The Controversy of Yi-Fen Chou
In 2015, the annual issue of Best American Poetry was met with considerable ire. The anthology, edited by Sherman Alexie, contained a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.” The poem first appeared in the journal Prairie Schooner, and the name in the byline was Yi-Fen Chou, an unknown poet.
In the Best American anthology, however, the poem contained an addendum: Yi-Fen Chou was actually a pseudonym for a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson, a librarian from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In an announcement on Prairie Schooner’s website, editors admitted that they were not aware that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym when the poem was first published. When the poem was selected for Best American Poetry, Hudson wrote to Alexie to reveal his true identity. Alexie decided to publish the poem anyway, with the note clarifying that Chou was a pseudonym.
“[A]fter a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again,” Hudson’s author’s biography in the back of the book read. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me.” Hudson claimed that the poem had been rejected forty times under his real name, but only nine as Chou before it was accepted.
Backlash against Alexie, Hudson, and Best American was swift and fierce. Poets, writers, and editors on the internet cried foul. Many accused Hudson of racism and invoking yellow face. In a blog post defending his decision to keep the poem, Alexie, a Native American who often writes about identity, wrote, “I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.”
I feel very, very strongly that Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem should be pulled from 2015 Best American Poetry bc it’s dishonest & racist.
— Alyssa Wong 🌸✨(On Hiatus) (@crashwong) September 8, 2015
Yet ultimately, Alexie said he chose to keep the poem: “I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.”
(Note: Alexie has recently come under fire for an entirely different reason. He has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. While we acknowledge these allegations and the conversation around them is important, delving further into their impact is beyond the scope of this article.)
Hudson is not the first white poet to appropriate an Asian name in order to boost his profile. In the early ’90s, a man named Kent Johnson allegedly published poetry under the name Araki Yasusada. These instances, as well as several others, raise important questions for the literary world about cultural appropriation, identity politics, and fairness in publishing standards.
The truth is that authors of every stripe—both famous and little-known—write under pseudonyms. Perhaps the most famous recent example is J.K. Rowling, who chose to write her Cormoran Strike mystery novels under the pen name Robert Galbraith.
Rowling explains on her website that she “wanted to begin a new writing career in a new genre and to release her crime novels to a neutral audience, free of expectation or hype” after the massive success of Harry Potter. When she was unexpectedly outed on Twitter, Rowling continued to use the pseudonym to maintain a distinction in her work. Another famous example is Samuel Clemens, who borrowed the name Mark Twain from a former riverboat pilot. The term “mark twain” refers to a sounding for river depth that makes passage safe for steamboats.
“Writers have many varied and often valid reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym,” says Ashley Strosnider, managing editor at Prairie Schooner, who was at the forefront of the Michael Derrick Hudson controversy. “A few good reasons I’ve heard … were that the author prefers to separate creative work from their legal name, either for professional reasons (say, a high-powered lawyer doesn’t want internet searches turning up her poetry that engages her personal trauma) or sometimes familial ones (in cases where the work is highly personal and may cause discomfort or conflict among family groups or closed communities).”
“Sometimes, writers are working in areas where censorship is a concern, and either the content of the work could put them in jeopardy or their personal identity—the fact of their gender, sexuality, religion, or something similar. Sometimes, I’d wager that writers simply think of pen names or pseudonyms as a way to more fully inhabit a different creative persona from which they work well, and that seems to me to be valid, too.”
Tweeting under your real name is a sure-fire way to get the permanently outraged to abuse you. Now I know why so many use pseudonyms.
— Mark Sparrow (@Markgsparrow) February 13, 2014
But when an author has deceptive or deceitful reasons for publishing under a different name, editors have the difficult task of rooting those out.
“Following the criticism and productive discussion around [Hudson’s] case and other similar ones elsewhere around that time,” says Strosnider, “our editorial team agreed to add the following language to our submissions policy, which has been in place since: ‘In principle, Prairie Schooner has no objections to the use of pseudonyms, but we require disclosure of their use to the editor before publication.’”
“This request is in addition to our longstanding policy of requiring authors to sign contracts, which normally flag this to their attention, where they sign legal names that match their SSNs, rather than their pen names. The request for disclosure, like the contract, relies on the author’s honesty. …In cases where we’ve learned of a pseudonym attached to work we’re considering that gave us any cause for concern, re: appropriation or otherwise, our editor typically has had a conversation with the author about it.”
Gender Discrimination in Publishing
The problem with Hudson’s use of an Asian-sounding pseudonym is the insinuation that the publishing industry is somehow biased against white men—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In reality, it’s much harder to publish as anyone other than a white male.
This problem has been around for centuries. In the 1800s, the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, all published under male names because women weren’t allowed to. Both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were first published under the respective pen names Currer Bell and Ellis Bell in 1847.
Over 150 years later, the sad reality remains that publishing reacts differently to male authors than female ones. A recent study comparing gender discrimination and inequality in both independent and traditional publishing found that in traditional publishing, female authors’ titles commanded nearly half of the price of male authors.
“I fell into this topic because I had been writing and trying to publish fiction, and I saw the industry changing before my eyes,” says Dana Weinberg, a professor at Queens College in the City University of New York who co-authored the study. “I had the sense that I had a front-row seat to a major shift that has widespread social consequences. As I delved deeper, it became clear that what I was seeing in publishing was part of an even larger trend related to changes in work itself and the growth of the gig economy.”
The study looks at three forms of discrimination in publishing: “1) The way authors are sorted into genres, 2) The value placed on genres in relation to their gender composition, and 3) Within-genre differences in the prices for titles by male and female authors,” says Weinberg. “These three forms of discrimination are well-documented in other industries, and so we weren’t surprised to find evidence of them in traditional publishing. What was surprising was the size of the disparity in prices based on all of these factors, a full 45 percent difference in the retail prices of traditionally published titles by male, as compared to female, authors.”
Whenever I count books at the grocery stores, I have to handkey the prices… the books written by men always cost more.
— my geekness is a-quivering (@DBSK) June 15, 2014
And it isn’t only the traditional publishing model that has a problem.
“The disparity is much less in indie or self-publishing—only 7 percent—but indie authors actually replicate the gender-based patterns of sorting, genre valuation, and within-genre pricing of the traditional publishers,” says Weinberg. “The lesser disparity in indie [publishing] had far more to do with price compression, and far less with an embrace of greater equality. This finding was a huge surprise and has deep implications for what we might expect as the gig economy grows.”
Honestly, my library is overwhelmingly male writers. Like many ppl. I love my books! But it skews that way, reflection of past injustices in publishing, and in conditions that praised men and allowed them to write more than women.
Imbalance made my reading-mind lopsided tho.
— Jeff Halperin (@Cdn_Delhi_guy) May 27, 2018
So, if a female author wants to sell more books, is it more lucrative for her to choose a male pseudonym?
“We don’t yet know,” says Weinberg. “Our study looks at the prices or piece rate for books. What we don’t know is how many of those books an author will sell. Author gender in particular genres might relate to sales volume, for example, if readers are less inclined to buy romance novels by men or science textbooks by women. We can’t tell from this round of research how consumer behavior actually relates to an author’s name. But stay tuned.”
The Problem with Anonymity
One thing everyone can agree on: When it comes to equity in publishing, there’s a lot more that can be done. In the internet age, concealing your true identity is easier than ever.
Yet people like Hudson, who exploit the weaknesses of the industry for their own personal gain, are a symptom of a larger problem. Big questions remain about who gets to write what and when and how the public values works of art based on the name of the artist.
For her part, Strosnider hopes that Prairie Schooner’s new editorial policy will assuage further controversy.
“Our hope is that we will be informed of the practice [of using pseudonyms] in the future, so if we feel the need to raise any concerns, we can discuss the choice to use a pseudonym, as well as the significance of the name itself, where applicable, with the author prior to publication instead of after.”
When it comes to gender disparity, Weinberg says publishers would do well to examine their own internal practices.
“Publishers should be looking internally at their own practices to see whether they are shying away from titles based on the author’s gender or putting less investment into them,” she says. “Those behaviors are relatively easy to observe looking across their own catalogs. The larger questions and the harder ones—and these apply to publishers, to indie authors, and to the general public—have to do with why there is so much gender segregation across genres and why we devalue female-dominated genres relative to male-dominated ones.”
If past precedent is any example, we’ll be looking for the answers for a very long time.