Carmen Balcells, the hairdresser of geniuses

“We already have the Planet, now you just need to write a good novel”, Carmen Balcells blurted out to Rosa Regàs, when she won the prize, in 2001, for Dorotea's song.

21 May 2022 Saturday 21:52
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Carmen Balcells, the hairdresser of geniuses

“We already have the Planet, now you just need to write a good novel”, Carmen Balcells blurted out to Rosa Regàs, when she won the prize, in 2001, for Dorotea's song. An impertinence that seems difficult to forgive... and that, however, did not prevent the writer from continuing to be friends with the agent. In fact, she was one of the few intimates who attended Carmen's funeral in her hometown, Santa Fe de Segarra, in September 2015.

That mixture of aggressiveness, charm and insolence was displayed by “the pageeta of Santa Fe” – that is how she defined herself; also as “the hairdresser of geniuses” – in all kinds of relationships. And as where they give them, they take them, sometimes she was the victim. For example, with José Manuel Lara, the legendary editor of Planeta. A man, observes Carme Riera, very similar to her: from the village, self-taught, and successful based on instinct, audacity and desire to become rich (“I am an Onassis frustrated by her feminine condition”, said Balcells). "What's happening to you," Lara snapped at Balcells in a negotiation, "is that you don't fuck." And she began to cry. Because she could be as ruthless as Lara, but she was spontaneous and emotional, as well as imaginative and with a great sense of humor. He was capable of sending a helicopter to Nélida Piñón to get her out of a traffic jam, as well as inviting the employees of her agency to a balloon excursion or appearing at a party disguised as a pope.

The self-confidence, however, sometimes took its toll. Like that time in Cuba, when, protected – she believed – by her intimate friendship with Gabriel García Márquez, a close friend of Fidel Castro, she allowed herself to comment, in a casual tone, during the New Year's Eve party in 1985: “Ah, hey, Fidel, and why haven't you just released the political prisoners?”... at which Raúl jumped like a beast and scolded him that left Carmen “trembling, literally trembling”, according to a witness. Anecdotes, as you can see, are not lacking, each more juicy and all with well-known protagonists...

With such material, wisely used –she has dedicated five years to this biography–, Carme Riera (Palma de Mallorca, 1948) builds a very entertaining book, which portrays the agent with her lights and shadows. Also with the lights and shadows of her legacy. And I would like to dwell on this, because I believe that the shadows have been little pointed out.

Carmen Balcells disrupted the rules of the game in the publishing market. She established a new type of contract, much more demanding with publishers: the transfer of rights, previously total and forever, became for a few years, for a specific territory and a specific format. That allowed authors to get much more out of their books. But it also fostered a crazy market logic: million-dollar auctions in which the fame of the author counted for much more than the quality of the text (which was bid for without reading it), bankruptcies of publishers that did not recover what was paid, contempt for values ​​such as prestige, coherence or author politics...

The star-system reached the point where Balcells could, for example, suggest to Jesús Gil that he offer Cela 250 million pesetas (one and a half million euros) for drafting a book entitled Sentimental Journey to Marbella... Jaime Salinas he summed it up by stating that the super agent had turned the “editor into the writer's enemy” and contributed to “creating a kind of salable mediocrity, a monochrome tone of culture in general”.

She, however, at the end of her life, wanted to make a great gift to Barcelona: a bibliographic, documentary and technological center dedicated to 20th century literature, which would occupy the Bruch barracks. This project would have given prominence to authors of the Castilian language - Spanish and Latin American -, the main clients of the agency. For this reason, without a doubt –also because she was “increasingly focused on investing in the independence process and not in culture”, says Riera– the Generalitat disdained him. Sometimes institutions behave like friends of those who make us wonder why we need enemies...




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