(Revo - Attack on Titan Opening)
So, a few weeks back I started seeing a lot of hubbub in my circles about sensitivity readers. And before we get into it, you should really check out Kameron Hurley’s take on the matter because she wrote about it much better than I could and also she’s got a lot more credibility than I do. Mary Robinette Kowal also wrote a piece last year getting into sensitivity readers that's worth a look.
But if you don’t want to read Ms. Hurley’s take and want to just read mine (OR MAYBE YOU WANT TO DO BOTH) read on ahead.
The tl;dr is some in the publishing industry (and it’s becoming more and more) hire sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader, for all intents and purposes, is an editorial consultant who reads through a work to flag any potentially contentious stuff. I’m talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
Predictably, the reaction from a bunch of people was:
Predictably, the threads concerning this matter in the groups I frequent read like this:
Person 1: UGH I DON’T CARE FOR THIS NONSENSE! I’M GOING TO WRITE WHAT I WANT AND DO WHAT I WANT.
Also Person 1: UGH HOW DARE A PUBLISHING COMPANY DO WHAT THEY WANT.
There were also some people bringing up the First Amendment as if that had anything to do with the subject at hand.. (It doesn't. At all.)
If you’re vehemently against the idea of a sensitivity reader: How would you feel if the term was “Editorial Consultant”? I honestly think this whole shit-show wouldn’t even be a shit-show if the people coming up with the term had picked that instead.
“Alright, Jim Bob Rafferty, our editor, has signed off on this. Now we take it to the sensit—“
“WHAT? NO! I REFUSE TO CATER TO THE PC CROWD.”
“Er, sorry, I think we misspoke, we meant the editorial consultant.”
“Oh okay, yeah, that’s cool.”
It's not censorship. It's not fascism. It's your editor taking the extra step to help your ass out so that several months from now when you get published you don't get known as the racist writer because you included (unironically) a really racist characterization. That being said, like Ms. Hurley pointed out in the article above, YOU CAN ALWAYS SAY NO TO THE EDITOR. I mean it's not like there's something in the contract (shouldn't be, anyway) that says you can't have a say in the book that's getting published. You control the narrative. You can say no.
Another thing she talked about is that she talked to a doctor when she was doing research for her novel. A lot of people consult with police, with military, etc. I mean, Tom Clancy was good at military thrillers (even if it got hammy towards the end of his life) because his research on the US Armed Forces was super meticulous and he talked to everyone that had a military uniform on. If there's no outcry over that, why should there be outcry over hiring an ethnic (or any other kind of) minority to review something?
You are also free to completely disregard the advice that's offered and go your own way or keep trudging forward.
Ask questions, don't be afraid of that. There are some people, I grant you, who will roll their eyes and tell you to do your research. If you're asking out of genuine curiosity and not out of being a dick, I don't mind answering. I also don't mind pointing you to places that can go into better detail than I could. .
Now, if you ask a question and get feedback, please, for the love of God, don't get defensive. I've witnessed the following conversation a depressing amount of times:
Author: hey, so why is it offensive to say this about POC
POC: Well, the reason why is because of this, and this, and this other link with citations. You can do the research, too, it'd only make your story better!
Author: omg are you trying to censor me
POC: What? No, but you asked--
Author: I don't get it! I can't write black characters at all! I'm being told I can't. So either I write them or I don't write them.
POC: We said you should research.
Author: I can never win! It's a lose-lose situation! I just want to be told whether I should write those characters in or not!
POC: Well, if you don't think that you'd do a good job with representation, maybe just don't write that at all.
Author: SEE! Trying to censor me, I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't!
I'm not even joking.
A little research goes a long way and it only strengthens your story. A sensitivity reader would help you with that.
I'll give you an example.
Not too long ago, I happened to read a story involving Mexico. If you're just tuning in to this blog, I'll have you know I was born and raised in Mexico and spent the first 15 years of my life there.
So when I got to this story, I was already on high alert.
And the writer set the story in a dusty Mexican town. Okay. Overplayed. Tropey-as-all-hell. Let's give him a chance. Then he introduced the setting, and it was one focusing on one of our national pastimes.
The writer then pretty much showed that they had not the faintest idea what the pastime was really like and did not bother to do even the most cursory of Wikipedia searches. Didn't even bother to YouTube the pastime. At that point, their story was dead on the water to me. The writer could have had the most fantastic plot (they didn't) but because of the blatant caricatures, it wouldn't have mattered.
A sensitivity reader would have stopped the writer in their tracks and told him to do some basic research.
For those of you wanting to write about Mexico, please keep in mind that not every town is a dusty pueblo. There's so much biodiversity: forests, canyons, jungles, snow-capped peaks, desert, beaches, mountain ranges, high plains. There are sprawling urban centers a scant 149 miles from the United States border.
I feel the same about writing centered in Texas. If you're going to write about dusty towns and cowboys horseback and assume that's all of Texas, I'm not going to like your story.
A lot of my stories are set in Houston. Not a single horse involved!
(Although to be fair, the Houston Police does have a Mounted Patrol)
I can only imagine there are many writers out there who are doing things like that and not having a gatekeeper tell them, yo bro this comes off as extremely deluded. This isn't reserved for lit fic, mind you, you can be extremely racist or have super racist allegories that make you go like:
To reiterate, I think that opting to call sensitivity readers was a bad move when publishers should have just called them editorial consultants or some other thing like that because there's a substantial amount of people who get incredibly flustered by the word "sensitivity" even when this S-word is used by a lot of people, including Fortune 100 companies when they assign sensitivity training.