Are Pen Names Ethical?

Perhaps some of you remember the controversy over the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry (BAP). After the 75 chosen poems were announced, one of the authors stepped forward to reveal he had used a pseudonym. Instead of being “Yi-Fen Chou,” as the poem states, his name is Michael Derrick Hudson.

As you can imagine, there was quite a lot of backlash. Some felt that Hudson had been highly manipulative and that his poem should be pulled. Others applauded his actions, saying he had revealed the racial bias of the anthology that was keeping out poems based off the author’s ethnicity alone.

Despite the backlash and despite his own anger at the deception, Sherman Alexie, BAP’s guest editor, decided to keep the poem in the anthology, citing the following reasons:

Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now. But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world. And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular. But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.

I have mixed feelings about this one. Pen names have been used for several hundred years, and many classic novels were published only because the author chose to hide his or her real name and take on a name that the publishing world would be more likely accept. Jane Erye, Wuthering Heights, and Middlemarch all fall into this category. Even more recently, JK Rowling and S.E. Hinton both used their initials to conceal their names so that readers would not be swayed about the book based on the gender of the author.

Is this instance then any different? A writer seeking to promote his work by concealing his name in the hopes that his work will receive more attention?

Yes and no.

Perhaps what makes this feel rather different is that Sherman Alexie was determined to make this particular edition of BAP friendlier to minority and women authors. With that in mind, Hudson’s actions seem more to undercut Alexie’s goal than anything else. (However, I can’t find evidence that this was fully disclosed during the application process.)

That being said, Hudson explained in the foreword of BAP that he had sent the poem out 40 times with his own name on it — all were rejected. He sent out it only 9 times under his pseudonym before receiving an acceptance letter. It is clear he felt that his name worked against him in the publishing world. After all, Alexie even admitted that Hudson wasn’t entirely wrong:

I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet’s identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

Have we simply flipped our standard then? Is it unacceptable to reject a woman or minority person, but acceptable to reject someone because they sound “too Caucasian”? In other words, based on their skin color? Isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to get away from?

I understand the argument though: these types of anthologies are meant as a way to recompense the people who were rejected for so long based on their gender or where they came from. It’s a way to encourage poetry publication, not squash it.

However, I can’t help but think that a poem is meant to be judged as a standalone work, rather than needing a certain name origin to give it merit. Personally, I feel it makes poetry publication too political and gives an unfair advantage to those with “ethnic sounding” names. If a someone were Chinese-American, but his name were Danny McGibbon, his poem automatically would get less attention in this submission process despite the poet being a minority. The idea of using names alone to determine a diverse anthology doesn’t seem fair.

Of course, in the end, it’s just one editor’s opinion as to what constitutes as the “best” poetry. Still, I find it an interesting debate. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would be interested to hear your opinion.

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