It seems like one of the least likely places for it to happen, but Best American Poetry 2015 has managed to stir up controversy. This comes in the form of guest editor Sherman Alexie selecting a poem by Yi-Fen Chou, the pseudonym for white writer Michael Derrick Hudson. The controversy arose when Alexie decided to put the poem in the anthology anyway. People have accused Hudson of donning ‘yellowface’ in order to get the poem published, and though I’m not sure about using that term, I don’t for a second buy the idea that the poem got published simply because he used a Chinese pseudonym.
Yes, yes. Here is Alexie explaining that the poem got a second look because of the author’s name. Sure, sure. Here is Hudson claiming he sent the poem out forty times under his own name and receiving forty rejections, while he was only rejected nine times under his pseudonym before being accepted for publication.
For me, this shows nothing of the supposed bias against white males in the publishing world. One would only have to take a sidelong glance at how much fiction by white males gets published in America every year. (Hint: a lot.) I know anecdotal evidence is pointless, but in my brief time as an assistant editor to a literary magazine serving as a first reader, I never once considered name or gender when considering passing along the pieces to the fiction editor. Instead I focused on the content and whether or not it was 1) good, and 2) fitting of the criteria of the magazine. And I haven’t met any editors who employ those kinds of practices unless it’s specifically stated in the journal’s mission—that is, that the editors seek to publish work by certain genders, ethnicities, or sexual orientations. I seriously doubt the good folks at Prairie Schooner (where the poem was originally published) hopped on board once they saw the name.
I’ve seen a few comparisons to the likes of George Eliot (inevitably in the comments section where the story is running; just go look, do it!), who adopted a male name to get her work in print. How anyone can think that’s a serious point is beyond me. Eliot worked in a time where trying to publish as a woman was basically a guarantee that you either wouldn’t be taken seriously or wouldn’t get published at all. That was a real, institutional prejudice that still manifests itself in the publishing world today.
Besides, a quick Google search will show that Hudson has published under his own name in some fairly reputable publications, so I can’t buy any argument that he’s being discriminated against. And as a veteran writer, how is he not yet accustomed to the fact that the publishing world is full of rejection? Fine, he sent out the piece fewer times under his pseudonym. Were they to the same publications? Were they to more prestigious or less prestigious or of equal standing journals than when he submitted under his real name? Could the preference of those editors be different from the ones where he submitted previously? The answer, I wholeheartedly believe and assume, is yes. In short, it’s persistence that pays off, not donning the name of an ethnicity you’re not. Or, you know, we can live in a fantasy world where white males are tossed off in the literary community. No thanks.