What is a good literary hoax? A political point, to begin with
Literary hoaxes thrive on exposure. At best, they are politically transgressive. They remove anything that is sufficient, pretentious or hypocritical to reveal an uglier reality below.
Hoaxes can use ethically questionable methods. But when they work, they tell us something about the relationship between art and life and politics. It’s the literary equivalent of Banksy tearing up a work of art at Sotheby’s as the hammer falls.
If they don’t, then we should ask ourselves if they deserve to be called a hoax.
Recently, hoaxes made headlines when three men jumped onto a Barcelona stage to accept a million-euro literary prize from the Planeta publishing house – ‘coming out’ as a writer Spanish, Carmen Mola in the process. “Mola”, author of bestselling detective novels, won the Euro for La Bestia – The Beast – a thriller about a serial killer who stalks Madrid in the middle of a cholera epidemic.
Glance at the global shock, followed by shrugs from authors, editors and critics. So far, the fury has focused on who is allowed to write what and why. However, author Margaret Atwood called the unveiling a “big publicity stunt”. This hoax was embarrassing and high profile. But it was also without originality and apolitical.
The men behind Mola said they were tired of lying. But claiming a lucrative and prestigious price – and a little ego – was it also a factor in unmasked?
The policy of pen names
Mola’s hoax infuriated many because the authors, who wrote a trilogy of ultra-violent novels starring a female detective, Inspector Elena Blanco, generated a backstory that was more than a pseudonym. It was an identity. He was also a gender stereotypical.
Mola, which roughly translates to “Carmen the cool” in English, claimed that she was an academic who kept her writing career a secret because she was shy about the allegedly transgressive subject.
“I didn’t want my office mates, sisters-in-law or my mother to know that I wrote a book in which someone kills a woman by injecting worm larvae into her head,” Mola said in an email interview. Email and recluse claims are the modus operandi for managing the advertising arrangements for a problematic identity.
Lawyer and former director of the Institute of Women in Spain, Beatriz Gimeno, tweeted that the authors had propagated a woman’s character through email interviews for years, for financial gain. Another commentator called it kind of bending “cat fishing”.
According to the Spanish journalist Maria Ramirez, a feminist bookstore in Madrid now refuses to sell Mola books on principle that “men do not take up all the space”. Historically, female authors have been forced to use male pseudonyms to be published in order to fight for this space.
Read more: Reclaim Her Name: Why Should We Free Australian Women Novelists From Their Male Pseudonyms
Did the authors see themselves as attacking the history of women’s writing or gender oppression? No. They would have said that they had chosen the name by chance and for fun and that there was no policy associated with their choice of a woman. “Choosing a woman’s name wasn’t a thought, we don’t want to send a message. We could have put R2-D2 on it, ”they said.
In Australia in the 1940s, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James used the male pseudonym, Sydney Wyborne, to win a press competition for an unpublished manuscript. They make an interesting comparison with the Mola case. Unfortunately, once unmasked, the award was withdrawn. They didn’t have the money or the publishing contract.
Their book was not published until 1951, under the new name Come in Spinner, by another publisher. According to Cusack, the delay was complicated by the obscenity laws of the day and the resistance of publishers to publish the women under their two real names.
To ask questions
A real hoax provokes. It challenges cultural prejudices, shatters conventions, leaving fragments of discussion that linger for years, if not centuries.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example, is widely regarded as the first realistic English novel, but it was first read as a “true story” when it was published in 1719 as Crusoe. The first novel, or one of the first false memories? It’s an ongoing conversation.
Fast forward to 2006, when the Australian newspaper launched a “sting” on Australian publishers. The article was titled “Would a 1973 Nobel Prize Winner’s Manuscript Be Accepted Today?” A chapter of Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm was sent to publishers under a pseudonym that was an anagram of Patrick White: Wraith Picket. The idea was copied from a similar sting by The Times of London, using VS Naipaul’s handwriting.
Angry editors who rejected White’s manuscript said they did not receive enough of the book to make a decision and it was presented in a negligent manner. This simple hoax was in the tradition of the fictional Australian poet of the 1940s, Ern Malley. It made a cultural point – much of the book world is driven by commercialism and passing fads. An editorial eye is random.
Less salubrious – and more obvious – are the cultural commentary hoaxes of the commercialization of lovemaking, from a 1970s satire of Harold Robbins’ writing to a more recent parody of the writing style of 50 Shades of Gray.
Intercultural flights are a separate issue. These are not hoaxes. These are harmful appropriations. Most often, such theft is committed by a dominant culture and the victim is the literary legacy of an oppressed minority.
This sad story includes the so-called “Virago Vicar”; an Anglican vicar named Toby Forward who published a collection of stories with the British feminist publishing house Virago under the pseudonym Rahila Khan.
Identity theft involving non-fictitious forms or memoirs is beyond this category – it falls into the realm of fake news and “shadow facts”.
An interesting theft that gets everyone talking – and which could well continue – is the case of the writer “Jeremiah Terminator Leroy”; a New York-based television writer named Laura Albert who adopted the character of a queer sex worker from West Virginia, whose novels have been worshiped. Albert convinced his sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to play the role of the lone author at book and other celebrity events.
The best defense for Mola’s men might be that collaborations are rarely rewarded in the publishing world, and they were meant to explode this status quo. But they didn’t make much of it, other than mentioning how they “combined their talents” to write their crime trilogy with this new novel.
Planeta, meanwhile, is expected to honor both the La Bestia publishing deal and the associated lucrative TV adaptation of the Blanco trilogy as Carmen Mola. Filming begins in January.