Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Brad Pitt as Chin Ho

Here’s another example of what’s wrong with Big Literature. And by Big Literature, I really mean Big Publishing, because like certain political candidates, Big Publishing is always trying to game the system, hedge its bets, manipulate, and above all sell something.

Maybe you’ve heard that a white guy got his poem included in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology because he used a pseudonym that sounded Chinese: Yi-Fen Chou. It does indeed sound Chinese, and the title of the selected poem sounds like it comes from the Mysterious East too: “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.”

Where do you stand on the use of pseudonyms to improve your chances of publication? Because that’s what this boils down to. (Let’s not forget that one Mary Ann Evans did quite well as some guy named George Eliot.)

Michael Derrick Hudson, the white dude, used his real name for his first 40 attempts to get the poem published, then switched to Chou for nine more. The ninth was the charm, and TBTFJATAAE got into the well-known lit mag, Prairie Schooner.

Now everyone’s going Ming Dynasty on Hudson, calling what he did “yellowface” and implying that his evil plan was to use whatever cachet an Asian name might have to get his substandard honky verse into a prestigious anthology. As one who once used a female pseudonym in a contest (Janet Hyde) and snagged third runner-up (whoop de doo), I have to admit I understand where Hudson was coming from. He was frustrated, man! Forty rejections, but he believed in that poem and knew it was good enough for one of our esteemed literary journals with all of two thousand subscribers.

Just to set the record straight, Sherman Alexie, guest editor of the anthology, kept Hudson’s poem in the book even after learning of Chou’s real identity. He says the poem holds up even if a white “colonialist” wrote it (boy, do I love that phrasing…) and recognizes that he had practiced a kind of nepotism in falling for the Chinese name. We’re all wearing blinders of one kind or another.

But more is going on than critics of Hudson want to admit, I think. What likely happened in the course of TBTFJATAAE’s submission to Prairie Schooner is that the poetry editor thought, like Alexie, that a Chinese writer had penned this exquisite orchid of a poem. After acceptance, Hudson probably turned in his copyright form with his real name and SSN (even small mags require it), and the editors went, “Crap, we got gamed!” But they kept the poem because it’s damn good.

Or, less likely, Hudson submitted the poem with a note that said, Yi-Fen Chou is the pseudonym of Michael Derrick Hudson, out of Indiana.

Either way, Prairie Schooner knew at some point before publication that a white guy had written this poem. You’d have to dig up the issue to see whether they noted such in his bio that accompanied the work.

Something of a tempest in a teapot, though I do understand why some people are upset. They’re the ones who think the literary selection process is fair and legitimate, the ones who think previously ignored groups ought to get a leg up, the ones who think the work speaks for itself even when, time and again, we see that our built-in biases and preferences are governing our editorial decisions.

One interesting side-effect of all this is that the Best American Poetry 2015 will probably sell like gangbusters.

15 comments on “Brad Pitt as Chin Ho

  1. Charles Yallowitz
    September 15, 2015

    Tough one. Pen names have a long history of use to help people get into publishing. Specifically, women using men’s names. It’s funny how people get angry about this, but there are those who will outright tell you that you need to be someone else to get published. There were one or two rejections I got long ago from agents who pointed out that ‘female authors’ were the hot commodity. So I had a brief temptation to slap my wife’s name on the book and see what happened with a few submissions.

    Guess this kind of shows that a work doesn’t always stand by itself. Many people need to view the author first for some reason.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 15, 2015

      Not long ago I read of a woman who was tired of being rejected, so she submitted her novel under a man’s name and got it accepted. A lot of women feel like men get a better shake in publishing, yet a lot of men think women are favored.

      This is what happens when the gatekeepers aren’t judging the books, as you said, but the writers and the categories.

      None of it’s really all that surprising, so I’m going easy on the poet.

      • Charles Yallowitz
        September 15, 2015

        Probably depends on the genre. I know Romance is predominantly female authors and many think Young Adult is the same. Part of that is probably the attention given to Rowling and Collins along with a sense that publishers are looking for the next one of those.

        Wonder if anyone has ever tried to use a gender neutral name and bio. You can’t tell the gender, so you have to go by something else.

      • Kevin Brennan
        September 15, 2015

        There are a lot of initial names out there, speaking of Rowling, J.K.

      • Charles Yallowitz
        September 15, 2015

        That’s an interesting trend.

  2. Phillip McCollum
    September 15, 2015

    I’m awaiting the literary journal where all writers must submit their work only under the name of Pat.

  3. John W. Howell
    September 15, 2015

    Interesting post. We all know the writing does not speak for itself when it comes to getting an agent. It has to speak to the agent (whatever that means) and then to the publisher (whatever that means) and then to the reader. (we know what that means)

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 15, 2015

      Precisely. One editor told me once that if my characters had been Starbucks employees rather than teachers, he might have been interested…

      • John W. Howell
        September 15, 2015

        Ha ha ha. i had an agent tell me “I have to reject you.” Uh excuse me. You can reject my work but me? I hardly think so.

  4. 1WriteWay
    September 17, 2015

    The only way to avoid such controversies is for submissions to be anonymous … but then I guess someone could still say, “Hey, this reads like a [pick your favorite racial/ethnic group] [pick you favorite sex] wrote it so let’s accept it.” I have mixed feelings about the controversy. I don’t respect what Hudson did, even though it still took 9 times before his poem was accepted under the false name. And then what name is printed along with the poem: the false name or true name? What’s the point of being published if it’s not under my own name? But what the whole issue brings home to me is this: even with poetry, it’s damn hard to get published. That poetry contest I entered in June? None of my poems were accepted. They had over 4,000 entries and room for one poem. Rejection came in the form of an email. It was a nice email, definitely written to help me keep my spirits up. But this line stood out for me: “Poetry is subjective, and our decision reflects nothing more than our honest opinion of which poems we happened to like the most.” It’s all f**king subjective! It’s what drives me crazy. That and listening to the audio version of Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

    • Kevin Brennan
      September 17, 2015

      It is an incredibly complex issue, with lots of layers to it. Most writers can’t accept that publication is more a matter of luck than pure talent, yet most successful writers would probably admit that they were in the right place at the right time.

      It’s all made even more convoluted by ethnicity/gender, “colonialist” vs “oppressed.” And you’re right about the ownership of the work. What fun is it to know that you’re Yi-Fen Chou but can’t tell anybody?!

      More importantly, why are you giving in to The Goldfinch? I might listen to it if Pee Wee Herman were the narrator, but short of that…

      • 1WriteWay
        September 18, 2015

        A friend of mine recommended the audio version and we generally share the same preferences. It’s not a bad story, just unnecessarily long and the main character–Theo–is not really engaging, at least for me. I might be less critical if it hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I just read Stephen King’s review of it and, I’m sorry, but this is no Dickensian novel. The painting (The Goldfinch) does not run through the novel “like a power chord.” There are long passages where I even forget about the painting. If the novel were better edited, it would be a better story (and maybe then deserving of a prize). Frankly, I think this is another case when an author is too in love with her words to cut and I don’t blame Tartt for that. But I do wonder about the editors: why the seemingly endless narrative on furniture restoration or the choosing of china in Tiffaney’s. Sometimes I want to scream (in part because I’m listening to audio and fast-forwarding is more awkward than turning pages) that “I get it already! He doesn’t care what china they choose. Let’s fucking move on!” But I will finish it if only so I can properly critique it 😉

  5. islandeditions
    January 24, 2016

    My last name is often mistaken for being Chinese (it isn’t, it’s English). Maybe I should have submitted a poem.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 24, 2016

      Ha, I hadn’t thought of that! Especially if you were “S. Toy.”

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This entry was posted on September 15, 2015 by in Publishing and tagged , , .
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