Content warning: writer’s rant. This would be so much better with a few poop jokes dropped (sorry) [1]  here and there.

This post is related to the fact that Native American author/poet  [2]  Sherman Alexie has a new book out and is making the rounds of radio/TV/print news media publicity.  I recently heard a portion of a radio interview with him, and it sparked a memory of the occasion when Mr. Alexie’s name was last (to my knowledge) front and center, having to do with a brouhaha in the literary world.

Listening to writers talk about writing (or reading about writers being interviewed about writing) is perhaps my least favorite arts news format.  I have learned to skip most Fresh Air podcasts when a fiction author is featured, as I find their discourse (yes, even when they are being interviewed by the mahhhhhvelous Terry Gross) cringe-worthily pretentious. The author’s work itself, independent of their yakking about it, is often quite a different matter. For example, whether or not I’ve heard him speak (about himself), I have quite enjoyed most of what I’ve read by Mr. Alexie (and have heard good things about him from several independent bookstore owners).

Back to the pesky brouhaha: There may be a few of you non-literary (read: sane, or at least moderately well-adjusted) folks who cannot recall reading about a publishing “scandal” two years ago, described by the New York Times as, A White Poet borrows a Chinese Name and Sets Off Fireworks.  Lucky you.

A brief summation of the fireworks: Every year the Academy of American Poets chooses a different guest editor to select 75 poems to be published in their “Best American Poetry” anthology. Sherman Alexie was the 2015 BAP editor.  Both Alexie and the anthology received some rather intense criticism (read: political/cultural Ad hominen attacks)  having to do with the hot button, Are we having fun now? literary and artistic topics of artistic freedom, diversity, cultural appropriation, inclusion, entitlement….  All this and more sniping discussion came about because the anthology included a poem which was written by a “white” poet writing under a Chinese pseudonym.

Like all of the poems chosen to be in the anthology, Yi-Fen Chou’s “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” had been previously published.  [3]  After the poem was selected for the anthology, the poet Michael Derrick Hudson revealed (to BAP editor Alexie) that Yi-Fen Chou was his pen name. Alexie did not change his decision to publish the poem in the anthology. He included a note in the anthology’s introduction about Hudson’s pseudonym, and also wrote an essay about the experience and his decision.

Excerpts from the 9-10-15 New York Times article (A White Poet borrows a Chinese Name and Sets Off Fireworks; my emphasis)

In an essay on the Best American Anthology blog on Monday, Mr. Alexie, a Native American, defended his decision, saying he had paid closer attention to the poem because of the author’s name — a kind of “racial nepotism,” he said — but ultimately chose it because he liked it.
When Mr. Hudson revealed his use of a pseudonym, Mr. Alexie wrote, he debated how to deal with this instance of “colonial theft,” but decided that dropping the poem “would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen” and “implied that I chose poems based only on identity.”
“Never thought I’d see poets using yellowface to get published in 2015 but here we are,” Saeed Jones, a poet and the literary editor of Buzzfeed, said on Twitter. Jezebel ran a post under the headline “If You’re a White Man Who Can’t Get Published Under Your Own Name, Take the Hint.”  [4]
Ken Chen, a poet and executive director of the Asian American Writers Workshop, said Mr. Hudson was guilty of “cynical mischief” in the service of a “reactionary fantasy.”
 “He believes that he’s being cheated, and things will only improve if writers of color are virtualized away,” Mr. Chen said in an interview. “If only they didn’t really exist, and were just white guys with pseudonyms.”

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I was at once frustrated and not at all surprised by the controversy. I was also pleasantly surprised by Mr. Alexie’s honest admission of a not-so-well-kept suspicion/secret in the Animal Farm world of literary submissions and selections: that all animals’ identities are equal, but some animals’ identities are more equal than others.  [5]

As to the this will get me some press over-the-top outrage expressed by some of Mr. Hudson’s fellow poets, their reeks-of-envy hysteria speaks for itself.  I do have a question for Ken Chen, whose festering turd of vitriol  [6]  is included in the last paragraph of the NY Times article (excerpted above).

He believes that he’s being cheated, and things will only improve if writers of color are virtualized away,”…“If only they didn’t really exist, and were just white guys with pseudonyms.”

What kind of bullshit declaration is that?  Mr. Chen, you know nothing re what Mr. Hudson “believes.” Where is your evidence that this person you disparage – whom you’ve apparently never met nor even spoken to – has a “reactionary fantasy” (whatever that is) and thinks “things” will improve  [7] “if writers of color are virtualized away”?

Dude…some unsolicited advice?

 

 

 

 

keep calm

 

 

 

*   *   *

My sister-in-law, “Billy,” is Chinese, a native of Canton. She has assumed her husband’s (my brother’s) Irish surname when they married, and not long before they met she began using a (typically male-associated) first name which she chose because it was easier (than her given Cantonese first name) for Americans to pronounce.  I wonder, what masquerade might she be accused of, were she to become a writer? What accusations of gender/ethnic/cultural nepotism might be flung her way, should she submit work under her adopted name and some other chip-on-their-self-righteously-authentic-shoulder writers discovered she was born Choi Cheok-Jin and not Billy O’Malley[8]

I snickered when I first read about the BAP anthology controversy – snickered to think that someone’s naive knickers could be knotted over the fact that yet another writer had successfully used a strategy that writers throughout history have employed. For a variety of reasons – from subverting sexism,  [9]  a longing for privacy and/or anonymity, the desire to escape typecasting (type-writing?) [10] or just wanting to test and tweak editors’ and publishers’ assumptions about the author’s background – many writers have submitted and do submit their work using a pen name or two.

The author we’ve come to know and love as J.K. Rowling agreed to publish her Harry Potter series using gender ambiguous initials rather than her given name ( Joanne Rowling, no middle initial), because her publisher thought Harry Potter’s target audience (young males) might be put off by a book written by a woman.    Did Rowling (and her publisher) commit “gender nepotism”  [11]  by doing so?

 

 

 

hermione

Accio Neptosium!

 

 

 

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had a story and several poems published in two different literary journals, each of which aspired, as per their “mission statements,” to give voice to the concerns of (the so-labeled) Generation X.  Not only were Gen X-ers these respective journals’ target audience, the journals – both separately and vehemently in their writers’ guidelines – stated that writers submitting work must themselves be of the Gen-X age range.

Which I am not.  And yet, my story and poems were chosen for publication.

I wonder about journals and publishers which stipulate contributor demographics; specifically, how do they enforce their objectives to publish only writers of a certain background or identity (e.g., age/culture/gender/sexual orientation/ethnicity)? Do they make assumptions based on surnames and/or appearances (and thus, for the latter, require photo IDs)? Do they ask for DNA samples?

 

 

 

submission

“Decoding unknown alien transmission… it reads, ‘please submit your manuscript along with your saliva sample….’ “

 

 

 

Since I was not in the target demographic specified for contributors by those particular journals, I suppose you could argue I “cheated” by submitting my work.  I typically scorn publications which have demographic specifications in their writers guidelines, and do not submit my work to such venues (yeah, that’ll show em!).  But, on those two occasions…well, I guess I was feeling frisky.  I decided to submit my work because I thought it a good fit, and also to remind moiself  about the danger of self-censorship in the face of the write-what-you-know/what-you-are balderbash…and to make my point, even if somewhat anonymously, about the power of literature to both include and transcend identity politics….and also, in my own small, pesky way, to mock the “our only criteria is literary excellence” claim often touted by  touted by literary journals and anthologies and writing contest sponsors.

“Our only criteria is excellence (as long as you fit into our special box). Thank you for your excellent work which we’d like to publish…and what do you mean, you’re outside the box?”

I’d long thought about writing and submitting an essay on this topic, but what publishing outlet wants to admit they’ve been stung? The Literary World ®  is not exactly known for humility and modest egos.

Also, I’d been down that road before. One editor told me the following when I submitted to his journal a humor piece mocking the publication world on a related topic (the ubiquity of literary contests and award-bestowing):  Virtually *every* journal or literary venue has a contest/award of some kind. Your chances of finding an editor who would agree to make fun of their own complicity in what you essentially describe as a scam…Look, you’ve written a fine, witty article that is going to be an orphan. You are not going to find a home for this piece.  [12]

I respect journals’ calls for/specializationin /preference for specific subject matter (thus, e.g. I do not submit my non-murder mystery stories to murder mystery journals).  I have nothing but scorn for journals, editors and publishers who champion a system in which, implicitly or explicitly, a We seek stories about poverty-stricken, disaffected white teenage boy gang members, and we will only consider stories by writers who are themselves poverty-stricken, disaffected Midwestern white teenage boy gang members because only about poverty-stricken, disaffected Midwestern white teenage boy gang members can authentically understand and/or are entitled to write about poverty-stricken, disaffected Midwestern  white teenage boy gang members policy is practiced.  [13]

 

 

 

 

buttocks

It’s high time for a pictorial sanity break. Tomatoes resembling buttocks do wonders for the soul.

*   *   *

 

Although I snorted with derision when I read the afore-mentioned Gen-X journals’ guidelines, I did have select pieces that I thought would be a good thematic fit for them. I also noted that neither journal requested contributor photos nor dates of birth, and thus had no way of confirming an author’s generational affiliation.  Heh Heh heh.

I chose to dishonor the journals’ guidelines by sending them my Gen-X-themed-fiction/poetry-written-by-a-non-Gen-Xer. The editors of the journal which published my story effused in the acceptance letter about how I had captured the particular zeitgeist they sought – about how the tone of my story was “exactly what we are looking for.”

Gee, thanks – oh, and by the way, that’s the point of being a *fiction* writer.  Somehow, miraculously, I was able to get the tone without being the tone. It’s called craft; skill; experience; imagination; empathy. It’s called creative writing for a reason, you ageist, imaginatively constipated twerps.
(excerpt from the acceptance acknowledgement letter I did not send)

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Department Of This Post Would Be So Much More Entertaining
If It Had Some Poop Jokes In It.

 

 

 

cpt obvious

Well DUH, Captain Obvious.

 

 

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Seemingly Inappropriate Segue to A Dead Mother Reference

Had she not died (last Christmas Eve), today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday.
Just thinkin.’

ChristmasEve1983

Chet and Marion Parnell, Christmas Eve 1983

 

 

 

*   *   *

May you take more pictorial sanity breaks than appear in this post;
May you occasionally indulge in cynical mischief when it is called for;
May you find entertaining poop jokes (or whatever floats your boat) somewhere, if not in this space;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

 

[1] Not really.

[2] And the fact that, in this Identity Politik world, Alexie is commonly introduced and/or described in these venues not as an American poet/author but as a Native American poet/author is also related to the subject of this post.

[3] In venues ranging from large-circulation periodicals to obscure literary journals, small press anthologies or a collection of an individual poet’s work ( and in the case of this particular poem, in the literary journal Prairie Schooner).

[4] Despite Jones’ and Jezebel’s hissy fits to the contrary, there is no “hint” for the poet Hudson to take, as poems under Mr. Hudson’s own name have been published in numerous journals.

[5] This covers a variety of identities and interpretations, having to do with an author’s “name” value just as much (or more) than their cultural identity (i.e. a shitty poem by a well-known poet is more likely to get consideration and even publication than a fantastic poem by a newbie or no-name poet).

[6] No personal attacks in this space – it’s against my principles.

[7] What does that bizarre phrase even mean, in this or any other context – things will improve ?

[8] For privacy reasons, these names are similar to, but not actually, either  her real birth name nor her adopted name.

[9] Emily Bronte (aka “Ellis Belle” for Wuthering Heights and Mary Ann Evans (aka “George Elliot” for Middlemarch) and Karen Blixen (aka “Isak Dinensen” for Out of Africa) and the prolific French author Aurore Dupin (aka “George Sand”) and Alice Bradley Shelton (aka sci fi’s “James Tiptree Jr.” for The Girl Who Was Plugged In) are just a few of the numerous women who’ve used male pen names to submit their works without prejudice. Until relatively recently, most publishers would not even look at manuscripts submitted under a female pen name (and prejudice still exists, as per the J.K. Rowling and James Triptree Jr. decisions re their respective genres).

[10] As in writers known for a certain genre who want their non-genre work to be judged for itself, and not on their prior works…see following footnote for one notable example.

[11] Rowling has also published a crime novel series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

[12] He was right…except that I did find a home for it. My essay, You Can Be (or already are) an Award-Winning Writer! was published (retitled as Author! Author!) in Bear Deluxe magazine.

[13] Imagine the likely antacid addiction of the publisher who, had he adhered to such standards, would have forever been known as the douchebag who refused to consider the manuscript for The Outsiders  (and Rumble Fish  and Tex and That was Then..This is Now, and the other young adult novels of S.E. Hinton ) because of who the author was not.