What happens when a white man pretends to be a member of another ethnicity in order to get published? Let’s survey the fallout in this edition of Litblog Roundup, a bi-weekly overview of topics, trends and highlights from the literary Internet. (You could think of this as a cross-over post, because it’s already been mentioned recently here at Real Pants in Mike Young’s roundup , but there’s more so I’ll keep going.)
Blogs love a good controversy because most of them have comment feeds below their posts and nothing keeps a comment thread going longer than a polarizing issue. The polarizing issue du jour was served up on a big platter when Michael Derrick Hudson got his work published in The Best American Poetry 2015 under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou” because, in his words it “was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou.” There are several different noteworthy approaches to this issue, which the editor of the Best American Poetry Anthology has dubbed “The Yi-Fen Chou Problem” so let’s start with the editor’s response, Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015 .
In choosing what I think is the most diverse set of poems in Best American Poetry’s history, I also rejected hundreds of poems written by a vast and diverse world of poets. I rejected a bunch of old white guys. And, hey, I rejected a bunch of old brown people, too. I rejected hundreds of young white poets. And I rejected hundreds of young brown poets, including some of the superstars who are most loudly insulting me. I rejected formalists and free-versers. I rejected dear friends and old enemies. I rejected poems I love and poems I hate. I rejected at least one thousand poets in pursuit of the 75 who are in the anthology. It was an exhilarating and exhausting task. And now I am being rewarded and punished. And I am pondering what all of this reveals about my identity—perceived, actual, and imaginary. And I hope that you, as readers and writers, continue to debate The Yi-Fen Chou Problem and my decision to keep the poem in the anthology. But in the midst of all this controversy and wild name-calling, I also hope that you take the time to be celebratory or jealous or disdainful or challenged by the other 74 poets in Best American Poetry 2015.
This all sounds a bit defensive, doesn’t it? What’s the editor defending against? In part, it’s the sort of Twitter backlash that can happen in response to racial appropriation. ( We’ve seen this before , and recently.) Buzzfeed has a good roundup of the Twitter response . The defense is no good, according to Brian Spears in The Rumpus :
In poetry, as in pretty much every other walk of life, there is no greater advantage to publication and all that follows from it than being a straight white male. Yes, even in the creative world, for all our reputation as an open liberal stronghold, straight white male is the default against which all other writing is contrasted. Straight white males are “literature,” while women and writers of color and gay writers are all shunted off into their own subsections, with a token few allowed into the large category as a way of pushing back charges of sexism or racism or homophobia. If you’re a straight white male, to adopt the name of a marginalized minority is crass and offensive. To do so and think it gives you an advantage in publishing is stupid and insulting to the editors who are mostly doing this work for nothing or for very little pay. If I sound impatient with Hudson and those who defend him, that’s because I am. I would rather be writing poems or reading submissions, grading papers or changing diapers. You read that right—I would rather be elbow deep in baby shit than even thinking about this nonsense—I have too much to do in this life without having to point out to my fellow straight white males that we’re not as clever as we think we are, and we certainly aren’t oppressed in any way by political correctness. But I and people like me have to stand up and say this stuff, because the clever straight white males who are howling so loudly won’t listen to the women or people of color or members of the LGBT community. They might not listen to me either, but I can’t be as easily dismissed as others can, because I’m a straight white male. I’d rather not have that privilege, but as long as I do, I’m going to use it for stuff like this.
Controversy like this raises some questions about whether publishing is fair. Just last month, an item that is similar in some ways made its way around the literary Internet: the story of a woman who got eight times more responses to her manuscript via a male pseudonym . Some might conclude from incidents like these that there’s proof that literary editors are unfairly biased in favor of the kinds of writers they have in mind, without enough regard for the kinds of writing they seek. Is there a solution for this? How about blind review? Anthologies dedicated to each demographic? There is no easy solution to the problem of bias, unfortunately. A post on Flavorwire provides an interesting addition to the conversation: a consideration of the merits of the work in question, itself, which the author finds lacking and adds:
The whole point of an editor is that he makes interested (not disinterested) choices. Still, I think Hudson’s poetry is terrible.