Monday, July 10, 2017

What about “sensitivity readers”?

Suppose you're a cis-, white, heterosexual male author, and you've just written a book that is heavily populated with characters who are not cis-, white, or heterosexual. How do you make sure, prior to releasing the book, that you haven't botched the thing, so that you offend readers of those diverse groups?

Enter the latest cottage industry within publishing: the sensitivity reader. (Read more about it here.)

There are two sides to this matter. On one hand, longtime readers of mine will know that I loathe political correctness. (Don’t even get me started about the university trend toward "trigger warnings”). 

There are, in fact, many situations in our current “outrage culture” in which individuals are clearly looking to be offended. And the person who is looking to be offended will always find a reason to be offended. They will nitpick. They will find something.

That said, what about the innocent mistakes that an author might make in portraying demographic groups to which he does not belong, that really are offensive, or wildly inauthentic?

The answer is: it depends.

Almost all of my books have nonwhite characters, and I seldom worry about this issue. But I write thriller and suspense fiction. If there is an African American or Latino character in one of my stories, his or her purpose is to serve the story—just like my white characters. Thriller/suspense fiction is plot-driven; that's the way it works.

For these purposes, I don't feel that I need the services of a sensitivity reader. It isn't as if I've never known any African Americans in real life.  I used to spend at least one week of every month in Mexico. During the 1990s, I often spoke nothing but Spanish for weeks at a stretch.

I also have common sense. I’m not going to write a book in which every African American character is a gangbanger, a professional athlete, or a rapper. I’m not going to depict contemporary Mexican Americans as sarape-wearing, pistola-toting banditos. I know that not all gay men are outwardly effeminate. Et cetera. 

Suppose, however, that I were to attempt to write the great American literary novel about the African American female experience in the early twenty-first century. 

I almost certainly would put my foot in that one, without some intensive, hands-on help from someone who is closer to the source material. 

This is a project for which, in my case, a sensitivity reader would be absolutely necessary. I would probably need a team of sensitivity readers, in fact.

But this is also a project that I would be unlikely to attempt—not because such a book isn't important, but because I'm not the best author to write that book. That's a book I'd rather read than write. I'll leave the writing of such a book to other authors who are (probably) African American and female.

Innocent mistakes in this area occur, I believe, when white, cis, hetero male authors believe that they are somehow flawed or incomplete if they don't noisily demonstrate their identification with "diverse" groups. (I’m amazed at all the progressive straight white males who are blogging about LGBTQ issues of late.)

This often includes writing contrived "diverse" stories that the writer is ill-prepared to write. Hence the need for a "sensitivity reader".

This swings both ways, of course. A Latino author who has never lived outside Southern California would probably not be the best author to take a deep literary dive into the lives of white coal miners in present-day West Virginia. A gay man who has never dated women—or even desired them—would struggle to write about the complexities of contemporary heterosexual relationships from a male perspective, as Jonathan Tropper and David Nicholls have so expertly done. 

Ernest Hemingway once said, "write what you know”. Adhere to that dictum, and you’re unlikely to ever need the services of a sensitivity reader. 

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