Prejudice in the writing world

Bryan Eberly and Bryan Eberly

Racism has once again reared its ugly head in the writing community.

A couple semesters ago, I brought up the transgression that was a publisher challenging readers to go a year without reading anything by a white, male heterosexual author. I knocked that idea down viciously as being insanely racist and sexist, and made the argument that writing cannot be judged by who is writing it, but must always be judged by its content.

I once again have to bring that argument up, and I will gladly do it a thousand times over. Because I love writing and I’m sick of seeing petty notions of prejudice mar it up.

Before I get too in depth, let me just say that I understand that there is a constant imbalance among published authors that skews toward white males. I see it as well as anybody else can. It is strange and possibly evidence of a systemic issue among publishers.

I understand, but I just don’t care.

Hear me out.

I don’t care, because I don’t care about who or what an author is. Their gender, race, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., cease to exist when their writing begins. Their name doesn’t even matter at that point. In essence, the writer disappears as soon as their writing begins. And that’s how it should be. A writer is merely a vehicle for carrying a story or message.

So, why am I bringing this up again?

Michael Derrick Hudson is a white, male poet. He submitted poetry to various publications under his original name and was rejected 40 times. He became suspicious that he was being ignored for his name, and changed it. He chose the name Yi-fen Chou, after a character he had been developing for a story. He resubmitted his poem under this new name, that of a Chinese woman, and was only rejected nine times. When his poem was published in the “Prairie Schooner”, it was then chosen among The Best American Poetry 2015. A very esteemed anthology in the poetry community. The editor of the anthology has admitted he chose and read the poem purely because the writer had an exotic name. He was drawn to the idea of publishing an underrepresented minority’s work. He then said something to the effect that he had realized the poem didn’t sound like the writing of a Chinese woman, but found the poem to be good despite the strange writing voice, and still found it worth publishing.

This is not ok. There are several things wrong here.

For one thing, it shows a profoundly prejudicial attitude among selectors, editors and publishers. Rather than taking the time to thoroughly read and judge a work based on its bulk, it appears selections are being made on nothing more than a name. Writers are being tossed aside unless they sound exotic or non-white. Even when they write something worth high praise, if their name doesn’t pass the first test, the writing is deemed unworthy.

Secondly, it shows an eerily arrogant attitude of one person deciding who deserves publication based on their superficial qualities. While trying to be more inclusive, the editor here has only excluded entire groups of people he deems uninteresting. And I’m not just talking white people. Who knows how many other races and ethnicities the editor looked over just because he was drawn to Yi-fen Chou?

On that note, what does a Chinese woman’s writing sound like, and what would make it different from a white man’s? Aside from an actually minute amount of subject matter and experience, how exactly did the editor notice the poem was not written by a Chinese woman? I’ve actually read the poem and I’m in the process of memorizing it, so please come talk to me about it and tell me if you think it doesn’t sound like a Chinese woman. And then tell me how you’re coming up with that notion.

The incident of Yi-fen Chou’s poem, or Michael Derrick Hudson’s, has revealed to me a damaged and ironically unethical problem in the publishing community’s selection process. Written works are apparently not being chosen based on their content. They are being chosen based on the superficial and separated aspects of a writer’s physiology.

I hope it’s only an isolated occurrence. I hope it stays that way. Prejudicial attitudes are not excusable for the sake of inclusion. It must stop.