Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero–the three men who wrote ‘La bestia’ under pseudonym Carmen Mola.
Professional screenwriters Jorge Díaz, Antonio Mercero, and Agustín Martínez–the three men who wrote ‘La bestia,’ the thriller that won this year’s Planeta Prize. Screenshot of tweet by @Planetadelibros. Right: Book cover of ‘La bestia’ by Carmen Mola.

Author Carmen Mola has received a major prize in publishing, but her true identity has left many readers with unanswered questions.

In October, celebrated thriller writer, Carmen Mola, won the Premio Planeta Prize, a prestigious Spanish literary award, weighing in at a cool €1 million (yes, that’s a higher figure than the Nobel Prize). Then it turned out that the wildly successful female author, writing under the pseudonym of Carmen Mola, was not. Not a woman, that is. She was actually three men. Here’s a sampling of the brouhaha in the press from The New York Times, El País (the English edition) and The Globe and Mail

Losing the Freedom of Choice

Why does this frustrate me? Fundamentally, it’s because my freedom of choice was taken away. Yes, there are other reasons:

  • I’m annoyed that (yet again) the opportunity for a woman to win a glamorous prize and walk away with a handsome purse was scooped up by not just one man, but three. 
  • I’m further annoyed that in a possibly increasingly equitable world, one of the rare chances to become a published author went to a man (or men), instead of a woman. 
  • Also, I don’t love that Jorge Díaz, Antonio Mercero, and Agustín Martínez’s detective Elena Blanco was written by a male collective, purporting to offer the readers a glimpse into the female psyche. 

That little extra tweak of symmetry between the number of children and the actual number of writers grates like fingernails on my psychic chalkboard. 

All these elements will be so much less frustrating to me once women have at least an equal opportunity to have their voices heard. 

Adding fuel to my frustration is the fact that the trio deliberately misled the public. While they admitted that Carmen Mola was a pseudonym, they also made up feminized autobiographical details to lead us astray, including that this woman author was the mother of three children. That little extra tweak of symmetry between the number of children and the actual number of writers grates like fingernails on my psychic chalkboard.  

What I dislike most in this situation is that I didn’t get to choose whether I wanted to read a female or male author. 

A woman’s voice created by a committee of men feels minimizing, as if women aren’t individuals, but rather a lumpy mass of stereotypes.

That’s a choice I consciously make, every time I buy a book. I don’t not buy male authors. And, I am aware, with every book I buy, of the balance between male and female authors on my reading list. I make an effort to skew that list in the female direction. Yes, I do that. The act is one small way in which I exercise my consumer power as a woman to support other women. Sure, it’s not sexy, viral activism. My choice is in the category of daily efforts to re-program our conditioned tendencies, which incline toward male supremacy. This is akin to shopping at women-owned businesses, going to a female dentist, or writing for A Women’s Thing. 

Buying a book is not just buying a book. If Elana Ferrante turns out to be a man, I will be disappointed. 

Upping the Deception: Three Men for One Woman

If Elena Ferrante turns out to be many men, I will be even more disappointed. A woman’s voice created by a committee of men feels minimizing, as if women aren’t individuals, but rather a lumpy mass of stereotypes. There’s a demeaning aspect to the idea that the individuality of any one woman’s psyche (Inspector Elena Blanco, in this case) can be written by consensus. I know that the practice is commonplace in the television world, where Carmen Mola’s true trio comes from.

For me, television is less intimate than a book, so I’m not bothered by the idea of a writing team in that realm. Of course, that’s a wildly subjective and personal observation that says more about me than Carmen Mola. I am confronted by my own desire to create a written intimacy with my readers.   

I could just never buy books written under pseudonyms. But I don’t want to deprive myself of reading opportunities.

That Blanco was concocted by three men shifts the lens through which I read her story. How could it not? Especially when her female identity is so much at play in the book I read. There is an important plot line related to how Blanco deals with her competing interests as mother and police inspector. 

When I read Lionel Shriver’s novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a mother’s account of wrestling psychologically with the aftermath of her son’s deadly school shooting spree, a portion of the book’s resonance was sourced in the female gender of the author. While our society offers a pedestal of honor to mothers, it has not traditionally offered wide berth for the different expressions of motherhood.

In “The Purple Network” (major spoiler alert), the inspector’s son was kidnapped eight years earlier. She begins to suspect he is not only still alive, but close to the heart of a dark web network she is investigating, which creates and offers live snuff porn and cage fighting to the death. Like Shriver’s novel, this is heavy subject matter and a bold departure from the ways in which motherhood is so often pictured. Motherhood, in all its variety, is a subject that has not been fully explored by women authors, which is why I want to know who I’m listening to when I read a mother’s account (even fictional).  

Whose Freedom of Choice?

I could just never buy books written under pseudonyms. But I don’t want to deprive myself of reading opportunities. I believe that in the particular case of Carmen Mola, my freedom of choice outweighs the author’s freedom to choose their disguise. After all, what do the authors gain by changing gender? They gain credibility for their female police inspector. And, possibly, they gain readers like me, who love thrillers and want to prioritize female authors. Both of those gains are ill-gotten.  

It is certainly true that in the past (and perhaps even now) women authors have gained a lot by disguising themselves as men—the right to publish a novel period, or a more appreciative audience who was not judging their writing and content based primarily on their gender and/or protection from the vitriol so often aimed at women with something substantive to say. 

I acknowledge that I am wading into deep and fraught waters here by invoking and giving importance to an author’s gender. I offer my view here with deep respect for each writer’s individual voice and expression, recognizing that in other situations the use of a pseudonym may serve a higher purpose than my freedom of choice. 

None of these reasons is present for the Carmen Mola team. I wish they had not incensed the literary world (and me) unnecessarily. Because … there’s a strong likelihood I would have spent some of my male author attention on Carmen Mola anyhow.

After the Sturm und Drang: The Verdict

I really enjoy the thriller genre and the one Carmen Mola book I’ve read so far, “The Purple Network,” was gripping (also gruesome). So far, none of the books are translated into English. I first bought a French translation of “The Purple Network (Le Réseau Pourpre),” not realizing that it was the second book in the Elena Blanco trilogy.

When I finished reading the book, I bought “The Gypsy Bride (La Fiancé Gitane),” which is really the first book in the series and I have it queued up for future reading (once I’ve achieved some balance with female authors). All to say, I am hooked enough on Elena Blanco to want more of her. I’m okay that she’s written by a man, or rather by three men. And I’m glad that I read the book with full knowledge of the truth of authorship.