February 27, 2017 by Renee
I promised a rant, but I’m not feeling super ranty, so here’s a modified “What the fuck is going on?” kind of post. A compromise.
So, I’ve been seeing a lot of commentary on social media about something I’ve never heard of until recently: Sensitivity Readers. Honestly, my first reaction was, “What the actual fuck is this shit?”
Then I read as much as I could find, both for and against the idea. I found that many writers are screaming about censorship and vowing never to use one. Some are defending it, explaining that the misrepresentation of marginalized groups is a big problem in society. They’re right. It is.
But let’s back up for a second. What the hell is a sensitivity reader? According to articles, like this one I read in The Chicago Tribune, a sensitivity reader is:
“a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”
Personally, I think it’s fantastic to have a resource like this available. If you’ve never experienced these things personally, then it helps to have feedback from someone who has. (although, in some cases, I wonder why one would tackle a character/group one has no clue about, but maybe that’s just me)
I worry that cultural misrepresentation isn’t the only reason some publishers are using sensitivity readers, though. It’s no secret that society is becoming a bunch of special snowflake types who feel it’s their DUTY to be offended. To get angry. To feel slighted or wronged. So many triggers, some legitimate, others not so much. Is it even possible to write a story that pisses no one off?
And this is where embracing such things as sensitivity readers could be a problem.
In order to avoid stepping on toes, sensitivity reading (when taken to the extreme) could limit the potential for diversity in our books. For example, as a straight white girl, the only people I can portray as evil, sick, twisted or just plain bad without offending anyone, are straight white people. Generally, I figure if I don’t understand the character, I’ve got no business writing them. You might argue, “But Renee, you don’t understand killers or rapists, but you write those characters.”
Let’s face it, guys; no one gives a shit about hurting a rapist’s feelings. Ditto for a murderer. Also, I’m not sure any of them are offering sensitivity reading services so that I might see things from their point of view, so there’s that. Ditto on aliens, fantastical creatures like zombies and vampires, and such.
Moving on. Some people feel that using sensitivity readers is contributing to the problem of diversity in fiction, because of “cultural appropriation.” This term is used to describe (for example) a white male writing a story featuring a black female POV. Basically, is it right to help someone write about a culture or experiences they can’t possibly understand? Why not just focus on trying to create diversity in AUTHORS published, rather than the stories told?
Good point. I agree. Instead of paying sensitivity readers, why not publish the people who KNOW what they’re writing about?
As a reader and a writer, I’m not against this idea of having an expert go over your work to make sure what you’ve represented is accurate. Getting your facts right is good. My concern is in how far this will go, once authors feel pressured to jump on the sensitivity bandwagon. Fear has no place in a writer’s mind. Get it out of there. Censoring what you write to avoid offending everyone is not good writing. On the other hand, writing whatever you want, and to hell with facts, is also bad.
It puzzles me that there is a need for someone to flag such things in books anyway. Does no one research anymore? Do we not fact check, consult with experts or people who’ve gone through what we’re putting our characters through? I mean, that’s Writing Fiction 101, isn’t it? Do. Your. Research.
I guess the whole thing just troubles me. If you’re using these readers as a sort of fact checking resource, that’s great. How far does it go, though? How far back to we bend to make sure no one is upset by what we write?
As you all know, I write offensive stuff. Erotica, horror and comedy are genres where if you don’t cross “the line,” your story won’t do the job it’s supposed to do. I mean, if you pick up a novel about a serial rapist/killer from the horror shelf, and then are surprised when the lead character is a misogynist, racist prick, you kind of deserve whatever happens to your feelings. You bought that book, which clearly says what it’s about. And if you pick up a book marketed as satire, you can be sure it’s going to poke fun at someone. It’s on readers as well as writers to be informed. And you know what? I think we aren’t giving readers enough credit here.
Personally, I try to stay away from POV characters I can’t relate to, because they’re not believable if I can’t put myself in their shoes, but should I avoid using any characters from races, sexual orientations, religions, socio-economic status and genders that are not my own unless I hire a sensitivity reader to make sure I don’t misrepresent or offend anyone? Maybe I should, but I won’t.
That’s my take on sensitivity readers. I’m not anti-sensitivity, but I don’t plan to use them. It’s great if you decide you should. Let’s not get carried away, though. Good fiction pushes boundaries and crosses lines. It challenges and questions, and it should make readers feel something. That something can’t be butterflies and kittens all the time.