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Posts Tagged ‘bias’

By now, I’m guessing you’ve all seen it: the white American poet who yellowfaced in his attempts to get published. That’s right, a white man used an Asian pen name to increase his odds of having his poetry published. He’s quite open about his reasons for doing so:

The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

My first reaction to hearing about this was blunt and none too poetic: Are you fucking kidding me?

First, let’s just consider the reality of how difficult it is for people of color to be published. Today provides a great example: Cindy Pon is posting over on John Scalzi’s Big Idea about the obstacles that exist when you’re writing stories about non-white characters. Then let’s take a quick stroll over here, where we find white men dominating writing conference panels, even the ones about women and people of color. It happens so often, it’s hard to pick a single example, so I’ll just grab the latest one: Maggie Stiefvater being asked on a panel about Writing the Other.

So when a white dude goes on record lamenting that it’s so hard to get published as a white dude, and then concocts a rationale that’s based on a small sample at best, and on a completely false sense of persecution at worst, it chaps my hide. If it’s so hard being a white dude in publishing, why do so many “best of” lists contain mostly (and sometimes only) white men? If it’s so hard, why is academia jammed to the gills with classes that teach mostly (and sometimes only) white writers? If it’s so hard, why do so many women writers use just their initials to disguise the fact that they are Tanyas and Rebeccas and Joannes?

Of course, at the heart of this guy’s pen name gimmick is an oozing white core of entitlement. He feels his poetry is so good that the only thing keeping it from getting published is some ingrained bias against white men. Otherwise, how to explain that he was rejected forty times as a white man, but published after only nine attempts as an Asian man? Surely there’s no other way to understand this befuddling experience of rejection.

Let’s look at what he says again: If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Bullshit. On all counts. Complete and utter bullshit.

Firstly, 49 rejections is nothing. He thinks that’s a lot of rejection? He has no clue. I know people who’ve suffered a hundred rejections in trying to get a poem published. That’s persistence.

Secondly, and above all, I am so tired of this fallacy that great literature never gets rejected. Of course it gets rejected. I’m not even going to bother listing all the great works of literature that had to confront rejection before being published. You all know the list. It’s enormous. Because even a brilliant piece of writing isn’t going to speak to everyone.

A poem being named as a “best of 2015” means only that someone in charge of making the list liked the poem. It doesn’t make it a great poem. It doesn’t put it in the canon of great literature. Nor does it prove that publishing is biased against white men.

To my great joy, Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, has chimed in to discuss his inclusion of this poem in the anthology. He is completely honest about his reasoning, and about his reaction to learning that he had been “fooled.” I don’t think he was, because his job was to choose the 75 poems he liked best from the year. No matter how complex the process by which he got there, he succeeded.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," if you can believe that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” if you can believe that.

It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.

The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.

I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.

For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.

“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”

“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”

The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.

I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.

23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”

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