Bogotá, COLOMBIA – We always want to know what we shouldn’t. When it comes to famous people who decide to hide their identity, it becomes an endless search to find the face behind the mask, even though it was their decision to hide.
We can see it in singers like Sia where the internet floods with theories about who the person is, even though every single idea they have ends up being wrong.
The same thing happened with the Spanish thriller writer Carmen Mola. Behind her bloody and fear-enticing novels, she described herself as a university professor living in Madrid. In her free time, she said, she developed her true passion of writing for anyone who was brave enough to enter her world of terror.
With an intriguing backstory and her ultra-violent writing that was outside the norm for people with her background, she soon became a sensation, selling millions of copies of her books like The Purple Network and The Beast.
But at the end of the day no one knew anything about her except for a brief description and a black and white photo in the biography section of each of her novels. Without meet and greets with her fans or news interviews, she became a real-life mystery outside of her stories.
After a long time of intrigue, her identity was finally revealed late last year after The Beast won the Planeta Prize – a Spanish competition for novels – and its prize of 1 million euros.
To everyone’s surprise, Mola was not a university professor nor a woman. The authors, it turned out, were three established Spanish men, the screenwriters Jorge Díaz, Agustín Martínez and Antonio Mercero.
There is nothing wrong with the use of pen names in the publishing world, but it becomes problematic in cases like this when stereotypes are used for marketing.
Much of the attention around the fictional Carmen Mola and her rise to becoming a household name did not only come from the stories, but from the idea that a female university professor – a person often perceived as not being able to have such negative thoughts – would be behind novels filled with so many gruesome details.
The apparent aim was to show that stereotypes perceived by society are often wrong and people are allowed to deviate from them.
It must be acknowledged that publishing houses not only use the content of the book to promote it, but also the identity of the author.
In a recent push to get female writers more involved in the industry, ‘Carmen Mola’ has been one of the writers who most benefited by the movement. ‘Her’ work appeared in a book club in the La Mancha region in central Spain that promotes female authors. It also claimed the showcase position in many feminist bookstores like Women & Company in Madrid.
Using a pen name isn’t the problem, but linking it to an identity that doesn’t exist is wrong. Creating an entire narrative about a fictional writer whose fake life directly affects the promotion and selling of their books is absolutely incorrect.
It wouldn’t be fair to promote a book with the biography of another author, and it is not acceptable to promote a book as being written by an empowered woman when in fact the authors are three men.
Direct attempts to promote female authors – in an industry that throughout history hasn’t given them support – ended up helping the group of people opposite the one it was supposed to, while the ‘Carmen Mola’s’ publishing house didn’t do anything to try to correct it but instead took advantage of the free publicity.
It might not have been the authors’ intentions to do this when they first started, but they saw what happened and didn’t try to correct it.
A simple: “This is a pseudonym with an invented backstory” on their website would have solved the ethical problem while maintaining their anonymity.
Both the publishing house and the authors took advantage of the idea that ‘Carmen Mola’ was an emerging female author who explored the idea of gory crime fiction books to its fullest, aiming to sell as many books as possible no matter the ethics of their marketing strategy.
As the world continues to represent different kinds of authors who deviate from the norm, we must remember that the system isn’t perfect, and when we try to support one group the effect might be the opposite.
In a world where lies are as easily spread as truths, we must be critical about the true intentions of the companies behind the books. As we’ve seen already and may again in the future, publishers will leave their ethics behind to get a few extra bucks.
The true faces behind ‘Carmen Mola’ were unleashed, but the next ones won’t make the same mistake.
Ana Fadul is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.