The Pseudonym Controversy

Recently the literary world has been alight with the exploits of one Michael Derrick Hudson who used a pseudonym in order to sell some of his work.

Using a name other than the one you are born with isn’t anything new in writing. In fact the newest thing about ‘pen names’ is actually the term itself (used first in 1864) but the practice of it is far older than that. The Japanese have ‘art-names’ which can change multiple times during their artistic careers going back for soemtime. The Persians use takhallus for their poets, which is the act of adding a geographical moniker unto their given name to differentiate between poets over time, something they’ve been doing since they started writing.

But I digress. Noms de plume are nothing new, not even in America. Mark Twain, Stephen King, and even Dr. Seuss are heavy practitioners of the literary name game. So why, exactly, is Mr. Hudson being placed under fire for this?

Because his pseudonym of choice was Yi-Fen Chou. In case you are too lazy to google it, Yi-Fen Chou is Chinese in origin. Mr. Hudson is not. He’s Caucasian.

Mr. Hudson wrote a poem entitled The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve, and submitted it under this pseudonym for publication to The Best American Poetry of 2015, an anthology of (you guessed it) poetry. Funny enough it wasn’t the first time that he had tried to get that poem published.

It was the fortieth. No, seriously…the fortieth time. As in 4-0. Having played the ‘submit stuff to literary magazines till someone takes a chance on you’ game I know it’s all about persistence. Gotta keep swinging…blah blah blah… while Forty isn’t the most I’ve heard, it’s definitely on the higher end of the submission average.

In an act of frustration, or perhaps curiosity, Mr. Hudson changed the name on his submission from his ‘white’ one to one that “sounded” Chinese.  He submitted less than ten times and was accepted.

By changing one thing on his submission, a thing that should mean nearly nothing, he got recognized for his work. And I’ve got a pretty big problem with that but not for the reasons that some might think.

I’m not saying I agree with his choice of monikers. I don’t support the action. What I have a problem with is what it says about the editors and publishers in our world. It is clear that his poem was accepted because the name was Chinese.

This means one of two things. Either Mr. Hudson’s work was good enough to be published and it wasn’t because he was white and male. Or that we have lower expectations of minority authors. Do you see the problem here?

Now, this discrimination doesn’t just go one way.

I am reminded of the recent efforts by Catherine Nichols to expose sexism in modern day publication. Ms. Nichols wrote a book. I assume she celebrated before sending her queries out to multiple publication houses/agents (50, by the way). Over the next two months she received two requests for the full manuscript and nothing else. Not exactly the best of responses.

Nichols decided to try again. She made a new email account and profile for “George”. She sent the exact same queries out, and lo and behold…received 17 responses to her work. And even more than that…she received comments from the agents who weren’t ready for George’s work yet…constructive criticisms on her potential publications. Something she hadn’t received as Catherine.

That is also a problem.

Clearly Catherine’s work was good enough on its own. Like Hudson, the only thing that was keeping it from being published was a name.

A persons work should not be published because of, or in spite of, their birth. It should be published because it’s good work.

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