A “sensitivity reader”?? Sorry, but WTF?

From an article that was highlighted in an email newsletter I received from an editing service where I am registered as an editor:

Sensitivity readers review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.

Seriously, do we need this?

Are we really becoming such a society of snowflakes that writers aren’t allowed to write freely, for fear that they might offend someone? However, in the past I have expressed concern over some of the words and the expressions used, and I have asked for others’ opinions on the matter, either personally or through Facebook groups.

In one of my Sherlock Holmes adventures, one of the villains is Chinese, and I make Holmes refer to him as an “Oriental” and a “Chinaman”. I also make the Chinese speak in pidgin English:

“He no here!” the Oriental told us, before Holmes or I had even opened our mouths. “He come back next week, next month, next year, maybe. He never say me when he come and go. Come back then and go now!” (From ‘The Adventure of the Green Dragon’ published in Mr. Sherlock Holmes – Notes on Some Singular Cases – available here and here.

Here, I was attempting to emulate the attitudes, the style and the vocabulary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to make my story as authentic as possible. I would never write anything like that about a contemporary Chinese, unless I deliberately wanted to show that his/her command of spoken English was poor.

Another case came when I was writing my first published novel, Beneath Gray Skies, partly set in a Confederacy which had survived until the 20th century. What word should the whites in the South use to denote the African-American slaves? Well, the answer is obvious, but if I used the N— word throughout the book, it wouldn’t work for a number of reasons, as well as being gratuitiously offensive. I therefore followed the example of the Congressional Record, which substituted the term “Nigra” every time the racist Southern Senators such as Bilbo used the N— word. I also had to portray the attitude of the average upper-class Englishman to Americans, and to African-Americans:

Dowling might appear to be a snob in some matters, it was true, but he didn’t seem to look down on someone because of their race. He’d demonstrated that when they’d just arrived in America, and the white Customs officer had referred to Christopher as “your servant” when talking to Dowling. Dowling had haughtily and angrily corrected the man, telling the assembled crowd in the Customs shed in a loud upper-class English voice that Christopher was not a servant but a colleague. Christopher had relished the confusion on the white faces.

Overall, I think I have managed to avoid offending too many people with this book (other than a few American conservatives, which I don’t regret at all).

I did have a few African-American friends look through another book which featured African-Americans, Balance of Powers, mainly for the accuracy of the speech and behaviour and reactions of the characters. Obviously, if they had pointed out anything that they had found grossly offensive, I would have changed it, but they didn’t. Incidentally, I did make one white character use the N— word. She died soon after using it, though.

So, to sensitise, or not? I honestly believe, unless you’re writing pastel-colored, sentimental, flavor-free stories, you should follow your instincts. You are getting your work edited, aren’t you? A good editor will find the bits that really might cause problems, and alert you to them.

But if you go round carefully avoiding anything that might possibly cause offence, you will end up with the written equivalent of processed cheese – it may contain some of the nutrients you need, and it will offend no-one, but it cannot compare to the real thing. A good Stilton, or even a mature Cheddar or a ripe Camembert, is not to everyone’s taste. Those who are offended by these things are the losers by it, not you. Write what you want without being gratuitously out to offend, bearing in mind that a story is not a “safe space”.


3 Replies to “A “sensitivity reader”?? Sorry, but WTF?

  1. Well, my goodness. I guess we need to go back and rewrite all the classics and the Bible so they are politically correct. Oh, and don’t forget to remove all those sex related parts of any book because that could give people nasty ideas. Wait! There’s more! We need to rewrite history so it’s all roses and rainbows. People need to pull their heads out of their butts and get a life! Just keep writing and and sharing for those of us to understand that times have changed and will continue to change. Hopefully, for the better! Just my opinion. Big Squishy Hugs!

    • I think my points are more that writers and editors need to be aware from the start, rather than that we invent a new category of filter to monitor our work. On the one hand we have a load of writers and writer wannabees telling us “grammar doesn’t matter, spelling doesn’t matter, just follow your heart and write,” and at the same time “don’t make your characters scary/nasty/upsetting to readers who might be triggered by them”.
      To give two practical examples from the children’s series of Sherlock Ferret which Andy Boerger and I produced together:
      i) Moriarty Magpie – originally, we had thought of the villain as a crow – but then we decided that an all-black crow could be seen as a racial stereotype by some. We also liked the alliteration of the Ms.
      ii) Doctor Solomon Sloth (the Poisoned Pond). All animals in Sherlock Ferret wear hats. Originally we wanted to give Dr Sloth a Hasidic hat, to match his name. However, since he is a sloth, he sleeps a lot, and might be regarded as a representative of lazy Jews. We changed his hat to a bowler, with no racial overtones.
      These were decisions taken jointly by the author and illustrator, long before the book was ever seen by an editor. If our first thoughts had gone through, I am sure our editor would have spotted them, and asked us to change. Did we need a special category of censor? I don’t think so.

  2. There are lots of articles that explain what sensitivity readers do (and it’s worth noting that it’s usually someone you decide to work with, not a “censor” who is forced on you). Here is a great interview with author and sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton: https://www.vulture.com/2018/01/sensitivity-readers-what-the-job-is-really-like.html?fbclid=IwAR2bAHE71z149-yRJMMAAzNtPPfE9t_a2gXuaEm2PcQNFPnXRJPsD5RqXmQ To me it seems like an exercise in humility, but also simply a way to improve your work. So is being edited in general, of course, but if I’m white and my editor is white, then why not admit we could use another pair of eyes? It’s also a great learning experience—like the example of national parks given in the interview. Maybe it’s ignorant of me, but I never would have caught that :X

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