Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cultural Climate Change Has Deniers, Too.

The Independent reports the following:
Yi-Fen Chou: White author under fire after using Asian pen name to be published more often

Synopsis: Michael Derrick Hudson's poem, 'The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,' was rejected 40 times. So he sent it out under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou where it was rejected nine times before being accepted. It now appears in a collection entitled The Best American Poetry 2015.

The article takes the slant that this is reprehensible cultural appropriation, and quotes numerous sources that claim this is the case.

I can't help but comment on the "under fire" aspect of this (and I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to avoid conflating this with some similar recent publishing "scandals"). Over decades and generations, I cannot count the number of female authors who have used male nom de plumes for exactly the same reason as Hudson: that is, discriminatory practices have prevented their works from being read otherwise. This article in The Independent contains admissions of ethnic writers that they themselves have done the same. Well, folks, Hudson's case is no different. In fact, if you can't see that this is a straight apples-to-apples comparison, you don't know your fruit.

Is it cultural appropriation? If true then it was equally so when an Asian author Jeong Min adopted a Western name in order to be published. It is equally so when Alice Bradley Sheldon adopted the name James Tiptree, Jr. for publication. But in truth it's not cultural appropriation in the slightest. It's cultural disguise. It is that when non-white males do it, and it's the same for Hudson. The poem he wrote was the very same as when he submitted it under his own name. His editor specifically called attention to the fact. Hudson appropriated absolutely nothing. He simply responded in a very limited way to the discriminatory practices currently prevalent among book editors.

That the discriminatory practices exist is definitively demonstrated by the fact that the strategy worked. If anyone should be under fire, it should be the editors who ascribe more value to a work when it carries one ethnic or gender label over another, no matter what that label may be.

To Hudson's credit, he didn't allow his editor (Sherman Alexie) to publish the work under false pretenses. As soon as he was informed that his work was selected, and before it was published, Hudson revealed his true identity. And to Alexie's credit, he had the ethical backbone to publish it anyway, knowing that if he failed to do so it could only be because he was ethnically biased. He recognized his own bias and ultimately considered the work to be worthy regardless of the ethnicity of the author. And he explained this inner debate in great detail and candor.

Author Danez Smith labeled Hudson's act "racism", and frankly that's bullshit. 


Read Alexie's post. He acknowledges that the hard reality he had to face: "I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet's identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American."  And while Alexie ultimately acted in rigid accord with his ethics, he also acknowledges that he could have flatly rejected Hudson's work, and would have been hailed for it.


It is precisely this sort of bigotry that the Sad Puppies (and "Rabid Puppies") objected to in recent years regarding selections of the Hugo Awards. It is a historical fact that the cultural climate changes. The Mongols no longer command the largest empire in the world. Neither do the Romans, nor the Greeks. One constant, though, is that it remains fashionable to beat horses long after they have bled out on the ground. Thus the pendulum swings from one extreme to another, always achieving maximum speed at that fleeting moment of fairness in the center. Animal Farm isn't just a cute barnyard story.

This was the objection of the Sad Puppies. Their response was to nominate works that they felt had literary merit rather than merely cultural approbation. For this they were labeled "racist" and "misogynist". Though it does lean in that direction because they did not nominate works that were already nominated, their list is not exclusive. However, the opposition most certainly was, voting "No Award" rather than allow any Puppies' nominees to win, regardless of merit. In fact, one of the actual winners didn't appear on the Rabid Puppies' slate merely because it was published after the slate. Had it been included, it would have been voted "No Award". Still, it is the Puppies who are called racist by those who apparently do not understand the word. It is a fact that the Puppies are not motivated because they oppose women and minorities winning awards. They are, rather, motivated because not only are many of these awards are given because the writer is female or a member of a minority, but that they are are a politically connected member of such a group. 

Cultural climate change deniers eschew this charge. They ignore mountains of evidence in order to do so, including their myriad "No Award" block voting (the Puppies, btw, did not vote in blocks); the blatant practices that gave birth to the Sad Puppies; and the very backlash to Mr. Hudson, above. They somehow do not recognize what pure reason demands: that having a work selected because your ethnicity is [pick one] is not conceptually different from selecting it because your ethnicity is [white male American]. 

And I have heard their arguments to the contrary. They all distill down to "you hit me, so I get to hit you back". It is an appeal to violence begat from violence. The problem is that the premise is completely bogus. Their targets may belong to a group whose members abused minorities in the past, but that does not mean that the target did so, or contributed to doing so. "Social justice", in the form that it is practice, often results in personal injustice.

Remember, Michael Derrick Hudson didn't hurt or mislead anybody regarding the publication of his poem. Rather, he anonymized his identity so the work could be fairly judged and immediately identified himself on selection. Cultural disguise is a personal act. Hudson didn't change his name because "white men" are rejected: he did it because he was rejected. Forty times. For a poem that's now in a collection called the best of 2015. And his editor was faced with publishing it as an affirmation that he selects based on merit; or rejecting it after the fact, thus endorsing the bias that he admits exists.

Kudos to Sherman Alexie for coming down on the side of ethical fairness, and kudos to Michael Derrick Hudson for giving him that opportunity. 


To be honest, I don't think that "fairness" is called for in every situation. There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, with stating outright that you favor writers of a particular gender or ethnicity. It's perfectly OK to celebrate Black authors, Asian authors, Incan transgendered dyslexic herpetophobic authors, or any other category you wish to celebrate. There's nothing wrong with giving any particular group a special platform. Just say so and all is well.  And this includes Scottish, Swedish, or. In no wise should someone be excluded from celebrating his or her ethnicity simply because it happens to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Favored demographics are not the problem. By saying "this is my favored demographic," you've given your audience information that they can use to their benefit. They may seek it out or seek to avoid it, and that's their choice to make. The problem comes when you pretend to fairness when you are in reality favoring or disfavoring particular groups... when your claim to address injustice is effected by injustices of your own creation. It's impossible to credibly claim that this does not happen today. The big challenge is how to judge all authors fairly in a bizarre world where dispassionate calls for objective fairness are treated as bigotry.


What if a publisher said that they would only accept anonymous submissions? 

Consider it seriously. What if a publisher said "our submission guidelines require that you attach no name and no personally identifiable information to your submission... only a P.O. Box to which acceptance or rejection letters may be sent, with identities to be confirmed only after selection is firmly locked by policy"? It's called "blind submission", not to be confused with unsolicited submissions or those that have been submitted without an agent. I'm describing a publisher that only accepts submissions that are anonymous, as a matter of policy.

It does exist. It's often used in the review of technical papers or as a criteria for submitting to specific contests to keep them objective. Sometimes it's used to combat "the cult of celebrity" and give unknown authors a fair shake, so that works are judged solely on literary merit. Now, what constitutes "literary merit" is arguable, but that moves the discussion away from culture and into genre, for which there's always room for one more. At the moment and within a genre, blind submission is the closest thing we have to a guarantee of a bigotry-free selection process.

Nevertheless, some people still don't favor it, sometimes for the very reasons that make it an excellent idea. Established authors may be opposed for obvious reasons... after all, what one person may call "the cult of celebrity", another person may call "reputation"... and it does sell even mediocre works. And some oppose it because they value their bias. Like I said, there's nothing wrong with that if you're honest about it.

Now, of course this doesn't work for an award such as the Hugos, in which the nominees are gleaned from previously published works, fully identified... but blind submissions do tell you that you're dealing with a publisher for for whom the quality of work genuinely supersedes identity politics.

That's gotta be worth something.

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