MADRID — In a literary world long crowded with successful men, some held up the popularity of Carmen Mola as an example that times were changing in Spain.
Publishing under a pseudonym, the writer produced a detective trilogy with an eccentric female police inspector as the protagonist, plumbing the underworld for clues to crimes. The public was led to believe Carmen Mola was a married, female professor who lived in Madrid, but knew little else.
The mysteries, both within the plots of the novels and surrounding the author’s identity, were a recipe for success, selling hundreds of thousands of books in the Spanish-speaking world. But the greatest surprise of all came this month during a ceremony attended by the Spanish king where Carmen Mola was awarded the Planeta Prize, a literary award worth more than $1 million.
A team of three stepped up to receive the prize. All of them were men.
The revelation prompted a fierce debate, which has spilled into blogs and bookstores across Spain. It has also rippled through the literary establishment, which, as in many other countries, has undergone a fitful reckoning over gender equality in recent years.
It had long been rumored that Carmen Mola was not who she appeared to be. Yet, some writers have asked, how could it be that one of the bestselling female names in Spanish letters was actually an invention of three men — a trio who, in turn, were awarded the country’s most lucrative literary prize?
The frustration bubbled up on social media as well, where some women seized on this as a symptom of a wider problem of gender imbalance in the literary world.
Laura Casielles, a poet in the Spanish capital, Madrid, said her frustrations were mostly about the marketing of the Carmen Mola books at a time when literature by women is finally getting its due.
“There’s been long struggle by activists and writers to win interest and editorial space,” she said. “Seeing that men are trying to take advantage of this moment for their own commercial benefit, well, it’s going to leave some blisters.”
Others felt they were duped by the authors or that the editors and publishers had peddled a deception, while some saw it simply as a debate over creative expression.
The pseudonym is an age-old tradition in Europe, deployed by the likes of Voltaire, C.S. Lewis and Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer who is thought to have worked under at least 70 fictitious names.
George Eliot was the pen name of a female writer who dismissed the plots of fiction written by many 19th-century women as trivial and ridiculous. And J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, said she abbreviated her name before she was famous to look more male and avoid sexism.
But in these cases, it was frequently a woman choosing a male name, fearing discrimination if she used her real identity. Which has raised the question in Spain: What does it mean for a group of male writers to take on the identity of a woman?
The Planeta Prize is one of the most lucrative literary awards in the world, with a cash value that now surpasses even the Nobel Prize in literature. It is awarded by Spain’s Planeta publishing house for a yet-unpublished manuscript to be printed by the company. This year it was given Oct. 15 for an upcoming novel titled “The Beast,” scheduled for release Nov. 4.
Antonio Mercero was one of the three real authors of “The Beast” and the other Carmen Mola novels — screenwriters-turned-novelists who had known each other for years. He said his critics might be missing the point.
At a cafe near his home in Madrid, Mercero said the decision to use a pen name was made at the outset, before anyone knew the novels would be a runaway success. He insisted that they wanted to focus readers on the novel at a time when social media leaves them searching for details on the author.
“We wanted the novel to stand on its own merits,” he said.
Mercero said that he felt it was a minority of readers who were upset, but he was still surprised by the criticisms, which he said he had found “a tad theoretical.” He said the writers’ main concern when it came to gender was to overturn a sexist convention that had bothered them: that detective books should be about men.
The Carmen Mola novels feature Elena Blanco, a police officer in her 50s. Her understudy is a young male officer who slowly falls in love with her, a reversal of the crime novel cliché that Mercero said had been key to the drama.
“The reaction appears to me to be a bit disproportionate,” he said of those who focused only on the pen name.
Still, some female writers said giving the male screenwriters the prize was not fair because they had been dishonest.
“Where did these grown men hide themselves before doing this? Behind the name of a woman?” wrote Nuria Labari in the newspaper El País.
Casielles said that early in her career as a poet, female voices were few in publishing. But in recent years, publishing houses have sought out anthologies by female poets, and it felt as if the authors were exploiting the same cultural shift.
“This has been felt by women, by female writers, by activists, and by many readers,” she said. “And it feels like a bad joke.”
Carmen Mola became a household name in 2018 after the publication of “The Gypsy Bride,” the tale of Inspector Blanco unraveling a particularly gruesome murder of a woman from Spain’s Roma community. Published by Alfaguara, a division of Penguin Random House for Spanish-language books, the novel had two sequels.
It was not the first time a female pen name had attracted scrutiny, especially a bestselling one. There has been speculation that the wildly popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is a man.
But the revelations about the men behind Carmen Mola have raised questions about how far their publishers went to promote the narrative that the writer was a woman.
The fast-paced chapters — the authors sketched out the plot in a writing room much like they did for television series — struck a chord not just among fans of crime fiction but also among those seeking to boost the profile of female writers in Spain.
In 2018, when “The Gypsy Bride” was released, an editor at Alfaguara, María Fasce, published an account of how it was acquired. She said Carmen Mola was a pseudonym and could even be a man. But the account also quoted a biographical snippet claiming the writer was a female university professor who “lives in Madrid with her husband and three sons” and featured a supposed interview in which the author uses female pronouns.
The government of the Castilla-La Mancha region in central Spain named “The Gypsy Bride” for a regionwide book club featuring female authors. Women & Co., a feminist bookstore in Madrid, placed it prominently on its sales racks.
That crossed an ethical line for Mathieu de Taillac, a Spain correspondent for French newspaper Le Figaro, who said he spoke to the editor for a piece he wrote about Carmen Mola after “The Gypsy Bride” was published. Fasce did not correct the false biographical information in her published account, he said.
“I consider it a deception,” he said. “I included things that, at the very least, we now know are lies.”
Fasce said in an email that she was bound by a confidentiality agreement not to reveal the author’s identity. Mercero said the writers were ultimately responsible for the detail on Carmen Mola being a married professor.
After the identities of the writers were revealed — both the number and the gender were a big surprise — the bookstore Women & Co. posted a TikTok video of staff taking copies of “The Gypsy Bride” from the shelves and sending them back to the publisher.
“Of the books registered in Spain in 2018, only 32% were written by women,” the post said, referencing the year “The Gypsy Bride” was published.
Mercero said he wished his work had not gotten caught up in a cultural debate that none of the writers had wished to trigger. He was looking forward to the publication of their next novel, “The Beast.”
Carmen Mola’s name will remain on the cover, he said. But the authors had abandoned the detective genre for a different tack: “The Beast” is a historical thriller set during a cholera epidemic in 1834.