Skip to main content

Winners of Spain's 2021 Premio Planeta award Jorge Diaz, Antonio Mercero and Augustin Martinez receive the trophy for their novel "La Bestia", written under the pseudonym Carmen Mola during the ceremony of the 70th edition of the "Premio Planeta" award, in Barcelona on Oct. 15, 2021.JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

The co-founder of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction says the three male authors who have been posing as Spanish female crime writer Carmen Mola should return the money they received for a big book prize – or donate it to a women’s literary cause.

“Earning a prize by faking a woman’s identity is a scam,” said Susan Swan in a statement on Monday. The Canadian author suggested if the men “want to restore their integrity,” they should consider giving the funds to something like Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, or the Carol Shields Prize. The latter, a new prize worth $150,000 is open to women, trans women and non-binary writers in Canada and the U.S.

“It’s ironic that a hundred years ago women often took a man’s name in order to get published and some women authors still prefer to use initials for their first name for that reason,” added Swan.

The shocking gender-bending plot twist – or deception, if you prefer – was revealed Friday, when Mola’s historical thriller The Beast won the Planeta Prize, worth €1-million ($1.4-million). The audience was stunned when three men – television writers Jorge Diaz, Agustin Martinez and Antonio Mercero – came up to the stage to accept it.

The revelation has attracted international attention. Mola, the celebrated author of the Elena Blanco detective series published by Penguin Random House, had been described in publicity material as a female university professor who juggled academia with motherhood and writing crime thrillers. A photo on Mola’s literary agency’s website depicts a woman in a trench coat, taken from the back. (The Beast is not an Inspector Blanco book; it is set in 19th-century Madrid during a cholera epidemic.)

Among the wow-were-we-ever-fooled factoids that emerged after the bombshell was a tidbit involving Margaret Atwood. Last year, a Spanish chapter of The Women’s Institute had recommended one of Mola’s thrillers in a list of must-read books and films by women that included Atwood. Mola’s The Girl was on the list, as was Atwood’s The Penelopiad.

Atwood was not bothered about sharing space on that list with a novel that turned out to be written by men. But she acknowledged that The Women’s Institute might not be happy about it. (She used somewhat less delicate phrasing.)

“It’s a great publicity stunt, as you can see,” Atwood said during an interview on Monday. “We’re all talking about it. And of course we’re all going to run out and buy Carmen Mola’s book I suppose. Just as we ran out and bought Elena Ferrante, did we not?” (Ferrante is the pseudonym for the Italian author best known for her Neapolitan novels. Mola has been called the Spanish Ferrante.)

“I think the problem is that some women’s groups or critics said ‘Oh what great insights into the female psyche.’ And it turned out that those insights were not coming from within the female psyche but from observers of the female psyche,” Atwood continued.

When she heard about this, Atwood was immediately reminded of Naked Came the Stranger and what she called the Virago Vicar. Naked Came the Stranger was a 1969 hoax novel written by a collective of journalists – men and women – and published under the pen name Penelope Ashe. The Virago Vicar was an Anglican vicar named Toby Forward who published a collection of stories with the British feminist publishing house Virago under the pseudonym Rahila Khan – a deception.

“Yes, you can fool people and yes you can impersonate people and of course women have used male pen names forever,” says Atwood. “And that is excused on the basis of well, people would have marked them down for being women, which is true. But if you get marked down for being a woman, why use a woman’s name? Is that over now? Are we no longer marking down people for being women? ... I would say amongst the book readers you’re probably not marked down so much any more. Amongst the population at large you ..... are. Anyway, there’s a lot of shades of grey,” she laughed, at the oblique Fifty Shades of Grey reference.

Atwood has had her own experiments with publishing under a pseudonym. For This Magazine in the 1970s, she wrote her Kanadian Kulchur Komics series about the adventures of Survivalwoman under the nom de plume Bart Gerrard, to honour a real-life Canadian newspaper cartoonist of the same name.

And in 1982, she published a review in The Globe and Mail of her own essay collection Second Words: Selected Critical Prose under the byline Margarets Atwood, quoting critics such as Greta Warmodota, Gwaemot R. Dratora, Wode M. Gratataro and Trogwate d’Amorda – all anagrams of her own name. (“Margarets Atwood write travel pieces for The New York Times” is how the author was identified.)

The Mola case is obviously different – much less of a lark – and Atwood is interested to see what happens to it now, beyond the wave of publicity. An important part of that is intent. “The question is: Is it done to deceive and exploit,” she says.

She hasn’t read the book (it is being published next month), so declined to weigh in on whether she personally feels it’s problematic.

“It is for a lot of people,” she said. “It’s another one of those arguments in which does the quality of the work excuse the sinful behaviour of the author? And once you get into that, you’re into Bad Art Friend,” she said, referring to a widely read recent New York Times report about a dispute between two authors, one of whom had donated a kidney, another who wrote a short story about it. “That is impersonation of a kidney donor; how bad is that?”

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct