What makes a good literary hoax? A political point, for starters

Spanish authors (from left), Agustin Martinez, Jorge Diaz and Antonio Mercero, who have been writing bestsellers as Carmen Mola.
Quique Garcia/EPA

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia and Kerrie Davies, UNSWLiterary hoaxes thrive on exposure. At best, they are politically transgressive. They strip away anything smug, pretentious or hypocritical to reveal an uglier reality underneath.

Hoaxes may use ethically questionable methods. But when they work, they tell us something about the relationship of art to life and politics. It’s the literary equivalent of Banksy shredding an artwork at Sotheby’s as the hammer came down.

If they don’t, then we should question if they deserve to be called a hoax at all.

Recently, hoaxes were in the headlines when three men leapt onto a Barcelona stage to accept a million euro literary prize awarded by the publishing house, Planeta – “unmasking” themselves as the Spanish writer, Carmen Mola in the process. “Mola”, a bestselling crime author, won the Euro prize for La Bestia – The Beast – a thriller about a serial killer stalking Madrid in the midst of a cholera epidemic.

Cue global shock, followed by shrugs from authors, publishers and critics. So far, the fury has centred on who is allowed to write what, and why. However author Margaret Atwood crisply and correctly called the unveiling a “a great publicity stunt”. This hoax was embarrassing and high profile. But it was also unoriginal and apolitical.

The men behind Mola said they were tired of lying. But might claiming a lucrative, prestigious prize – and a bit of ego – also have been a factor in unmasking themselves?

Margaret Atwood: described the invention of Carmen Nola as a publicity stunt.
Jordan Strauss/AP

Pen name politics

The Mola hoax infuriated many because the authors, who wrote a trilogy of ultra-violent novels starring a female detective, Inspector Elena Blanco, had generated a backstory that was more than a pseudonym. It was an identity. It was also stereotypically gendered.

Mola, which roughly translates as “Carmen the cool” in English, claimed she was an academic who kept her writing career a secret because she was bashful about the allegedly transgressive subject matter.

“I didn’t want my colleagues at the office, my sisters-in-law or my mother to know that I wrote a book where someone kills a woman by getting larva worms into her skull,” Mola said in an emailed interview. Email and claims of reclusiveness are the modus operandi for managing publicity arrangements for a problematic identity.

Lawyer and former director of the Women’s Institute in Spain, Beatriz Gimeno, tweeted that the authors had propagated the persona of a woman through email interviews for years, for financial gain. Another commenter called it gender bending “catfishing”.

According to Spanish journalist, Maria Ramirez, a Madrid feminist bookstore is now refusing to sell the Mola books on principle that “men don’t take all the space”. Historically female authors have been forced to use male pseudonyms to be published to fight for this space.

Read more:
Reclaim Her Name: why we should free Australia’s female novelists from their male pseudonyms

Did the authors see themselves as taking a poke at the history of women’s writing or gender oppression? No. They reportedly said they chose the name by chance and for fun and there was no politics associated with their choice of a woman. “Choosing a woman’s name was not a thought out thing, we don’t want to send any 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 newspaper competition for an unpublished manuscript. They make an interesting comparison to the Mola case. Sadly, once unmasked, the prize was withdrawn. They didn’t get the money or the publishing contract.

Their book wasn’t published until 1951, under the new name Come in Spinner, by another publisher. According to Cusack, the delay was complicated by obscenity laws at the time, and editors’ resistance to publishing the women under their two real names.

Asking questions

A true hoax provokes. It questions cultural biases, shatters conventions, leaving fragments for discussion that linger for years, if not centuries.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for instance, is widely credited as the first realist English novel but it was initially read as a “true history” when published in 1719, under Crusoe’s name. The first novel, or one of the first fake memoir hoaxes? This is a conversation that continues.

Fast forward to 2006, when the Australian newspaper launched a “sting” on Australian publishers. The article was titled, “Would a manuscript from the 1973 Nobel laureate pass muster today?” A chapter of Patrick White’s Nobel prize winning novel, The Eye of the Storm, was sent to publishers under a pen name that was an anagram of Patrick White: Wraith Picket. The idea was copied from a similar sting by The Times of London, using writing by V.S. Naipaul.

Furious publishers who rejected White’s manuscript said they were not given enough of the book to make a decision and it was sloppily presented. This simple hoax was in the tradition of the fictional Australian poet from the 1940s Ern Malley. It made a cultural point – much of the book world is driven by rank commercialism and passing fads. An editorial eye is hit and miss.

Less salubrious – and more obvious – are the cultural commentary hoaxes on the saleability of sex romps, from a 1970s satire of the writing of Harold Robbins to a more recent parody of the writing style of 50 Shades of Grey.

Intercultural thefts are a separate matter. They aren’t hoaxes. They are harmful appropriations. Most commonly, such theft is committed by a dominant culture and the victim is the literary heritage of an oppressed minority.

This sorry history 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-fiction forms or memoir is beyond this category – it belongs in the realm of fake news and “alternative facts”.

One interesting theft that keeps everybody talking – and may well endure – is the case of writer “Jeremiah Terminator Leroy”; a New York based television writer named Laura Albert who adopted the persona of a queer male sex worker from West Virginia, whose novels gave rise to a cult following. Albert convinced her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to play the part of the reclusive author at book and other celebrity events.

The Mola men’s best defence might be that collaborations are rarely rewarded in the publishing world and they aimed to explode that status quo. But they have made little of this, other than mentioning how they “combined their talents” to write their crime trilogy along with this new novel.

Planeta, meanwhile, are expected to honour both the publishing deal for La Bestia and the lucrative associated TV adaptation of the Blanco trilogy under the Carmen Mola name. Filming starts in January.The Conversation

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, University of Notre Dame Australia and Kerrie Davies, Lecturer, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Growing Up In a Home Full of Books is Good For You

The link below is to an article that looks at a new study that confirms growing up in a home full of books is good for you.

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What makes a book ‘good’?

Nicholas Royle, Manchester Metropolitan University

How many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey does it take to make a fort? A branch of Oxfam in Swansea, south Wales, received so many unwanted copies of EL James’s erotic novel, that staff decided to build a fort out of them in the back office.

Well, why not? Once the hottest book in publishing, Fifty Shades now can’t be given away fast enough. Relief at last, perhaps, for all those high-brow academics and frustrated authors – myself among them – whose hearts sank when this fan fiction-derived tale became the fastest-selling paperback of all time in Britain and went on to sell more than 125m copies around the world.

But was it any good? Critics seemed to think not, but just as publishers will tell you a good review does not necessarily sell books, nor, it seems, does a whole series of bad reviews harm sales of a book once momentum has been achieved.


When I was a child listening to the Top 40 countdown on Radio 1 on a Sunday evening, there was no doubt in my mind that the higher up the charts my favourite singles climbed, the better those particular songs were shown to be. In my ten-year-old mind there was a straightforward correlation between commercial success and artistic quality. A single that reached number ten was pretty good, but one that went straight into the chart at number one and stayed there for four weeks was clearly better.

At some point I must have given voice to this theory, because my elder sister once told me that “just because one song is higher up in the charts doesn’t make it better than another song that’s lower down.” While I reeled at this news, she did happily agree that Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize was nevertheless the best song around at the time.

Making good

So what does make a book – or a film or a song – good? What gives a work lasting value? There are methods of assessment; you can apply criteria. As a lecturer in creative writing, who marks novels written by MA students, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But as a reader – and as an editor for a small publisher – I obviously have my own, subjective views on what’s good and what’s not so good.

The lesson my sister taught me has stayed with me over the years and I’ll admit that these days I’m suspicious of anything that seems to be enjoying too much success. Was Zadie Smith’s award-winning White Teeth really that good? How about David Mitchell’s acclaimed Cloud Atlas? Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t know, because I haven’t read them. There are lots of interesting-sounding books out there, but why should I feel obliged to read the same ones everyone else is reading? Is the culture really nothing but a huge book club?

Zadie Smith has won plenty of awards for her books – but prizes aren’t everything.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It’s frustrating for publishers working hard to launch new careers (they’ve long given up trying to sustain flagging ones) when they know that only a tiny number of titles will account for the vast majority of sales.

One first-time author of my acquaintance whose debut novel was published in 2015 to a small number of enthusiastic reviews and poor sales feels so disappointed by the whole experience he often talks of jacking it all in. Is the Fifty Shades phenomenon part of that problem? Would I rather that great literature was achieving that level of commercial success? Well, yes, but can we as a society agree on what is great literature? I don’t think we can and I even prefer to think that we shouldn’t, being inherently suspicious of the exclusivity of the canon.

So, let big houses continue to publish bestsellers. They make money and keep people in jobs and maybe, just maybe, there’s a trickle-down effect. Profits from big books may enable risks to be taken on smaller ones. EL James donated £1m of her royalties to charity.

And so what if we end up with mountains of unwanted books? As long as we continue to build new roads (and that’s a whole other subject), we’ll continue to need unwanted books. When the M6 Toll opened in 2003, building materials supplier Tarmac revealed that 2.5m Mills & Boon novels had been pulped and used in the manufacture of the asphalt.

Swansea’s red-faced consumers of James’s “mommy porn” may not have donated 2.5m copies of Fifty Shades to Oxfam, but a quick calculation, studying the photograph of the house-like construction that has been tweeted all over the world, suggests it takes about 600 copies of Fifty Shades to make a fort.

The Conversation

Nicholas Royle, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading Good For You

I think that most people that read a bit could tell you that they believe reading is good for them. They will tell you it’s good for the soul, it provides brain food, provides an escape to another world, etc. The link below is to an article that looks at 6 reasons reading is actually good for you.

Why do you think reading is good for you? Share with us your thoughts via the comments under this post.,/p>

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