BRIAN DICKERSON: What’s in a name in a world obsessed with brands?

By BRIAN DICKERSON
Guest Columnist

(TNS) Disguising one’s identity seems contrary to the spirit of our times — an affront to the Branded Age in which performers, products and middle schoolers compete to showcase their distinctive qualities across multiple platforms.

If the point of existence is to celebrate what is uniquely yours, why would you ever want someone to think you were someone else?

Yet two artists — one a poet you’ve almost certainly never heard of, the other (possibly) a critically acclaimed novelist — are in the news for doing just that.

Their stories may tell us as much about our own prejudices as they tell us about the authors themselves. (They may also point the way to an exciting new presidential debate format — but I’m getting ahead of my story.)

Michael Derrick Hudson — he’s the guy you’ve never heard of — is a poet whose work appears in the newest volume of the “Best American Poetry” series. And he is undoubtedly American, although he wrote the poem chosen for inclusion in “Best American Poetry” under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou.

Hudson doesn’t pretend to be of Chinese descent. He doesn’t even suggest that the poems he writes as Yi-Fen Chou betray a Chinese sensibility (whatever that is). As he freely confesses in the autobiographical blurb he submitted to “Best American Poetry,” he regularly submits all his poems for publication under his own name, resubmitting them under his Chinese pseudonym only after they’ve been rejected as Michael Hudson’s work.

Whether this strategy represents a fraudulent attempt to pass as a member of a minority group or a clever adaptation to the demands of the marketplace does not concern me here. What’s interesting is that literary magazine editors have consistently found more artistic merit in Yi-Fen Chou’s poetry than in Michael Hudson’s, even though it is, in fact, the same body of work.

A dishonet system

That brings us to the strange case of “Cow Country,” a 540-page novel by someone who calls himself Adrian Jones Pearson that has generated less than overwhelming critical or commercial buzz since its publication last April by the hitherto unknown Cow Eye Press.

In a recent post on Harper’s website, writer Art Winslow argues that “Cow Country,” is in fact the work of Thomas Pynchon, the brilliant but reclusive National Book Award winner and MacArthur “genius grant” fellow whose 1974 novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” is a staple of collegiate literature courses across the globe.

Winslow supports his theory about “Cow Country’s” provenance with an impressive array of textual and circumstantial evidence. His most intriguing exhibit is Adrian Pearson’s disclosure, in an interview provided to an online publication called Cow Eye Express, that “Cow Country” is the latest in a series of novels written under different pseudonyms with the intention of diverting attention from the author’s identity and reputation to the artistic merit of his latest work.

The point of publishing each novel under a different pseudonym, the pseudonymous Pearson explains, is to make each work earn its own way rather than ride the coattails of whatever reputation its author has earned from his previous successes.

It is not, he concedes, a formula for maximizing earnings because most readers “prefer to read a crap book by a well-known author than a great book by an author who may happen to be obscure.” But Pearson says it has allowed him to ply his craft without participating in “a dishonest system that I don’t believe in.”

The blind audition

What Pearson (whoever he is) is arguing for is the publishing equivalent of the screened auditions employed by top orchestras, in which judges evaluate each player’s musicianship without being able to discern the candidate’s race, age, gender or identity. And it’s hard to argue that any profession has developed a better means of isolating artistic merit from the biases that distort or inhibit its recognition.

Wouldn’t it be something if the audiences for presidential debates had to evaluate every thoughtful answer, goofy suggestion and instance of shameless pandering without knowing which candidate had uttered it?

If we were forced to judge each presidential hopeful’s ideas on their merits, rather than after they’d been filtered through our pre-existing (and superficial) perceptions about the candidate’s age, attractiveness, sincerity or celebrity?

No candidate would agree to such a system, of course; they’ve already invested too much time and effort in honing the images and deceptions on which most campaigns are based.

But next time you hear a candidate say something that evokes admiration or disgust, imagine the same words coming out of the mouth of your boss, your best friend, your spouse or your teenage daughter, and see if they strike you the same way.

Because whoever they are, Yi-Fen Chou and Adrian Jones Pearson have a point. And in a world increasingly defined by brands and video images, maybe it’s time we all closed our eyes and listened to the words.

Brian Dickerson is the deputy editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at (313) 222-6584 or bdickerson@freepress.com.

 

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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