Good Intentions and the Pathway to Hell, Part 2: Sensitivity Readers

From Writer Unboxed:

Last month’s post on book bans opened with a quote from historian Thomas Zimmer, which I’ll repeat here for reference:

There is indeed something going on in America, and it does make a lot of people…really uncomfortable. We are in the midst of a profound renegotiation of speech norms and of who gets to define them. And that can be a messy process at times. But it’s not “cancel culture.” From a democratic perspective, it is necessary, and it is progress.

I believe this is an accurate statement of where we are culturally, and that one of the most apparent arenas undergoing renegotiation is publishing. One specific example of that is the increasing role of sensitivity readers, especially in YA fiction, though the practice is extending to adult fiction, film, and TV.

The major impetus behind the implementation of sensitivity readers was publishing’s recognition of the obvious fact that it was overwhelmingly white—and that white writers, in the wake of the social justice movement that emerged in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, wanted to address that imbalance by writing across racial and ethnic lines.

The results were, shall we say, mixed. White authors were taken to task for patronizing, stereotypical, or harmful representations of minorities or for resorting to racial tropes in their work.

In September 2015, author Corinne Duyvis created the hashtag #OwnVoices as a way to recommend books on Twitter that featured authors who shared the diverse identity of their main characters. At the same time, publishers and agents began subtly (or not so subtly) discouraging white writers from “straying from their lane” in writing about protagonists or even secondary characters outside their personal realm of “lived experience.”

The sensitivity reader emerged as a possible solution to the problem of authors needing input into the lives of members of diverse communities different from their own race, ethnicity, gender identity, faith, and so on. This was done to help prevent any more representations deemed “problematic,” a euphemism that rather quickly became a new term of art.

The Term “Sensitivity” Itself is “Problematic”

In a Writer’s Digest article titled, “The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think It Is”), author Anna Hecker remarked:

“Sensitivity” … is a loaded word if there ever was one. It suggests thin skins and easily bruised emotions—a potentially dangerous combination if one perceives these readers as the gatekeepers to publication (which, it should be pointed out, they are generally not).

No wonder the censorship watchdogs are wringing their hands. The term “sensitivity reader” may be triggering to the very people who loathe the term “triggering.”

Consequently, some have chosen to use the terms “authenticity readers” or “diversity readers” instead.

There. Solved it.

If only.

For a distinctly contrarian view, we can turn to author Larry Correia, self-described “Writer, Merchant of Death (retired), Firearms Instructor, Accountant.”

A Sensitivity Reader is usually some expert on Intersectional Feminism or Cismale Gendernormative Fascism or some other made up goofiness who a publisher brings in to look for anything “problematic” in a manuscript. And since basically everything is problematic to somebody they won’t be happy until they suck all the joy out of the universe. It is basically a new con-job racket some worthless scumbags have come up with to extort money from gullible writers, because there aren’t a lot of good ways to make a living with a Gender Studies degree.

It’s pretty obvious that the problem from this perspective isn’t so much what but who. That will become a theme as we press ahead.

BTW: It isn’t just opponents of sensitivity readers who get testy when this subject comes up. Anna Hecker in her WD article makes little effort to hide her disdain for those who voice doubts about sensitivity readers, referring to them as handwringing “censorship watchdogs” (see above) and “polemicists”—the latter term being used to describe Francine Prose, a stalwart progressive who nonetheless has doubts about the role sensitivity readers play.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG was triggered when he saw the word, “problematic,” in the OP, but after spending an hour in a zero gravity tank listening to nature sounds, he recovered somewhat. However, there will definitely be a permanent emotional scar on the inner PG, like when he saw a rodent as a child.

9 thoughts on “Good Intentions and the Pathway to Hell, Part 2: Sensitivity Readers”

  1. I really need to move Correia upwards in my TBR list. He seems to have a way with words. 😀

    • Yep, and Correia’s spiel brings up a good point: what in the world gives these particular sensitivity readers the right to represent a particular group?

      In fact, as I think about it, this whole “diversity” movement is based on a scam: that groups aren’t diverse, e.g. all blacks have A in common, all women have C in common, etc, and therefore one sensitivity reader, who belongs to group W, will know what will offend ALL members of group W.

  2. What they really need is not sensitivity readers, but insensitivity readers.

    The problem is seldom specific statements made, especially by characters in fiction (who often, one might remember, are not supposed to be sympathetic). But that’s what the stated remit of sensitivity readers appears to be. Nobody will ever really know — no publisher is ever going to provide complete, transparent access to all of:
    • the manuscript in question
    • the reader’s full, detailed c.v. that fully discloses both qualifications for this particular reading and any potential conflicts of interest
    • all communications between the “reader” and the “editor,” including the offhand comments on the phone to determine whether that reader was interested and had time
    • all internal communications at the publisher
    • the specific report from the “reader”
    • the author’s response to that specific report, in detail
    • the next iteration of the manuscript… because even after it comes back from the author after “revision” it will need further editorial work
    • the detailed minutes, and if possible transcript, of all marketing meetings relating to the work
    • the final manuscript and marketing materials
    Without all of those, nobody knows.

    Publishers shouldn’t be looking for thumbtacks in the corner. They should be looking for overt insensitivity that creates a clear and obvious trip hazard in the middle of the room — not perceived errors in depicting the detailed life experiences of a fictional orphan transplanted from Nairobi to Newark, but continued use of racial slurs that were common half a century ago in a novel set in the now.

    And don’t get me started on “authenticity,” or there’d be almost no military fiction that relates to command decisions and the character of commanders because almost nobody who writes military fiction — even those who’ve had military careers — has shared those privileges and burdens. (The majority of military line officers who do not make O–5, that is lieutenant colonel/navy commander,† and that in turn means about 85% of all line officers under the rubric in place since 1974, served not more than 12 months in company-command positions in the Army and less than that in the other services.) We could throw John Grisham’s books entirely out of the publishing world because he’s never done litigation (he was a tax lawyer/consultant). Political thrillers; space operas; the list goes on.

    † The naval services need to grow up and stop using that as a rank/grade designation. It’s a legal term in the law of war, and has been for three centuries… which, admittedly, is nowhere near long enough to force a navy to change its traditions.

    • There is also the author’s intent: maybe the author means the character/situation to be offensive. For good (to them) reasons. Maybe the character using the offensive language or engaging in the “problematic” activities is on a journey? A redemption or a destructive arc?

      You see a lot of all those in SF&F and crime drama. To say nothing of military fiction.

      I once ran into a guy online who blacklisted and demonized a writer of a tough guy action thriller because a gulf war veteran character referred to islamist terrorists as “ragheads”. Accurate or not one would hardly expect him to refer to the guys spraying AK-47’s his way as “misguided gentlemen” would we?

      Similarly, there are folks who can’t get over the fact that the protagonist of THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER raped a young woman in what he thought was a dream, even though it led to horrible consequences within the saga. (In fact, the whole saga could just as easily be a psychotic break given the character’s starting condition.)

      Is every story to be bowdlerized to “My little pony” level? Or lower still, Teletubbies?

      The whole concept strikes me as reason 1047 to avoid corporate publishing, if not all tradpub.

  3. God Bless Amazon KDP, where black authors with no lived experience as whites are nevertheless free to write about whites. Keeping these authors ghettoized in a literary universe of black lived experience is racist.

  4. What we have forgotten in this nation, or perhaps never learned, is that one person’s rights stop where the next person’s rights begin. Nobody has the right to lay his hands or will on another person, period.

    • Forgotten.
      And relatively recently, at that. Say, y2k.

      Just yesterday I was waiting and forced to listen to a diatribe on MSNBC against libertarians, demonizing them for essentially that same position; live and let live is no longer enough but instead it’s “my way or no way”. If you’re not helping them stamp out dissent you are to be stamped out.

      They also attacked the new head of CNN for saying the way to recover terir lost ratings was a return to just covering the news. That is, no ideological posturing or talking heads, just old fashioned reporting of the “this happened, period”. Evil, evil man.

      Fifteen minutes non-stop hate.
      I had to walk out.

      Actions breed reactions, as IMBEV is now discovering to their sorrow. $5B and counting in one month. No end in sight.

      • The fun part, as always, is determining not the principle (one person’s rights are limited by the confines of another person’s rights) but the application (are Delos D. Harriman’s rights to benefit economically from a contract signed 25 years ago restricted by the right of Philip Lynx — or even a whole factory full of 14-year-old Philip Lynxes — to not be “owned” as a slave or indentured servant?).

        There’s a huge gap between ideology and application. The gap is where civil wars live. And pretending that ideology can itself cross the gap is one of the triggers to civil wars.

        • Indeed.
          The absolutist hypocrisy of “you must tolerate anything but I don’t have to tolerate you” is not sustainable no matter what ideology it wraps itself in.

          And civil wars don’t necessarily involve clashing armies.
          There’s other ways to fight back.

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