‘Carmen Mola’ and the politics of a pseudonym

You could look at the story of “Carmen Mola” this way: a group of guys masquerade as a woman and get, first, a pass for writing ultra-violent thrillers under a female name — and then, second, they get a fat prize too.

I will admit that on first hearing the news on the radio, I let out a small sigh. Mola is known for a sequence of best-selling crime novels: their protagonist is a Madrid detective called Elena Blanco — “a peculiar, solitary woman, lover of grappa, karaoke, classic cars and all-terrain sexual relations”, as the publisher’s blurb has it.

Mola has always been acknowledged to be a pseudonym; it was the pseudonym alone, I’m guessing, that led to her being dubbed “the Spanish Elena Ferrante” — that’s the comparison made on her agent’s website. It’s hard to see what, exactly, Mola’s violent procedurals have in common with Ferrante’s evocations of Neapolitan life. But both authors were presumably women writing under other names, and that all-terrain detective was called “Elena”, right? Female writers do tend to get lumped together in a way male writers don’t.

When Carmen Mola won the world’s richest literary prize last week, the veil of anonymity was stripped away. The Planeta prize (now worth €1m) was awarded not to a reclusive female academic — as Mola had been described — but to Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero.

The trio are television scriptwriters who have collaborated on Spanish shows such as On Duty Pharmacy, Central Hospital and — wait for it — No Heaven Without Breasts. The story gets even more meta since they didn’t win the prize for a Blanco novel but for a historical thriller called The Beast, which was entered for the prize under the pen-name Sergio López — a pseudonym for Carmen Mola. Hold on to your hats.

Jorge Díaz, Antonio Mercero and Agustín Martínez receive the trophy for their novel ‘La Bestia’ in Barcelona on October 15 © AFP via Getty Images

The revelation of Mola’s identity reopens many of the questions that vex writing and publishing — questions that seem particularly pressing right now, but which in truth have always been with us. Who is allowed to write what? What bearing does gender — or identity as a whole — have on the production and consumption of literature? Where does invention end and appropriation begin? Fiction is about making stuff up. Outside of a book, we call that lying. It’s very challenging to apply boundaries to what has always been a dangerously slippery process.

On the one hand, this isn’t a particularly shocking story. Certainly in the past decade there has been a spate of crime novels published by authors using, at least, gender-neutral names — I was one of many who assumed that SJ Watson, bestselling author of Before I Go to Sleep, was female: Steve Watson is not. JP Delaney (The Girl Before) is in fact Tony Strong. Both authors have expressed their gratification that publishers and readers assumed they might be women; but are they — and “Carmen Mola” — taking up space that rightly belongs to women?

There is also the issue that crime fiction (both between covers and on the small and big screen) so often takes as its subject violence against women — almost always perpetrated by a man — and is often criticised for dwelling on this too graphically. There is something queasy in the idea that a female pseudonym offers shelter to men writing of murder and mayhem.

Tahmima Anam, whose debut novel A Golden Age won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, and who in 2013 was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists, is blunt: “I can understand why those men would want to be someone else to write. But I don’t think that men should write with a female pseudonym, because of power. Women have to think about power and privilege all the time; what I’m saying is not specific to these men, but I would like men to consider their privilege all the time.”

I speak to Anam because when we were discussing her new novel, The Startup Wife, some months ago, she told me she had considered publishing it under a pseudonym. Her publisher, Canongate, persuaded her not to. The Startup Wife, a sharp, funny, fast-paced satire of the tech industry, is a real departure from her previous work.

So why consider a pseudonym? “I wanted to be read out of context,” Anam says. “I think it’s mostly to do with the fact that people who have a name like mine are expected to write the kind of books I wrote with my first three novels, and I didn’t feel confident that I would be read outside those expectations. I decided that someone else had written The Startup Wife; my alter-ego had written that book.”

For centuries, of course, women have wished to evade the expectations and restrictions imposed on them because of their sex: Mary Ann Evans published as George Eliot; the Brontë sisters became Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. JK Rowling — who chose not to use her first name to keep her identity gender-neutral, at least on her book covers — had a brief escape into the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith before she was rumbled.


Percentage by which women writers’ titles are priced lower than those by men

Díaz, Martínez and Mercero have said they didn’t think much about choosing a female pseudonym; “We didn’t hide behind a woman, we hid behind a name,” Mercero has said.

And yet: women are still not equal in the literary marketplace. Women buy more books than men in nearly every category of fiction; up to 80 per cent of book purchases in the US, UK and Canada are made by women. Women are widely acknowledged to be the engine of publishing: figures appearing in the trade organ The Bookseller reveal that last year 629 of the 1,000 bestselling fiction titles were written by women; in the category called “general and literary fiction”, 75 per cent of titles were by female authors.

Yet women writers — like women in every other industry — earn less: a study released in 2018 found that their books were on average priced 45 per cent lower than titles by men. A few years ago, the author Kamila Shamsie argued for a year of publishing women only, her “provocation” (as she called it) spurred by facts such as the proportion of male/female authors whose books were chosen for promotion on World Book Night: 64 male versus 36 female authors between 2010 and 2015. Things on that front are improving, at least: this year, of single-authored books promoted by World Book Night in the UK, 13 were by women, five by men.

Rose Tremain is a writer who has never hesitated — in books such as Restoration, The Road Home and Sacred Country — to enter the minds and hearts of characters unlike herself; but she sees in “Carmen Mola” little more than a cynical marketing ploy. We correspond by email, but I know her well and I can imagine her raised eyebrow.

“It’s perhaps not surprising that some middle-aged white dudes sought to promote books about female slaughter one gender adrift from the male gaze,” Tremain notes briskly. “I don’t think this really has to do with imagination and how it stands up; it’s a selling ruse, no more and no less.” She wonders, as an aside, whether they’ll have to give the money back. Probably not, I reckon.

The English novelist Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot, circa 1860
The English novelist Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot, circa 1860 © Getty Images

My own feelings about this saga are complex. Yes, I did let out that sigh when I heard the news — but I also sit down at my desk each day and attempt, in writing fiction, to become something, someone, entirely other than myself. When I teach my students at Goldsmiths, I urge them to free their imaginations, to take themselves to the limit of what they believe they can do as writers. As a writer I wish to break free from the prison of my own identity and I wonder how choosing another name — the alter-ego that Anam describes — might affect the process. Ruth Rendell wrote very different sorts of books as Barbara Vine; there is only the difference of a single letter, but the novels of Iain Banks are different to the novels of Iain M Banks.

And while most of this conversation takes place around novels and novelists, writers of non-fiction can be victims of the same assumptions: a few years ago I published Chief Engineer, a biography of Washington Roebling, a 19th-century engineer who was the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. I lost count of the number of times I was asked why I hadn’t written a book about his wife. Emily Roebling was a remarkable woman, and crucial to the construction of the great bridge, but I am willing to bet that had my name been Eric, no one would have raised the issue.

Zoë Waldie, an agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White, is wry when we begin to talk about the story. “As we all know, it takes three men to do the work of one woman!” she says — but then makes a more serious point. “This makes sense to me because the three of them are scriptwriters, and scriptwriting is such a collaborative form. Choosing a female pseudonym perhaps meant that it was ‘other’ for all of them, that none of their voices would dominate — and that might make for a more enjoyable collaboration.”

I believe that in truth Waldie’s point gets to the heart of this tale — how collaborative work is viewed in the literary world. In an interview with Spain’s EFE news agency, Martínez suggested that the group wrote under one name because “collective work is not as valued in literature [as in] other arts such as painting or music”. Or, indeed, in television writing, the other arena in which these authors work; in the US, certainly, the “writers’ room” is the backbone of the creation of great television drama: it’s widely accepted that one person’s vision — however remarkable — will be improved and deepened by the work of other minds. David Chase is the creator of The Sopranos (in the running for the best thing that’s ever been on television) but only wrote 25 of its 86 episodes. There were 62 episodes of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad: Gilligan himself wrote 13.

The three authors who created “Carmen Mola” may simply have wanted to sell a shedload of books; but their actions raise the larger issue of whether in truth we can ever ascribe any work to a single creator. Surely all art (even commercial art, should you wish to make the distinction) is collaborative: it uses a shared language, shared symbols, it enters a shared discourse. We live in a culture that puts enormous emphasis on the act of the individual creator: but what if we are all in this together?

If you are lucky enough to catch a performance of Philip Glass’s astonishing opera Satyagraha at the English National Opera, you will note that Phelim McDermott is described as its director; but that’s not quite how McDermott himself sees it. He is a founder member and co-artistic director of Improbable, a group of “pioneering improvisers, theatre makers and conversation facilitators”. They are a collaborative group of artists whose productions have won acclaim around the world.

Direction itself must be a collaborative act: in this instance McDermott works to realise the vision of Glass, who is himself, in Satyagraha, interpreting the early life of Gandhi. “There are some people who are by nature better as collaborators,” McDermott says, “and I’m one of them. I need to be in that process: the sharing of the criticism and the sharing of the journey.”

In 2002, he tells me, their show Shockheaded Peter, adapted from the terrifying children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann, won an Olivier Award for best entertainment — it had been nominated in eight categories. “When they read out who the nominations were for, we made sure we listed everybody. It had been created collaboratively. And the audience laughed like this was something stupid! There is certainly a prejudice against collaborative work,” he says.

In thinking about Carmen Mola, he wonders aloud whether a female voice might be a more collaborative voice. Certainly, he says, in a creative exchange “you tell a story that neither of you would have told on your own. Sometimes that taps into a kind of creative vein where an emergent story can happen — working together you find the story that wanted to be told.”

And he points to another vital literary collaboration: perhaps the most important of all. “As soon as the writer lets go of that book and the reader reads it — the reader is collaborating with the author. The author has no idea about what’s going on there, and that’s an imaginative collaboration. Ultimately it’s all collaboration, and if a work survives, if it’s still being read now, it’s because it’s still collaborating with its audience.”

There is a recent episode of the excellent Backlisted podcast — hosted by Unbound publisher John Mitchinson and by the author Andy Miller, a show that promises to “give new life to old books” and absolutely delivers — in which hosts and guests discuss Beowulf, that great — anonymous — Anglo-Saxon epic. The panel seems to have read every available English translation, and listening to this layered, nuanced discussion of how different authors from Seamus Heaney to Maria Dahvana Headley have interpreted the work — one has a real sense of Beowulf as an oral epic. Here is a story built over time by many minds and many mouths, a story that did not have one author whose name might be discovered if we were lucky enough to find the scrap of vellum on which it was written.

Human storytelling is collective. Religion is collective storytelling. Politics is collective storytelling. We seem to have been designed to construct convincing narratives and then believe in them, absolutely: we will kill each other for the sake of these narratives. We will die for them. That’s part of the great beauty of being human: it is also what gets us into some pretty tight spots.

Maybe you think I’ve come a long way from the tale of three Spanish screenwriters who wrote a thriller under a woman’s name. But it’s a story — like all the best stories — that holds our interest because it’s complicated, difficult, can’t be boiled down to a simple morality tale. I’ve told you the story. And now — it belongs to you.

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