Thoughts on the Yi-Fen Chou Scandal

Here’s the skinny: aggrieved by frequent rejections, poet Michael Derek Hudson, a white man, began submitting one of his poems to journals under the Chinese pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. It was accepted for publication. Later, it was selected for inclusion in the renowned Best American Poetry anthology, upon which the author revealed his true identity. The editor, Sherman Alexie, decided to keep the poem in the collection. Outrage ensued.

Alexie gave a characteristically openhearted account of his decision, in which he essentially admitted to having given the poem a boost because of its author’s supposed identity–perhaps an unwise confession on his part, but surely a brave one.

Now, the heart of the matter:

Among many (presumably white) commenters, there’s been a predictable outcry:

“Artistic judgment shouldn’t be biased by identity! Standards should be based on aesthetic merit alone!”

It’s a noble sentiment, and I wouldn’t want to poop anyone’s anti-PC party, but when has this ever been the case?

Certainly not fifty years ago, when the arts were still reeling from the shock of the counterculture, the old guardians of highbrow values were appalled by the libertine content of youth-oriented entertainment, and tastes were sharply divided along generational lines.

Certainly not seventy-five years ago, when cultural life was riven by a political split between anti-socialists and Communist sympathizers, and the ideological affiliations of an author could make or end his career.

Certainly not one hundred years ago, when writers like Fitzgerald simply assumed that culture would be dominated by an old-boys club of white Christians, with career opportunities meted out by networks of college chums and newspapermen.

Certainly not three hundred years ago, when it was almost unthinkable for anyone but a white man to publish anything at all in Europe or America.

Certainly not five hundred years ago, when Shakespeare was slighted for daring to write fine poetry despite his low-class origins.

Certainly not one thousand years ago, when pretty much all European art was explicitly dedicated to reinforcing class differences and Christian dogma.

The notion that art should be about aesthetic standards rather than “ideology” or “issues” or “identity” has always been a virtuous wish, not a workable standard. Indeed, the idea itself is a revolutionary one. The artists most ardently devoted to pure aesthetics were the modernists, who used “art for art’s sake” as a rallying cry in a campaign against entrenched class interests. They, at least, had no illusions that art should be blind to identity. They set out to create a new identity, a new class, based on artistic taste.

Their dream lingers on, but I don’t see how questions of gender and ethnicity can realistically be excised from critical discussions. Perhaps these questions have now become overly salient in critical discussions–that’s an argument I’d like to see. But let’s not pretend that the alternative is some arid world where people never think about sex or race or class or age or politics while reading poetry.

Even if it were possible to create such a world, I wouldn’t want to live in it.

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