Jack Hanson sorts through the Best American Poetry debacle
EACH YEAR, FOR better or worse, David Lehman and a guest editor release a volume of the Best American Poetry series. For 2015, acclaimed poet and novelist Sherman Alexie held the post of guest editor, a dubious honor which, while a sure sign of one’s membership in the Literary Establishment, also guarantees a year of drudgery followed by a lifetime of criticism from those sure they’d have done the job better. Not exactly a thankless task, but neither must it be an unalloyed pleasure.
And yet, whatever his preparation, Alexie is certainly carrying a heavier load than the one he had signed up for. The revelation—via a striking contributor’s note—that a poem submitted under the name Yi-Fen Chou was actually written by a white man named Michael Derek Hudson has incited a contentious new chapter in the debate over the role of race in today’s literary culture.
Alexie himself issued a long statement on the matter, and his decision to retain the poem. It's a candid, thoughtful, if somewhat rambling reflection both on the editorial process and how even a necessary corrective measure contains the seed of possible injustice. But this needn’t be a cause for deep panic. Just as no one is a perfect judge of literature, no one will ever be able to adequately reflect the plenitude of voices available:
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.
Nepotism is as common as oxygen.
This seems to sum it up properly: replace “nepotism” with “preference,” and the practice begins to feel less like a moral issue and more like the everyday politics of getting ahead (although I would be inclined to replace “race” in this hypothetical, too). The Atlantic published a more analytical response, which, while never using the word, seems to suggest that the push for diversity in literature is beginning to verge on utopian thinking, and that rather than directly seeking a diverse contributor list, editors ought to be consciously engaging with a wide variety of voices.
Both Alexie’s statement and The Atlantic piece are unusually balanced. They stop short of denying the possibility that this has exposed flaws in the promotion of diversity. And they resist the correlative knee-jerk that because that project was taken advantage of by a careerist—Hudson resorted to a Chinese name to improve the odds of a poem rejected over 40 times—the attempt to redress the literary neglect of persons of color is defective at its core. Needless to say, not everyone was so measured.
The hottest takes on Hudson’s subterfuge come from The Rumpus, Slate, and Salon. These venues (with the possible exception of Slate) have long taken the side that the national discourse is overwhelmingly white, if not rooted in white male supremacy. Hudson’s blatant manipulation of an editor’s wish to further diversify a visible publication thus deserves the deepest scorn. Even here, however, there are some sound logical objections to Hudson’s claim to have had greater success under the Asian nom de plume. Simply put, the numbers just aren’t strong enough to prove that the correlation indicates causation. This alone should indicate that the discussion of representation, so often the fuel for fiery polemics, is by no means simply a matter of tallying things up.
Part of the blowback is no doubt due to the wide, popular coverage the story has received. It’s embarrassing. For a field understandably entrenched in a siege mentality, revealing a house so disordered does stir fears of further diminishing readership, fewer tenured spots, or, at the very least, having to explain the whole damn thing to your parents.
But it seems unlikely that the Hudson/Chou debacle will have any significant impact on the literary landscape. Remember: this has happened before, during the first flare-up of the culture wars. And while the Araki Yasusada/Kent Johnson hoax never made it into the BAP, you could have reasonably predicated the scandal was a death-knell for racial politics in literature. And how wrong you would have been.
Editors and readers will likely go on as they have: those who view race as the strongest influence in the decision-making process will continue to make choices that reflect that, while others (the majority, I’d say) will draw on a broader array of selection criteria. The risk of running into another Yi-Fen Chou won’t stop editors from reading widely and looking for the best work they can find.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.