male.
But the revelations about the men behind Carmen Mola have raised questions about how far their editors have gone to promote the narrative that the writer was a woman.
The fast-paced chapters – the authors sketched out the plot in a writing room much like they did with television series – struck a chord not only among fans of mystery novels, but also among those who seek to strengthen the profile of female writers in Spain.
The government of the Castilla-La Mancha region in central Spain has named “The Gypsy Bride” for a regional book club featuring female authors. Women & Co., a feminist bookstore in Madrid, has placed it prominently on its sales materials.
In 2018, upon the release of “The Gypsy Bride”, an Alfaguara editor, María Fasce, published an account of her acquisition. She said Carmen Mola was a pseudonym and might even be a man. But the account also cited a biographical excerpt claiming that the writer was a female university professor who “lives in Madrid with her husband and three sons” and featured an alleged interview in which the author uses female pronouns.
This crossed an ethical line for Mathieu de Taillac, Spain correspondent for French newspaper Le Figaro, who said he spoke to the editor about an article he wrote about Carmen Mola after the publication of “The Gypsy Bride” . Ms Fasce did not correct the false biographical information in her published account, he said.
“I consider this to be a deception,” he said. “I have included things which, at the very least, we now know are lies.”
Ms Fasce said in an email that she was bound by a confidentiality agreement not to reveal the identity of the perpetrator. Mr Mercero said the writers were ultimately responsible for the details that Carmen Mola was a married professor.
After the identity of the writers was revealed – the number and gender came as a big surprise – Women & Co. bookstore released a TikTok video of staff taking copies of “The Gypsy Bride” from the shelves and sending them back to the editor.
“Of the books registered in Spain in 2018, only 32% were written by women,” the post said, referring to the year of publication of “The Gypsy Bride”.
Mr Mercero said he wanted his work not to get caught up in a cultural debate that none of the writers wanted to spark. He was eagerly awaiting the publication of their next novel, “The Beast”.
Carmen Mola’s name will remain on the cover, he said. But the authors had abandoned the detective genre for another approach: “The Beast” is a historical thriller set during a cholera epidemic in 1834.