by James Scott Bell
A controversy over an award-winning female thriller author has broken out in Europe. That’s because the female thriller author doesn’t exist. “She” is really three men who have been writing under the pseudonym Carmen Mola. When one of their novels won a million-euro prize, the trio stepped out from anonymity to claim it.
The men, all in their 40s and 50s, denied choosing a female pseudonym to help sell the books. “We didn’t hide behind a woman, we hid behind a name,” Antonio Mercero told Spanish newspaper El País. “I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one, I don’t have the faintest idea, but I doubt it.”
But this ruse required a web of (shall we be gracious here?) fabrications to create the illusion of a real-life writer whose backstory itself was a marketing tool. They made Mola a “university professor and mother of three, who taught algebra classes in the morning then wrote ultra-violent, macabre novels in scraps of free time in the afternoon.” They even commissioned a noirish photo of a woman, facing away from the camera. It appeared on their agency’s website but has now been scrubbed. The three dudes are there instead, and appear quite happy.
Not everyone is fine with this.
Beatriz Gimeno, a feminist, writer, activist – and former head of one of Spain’s national equality bodies, the Women’s Institute – attacked the men for creating a female persona in their publicity for Carmen Mola books, over several years.
“Quite apart from using a female pseudonym, these guys have spent years doing interviews. It’s not just the name – it’s the fake profile that they’ve used to take in readers and journalists. They are scammers,” she said on Twitter.
Several questions arise. Is writing under a pseudonym always some form of “scam”? Or is it the sex change and fictional biographical details that are the sticking point?
In the “old days” a pseudonym was often used so a writer with a name could branch out into other genres. Agatha Christie was, of course, the most popular mystery writer of all time. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration. She wrote six Westmacott books and managed to keep her true identity unknown for twenty years.
Evan Hunter (whose real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino!) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.
Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise.
Then there is Stephen King, alias Richard Bachman. When he published under that pseudonym he included an elaborate backstory for Bachman:
Although King initially created Richard Bachman to experiment with literary ideas under the veil of secrecy, the author elaborated on his alter ego’s character to create a more comprehensive author bio. Apparently, Bachman wrote his novels by night, working on his dairy farm in New Hampshire during the day. He lived with his wife Claudia, mourned his son who had died at a young age in an accident, and underwent surgery for a brain tumor that isolated him from interviewers. King also included a picture of his agent’s insurance broker on the inside folds of the books.
Well, a bookstore clerk in D.C. did some digging when he found Bachman’s writing a whole lot like King’s. King was outed, and it ticked him off. He’d been planning to publish Misery as a Bachman. Now that he was “caught” he told the world that Bachman had died of “cancer of the pseudonym.” He went further, stating that Bachman’s widow had “discovered” unpublished manuscripts in Bachman’s attic: The Regulators (1996) and Blaze (2007)!
But what about men writing as women, or women as men? J. K. Rowling wanted to write crime fiction and wanted those books to stand on their own. So she chose a male pseudo, Robert Galbraith. And made up a backstory, that asserted Galbraith was “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry.”
The first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received generally positive reviews. But soon the secret got out—and sales of the book jumped 4,000%!
If you go to the Robert Galbraith author page on Amazon you’ll see a photo of J.K. Rowling, and this explanation:
J.K. Rowling’s original intention for writing as Robert Galbraith was for the books to be judged on their own merit, and to establish Galbraith as a well-regarded name in crime in its own right.
Now Robert Galbraith’s true identity is widely known, J.K. Rowling continues to write the crime series under the Galbraith pseudonym to keep the distinction from her other writing and so people will know what to expect from a Cormoran Strike novel.
So…is making up a backstory for a pseudonym out of bounds? Or is it just another aspect of marketing? Does it matter if the author is using a persona of the opposite sex? Do readers care if the ruse is discovered? Didn’t seem to hurt King, Rowling, or the Spanish guys.
What do you think, TKZers?