The essays that follow were written by Spanish writers Eloy Tizón and Greta Alonso in response to a question put to them by El Cultural: “Women writers past and present: Is publishing under a pseudonym necessary anymore, or is it just another marketing tool?” I found great beauty and insight in their responses and so I decided to translate their essays to share with English language readers. The original essays were published in El Cultural on June 29, 2020.
By Eloy Tizón
In his essay, From Madonna to Gregorian Chant: A Very Short History, Nicholas Cooke reminds us that most of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novels play the piano and that, for the most part, this was a traditional obligation of women from the upper social class to which these young people belonged. Their male partners, on the other hand, played the violin or flute. When the romantic couples gave a public concert in which they interpreted a melody as a duet, the man was the one who assumed the role of soloist, in which he could stand out and be the star. Meanwhile, the woman confined herself to accompanying him with a discreet, harmonious background, resigning herself to performing the subordinate role, just as it was expected she would do in all aspects of her conjugal life.
In the social pantomime, wrought in iron and waltzes, each persona has an assigned role and it can be perilous to stray from or question it. Bovary, Ozores, Karenina; all the fictional heroines who risked disobeying society’s rules, ended up paying for it dearly. When Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility she signed it, “A Lady.” The Brontë sisters invented names: Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell. Aurore Dupin hid behind the mask of George Sand, and Cecilia Böhl de Faber took her chances cross-dressing as Fernán Caballero. Why did all of them conceal their identities? They disguised themselves as men, just like in so many Golden Age comedies in which the young women enlist in the army with a fake moustache. There are many reasons, but the most important one seems clear: avoid risks and minimize damages. These creators, like many others, preferred to take every possible precaution and disguise as safeguards, publishing their novels anonymously or signing them with a less compromising male pseudonym. Fake moustaches. A room of one’s own.
In a patriarchal world run by the flutes and violins who are so eager to be the center of attention, refusing to be the back-up band may inspire in others feelings of offense, jealousy, hatred, and threats (or even worse: condescension), making one phobic about using one’s own name and preferring to pixelate it. That was then. Now, a publishing company has decided to reprint the works of these novelists under their real names, keeping the false ones, but crossed out, on the cover: a radical symbolic gesture, but necessary. There are, however, other authors who freely choose to continue protecting their anonymity. The reasons for which some contemporary authors choose to conceal themselves can be attributed to different strategies that range from reticence to ambiguity, and even, — why not admit it? — marketing. I doubt very much, however, that the strategic reasons for which some contemporary women writers decide to conceal themselves are in answer to the same level of harassment and historical exclusion from which their predecessors suffered. The time for timidity is over. Mrs. Dalloway buys her own flowers. I would like to think that at least in this regard we have progressed a bit since the days of Jane Austen and her tea dances. And the proof is that if a contemporary novelist changes her name—like Elena Ferrante—she doesn’t choose a masculine one, but rather that of another woman. What does she gain by doing this? The freedom to play her own score.
Los nombres, copyright © 2020 by Eloy Tizón, originally published in Spanish in ElCultural.com, June 30, 2020. English translation copyright © 2020 by Dorothy Potter Snyder.
A Shield, a Shelter, a Place to Hide
By Greta Alonso
My name is not Greta Alonso. My pseudonym is a shield, a shelter, a place to hide. Because I am a coward, and because I want to send out a message to all those people who have become fed up with the dictatorship of the challenge, those who are tired of the perpetual bombardment of messaging about strength, dynamism, and omnipotence. Weakness is ranked low, but being weak is no crime. I am weak. I have written a book, but I don’t feel able to show myself to the public, and I am not ashamed to admit it. The author draws from their personal world, and I need my world. And I need it intact, without upset. I suffered a complicated episode that I didn’t know how to manage, and I fear public exposure. I love my circle of comfort, and I defend it. I defend the freedom of every person to live the way they see fit, to decide that they don’t want to change, to choose a dream as simple as “to go on just like this, forever”.
A book is written in private and it is read in private. When a work is published and made accessible, why do we assume that the author and their image should also be made accessible? Why should the author have to swell the ranks of public figures? Why should they have to change their lives, routines, and, in many cases, their work? It is the norm to come out into the open, show your face, and offer explanations; but such a pattern shouldn’t exist. What happens to those of us who have written a book out of the simple need to write, almost as a type of therapy? What about those of us who are unable to take that next step?
A book. What more is needed than that? Does the work require its author, their presence, their face and their explanations to be whole? Autographs, tours. Is the work any less of a work without the artist? If that were so, we would run the risk of judging a book from a perspective of complete subjectivity, to value a movie or stop doing so because of the reviews that follow or based on the vices or virtues of the person who directed it. The task of art is to move us and it can accomplish this by itself, in a way that is both timeless and free.
What happens to writers who don’t feel they can live up to their work? I started to write precisely because it was hard for me to communicate any other way. Why should I have to confess how much of me is in my work? What happens to writers who do some other job quite unconnected with the literary scene? I work in a job that I love in the field of engineering and I do it within an organization that enforces a code of conduct. Should I quit that job in order to preserve the end of my novel, which is politically incorrect? Or should I, on the other hand, censor the denouement of my novel to keep my job? I couldn’t do both things, which is one more reason to turn myself into two people.
Do you exist? Are you a marketing strategy? I exist. It’s hard to grasp that there are decisions that are not made with money in mind, and I understand the distrust inspired by anything that is different. But I cannot show a strength I do not have. I believe that whoever is truly impacted by El cielo de tus días will care very little about my real name, my face, or getting a signed copy.
Un escudo, una coraza, una guarida, copyright © 2020 by Greta Alonso, originally published in Spanish in ElCultural.com, June 30, 2020. English translation copyright © 2020 by Dorothy Potter Snyder.
Eloy Tizón (1964, Madrid) was nominated for the Premio Herralde (1995) for his novel Seda salvaje. His collection Velocidad en los jardines (Páginas de Espuma) was chosen by El Pais as one of the most important Spanish-language books of the past 25 years. Tizón is also a literary critic and writing professor.
Greta Alonso is the pseudonym of an author who was born in the 1980s in the Cantabria region of Spain. She works in jobs related to her training in engineering, an activity that she has pursued in different fields and companies. She has written stories, short novels, and nonfiction. She currently lives in northern Spain and combines her professional work with her love of movies, writing, and sports. El cielo de tus días (Planeta, 2020) is her first full-length novel.
Dorothy Potter Snyder (writer, translator) writes short fiction and translates literature. Her writing and literary translations have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Exile Quarterly, Literature in Translation, Three Lines Press, and Public Seminar and other venues. She lives in North Carolina where she also teaches writing and Spanish language.