Sensitivity Readers

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Dangers of the Absolute

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We've discussed clumsy writing about minorities and members of the opposite sex to the author in various threads but it's an issue that won't go away, as this Guardian article explains:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2...reotypes-meet-publishings-sensitivity-readers

Reading it, I found myself agreeing with much of the outrage, while being exasperated with the illogicality of some objections. One of the biggest problems with politically correct writing, is that it's one way traffic. Would a book publisher with a roster of only ethnic authors vet their clients' writing for sensitive treatment of white characters? Almost certainly not. Do publishers of gay literature ensure that straight characters are not portrayed in a demeaning way? What do you think?

If you're not of the group being described, whatever the difference is, then you get pulled on your choice of words. To use one example from the article, one sensitivity reader suggested to white author Anna Hecker that, she be 'more creative with descriptions, saying her initial description of “light brown skin, a wide nose, and kinky dark hair” was both cliched and boring....' That's pedestrian writing to me, showing a lack of imagination rather than covert racism. If a black author had written those words nothing would have been said about stereotypes. How ultra-sensitive can you be, before it becomes ridiculous? The character may well have had a wide nose...people of all races do—and they have narrow ones too—so what!

I recently came across an odd case of a publisher evading accusations of cultural appropriation, and though I've got no way of proving my theory, it reeks of duplicity. I'm currently reading a novel called Underground Airlines, published in 2016, which is alternate history based on the notion that slavery never really ended after the American Civil War. I'm normally a bit wary of this genre, finding it hard to suspend disbelief, but I'm really enjoying the story which has a complex, tough and cunning protagonist. Author Ben H. Winters came to my attention, as he wrote a trilogy of detective novels (my chosen genre of writing) which I've requested from my local library; they had Underground Airlines on the shelves, so I grabbed it.

The thing is, the hero of the story is a black bounty hunter, who for reasons that I've yet to discover, is hunting down black slaves who've run away from their white masters. Ben H. Winters is resolutely white! While I believe that it's entirely correct that he should be allowed to write about whatever he wants to, as should we all, his novel was published without an author photograph on the flap of the book cover, which is rather unusual for such a successful writer. Of course, there's no mention that he's Caucasian in the brief description of his publishing history. I'm sure they omitted his photograph to help sales....which they would never admit.

Are you nervous of tackling anything that might need a sensitivity reader to evaluate?

tom-cheney-it-s-a-brilliant-piece-of-writing-ted-but-we-feel-that-it-might-prove-o-new-yorker-cartoon_a-l-9166148-8419447.jpg


This could be the fate of my crime novels, if oversensitivity continues....
 
This could be the fate of my crime novels, if oversensitivity continues....
[It's a joke, I know, but...] Not really. People who have been convicted of violent crimes are not a minority group discriminated against based on their ethnicity or religion – they are people who have acted outside the bounds of the law. I'm not sure you can equate the two (at least, and with respect, not without appearing to have entirely missed the point).
 
Are you nervous of tackling anything that might need a sensitivity reader to evaluate?

I don't remember what I said last time and wasn't it only a few weeks ago we were talking about something like this? ...for not the first time.There are things I wouldn't want to write about ... I don't consider myself qualified and I'm not going to do what needs to be done to qualify myself. I don't see myself employing a sensitivity reader though. It's fiction.

How can someone be resolutely white?
 
One of the tales I work on from time to time is set in Victorian London. The MC is a member of the aristocracy and her views are a reflection of the age in which the story is set. They are certainly not politically correct by modern standards. Anyone have any thoughts about this?
 
I've just been watching 'Deadwood', I know I'm behind the times... but politically correct doesn't raise its head. If they can get away with it in films, surely a good book set in historic times could? (though, I guess the publishers don't have the clout of film-makers, though, and have to worry about losing their readership). Maybe I've answered my own question.
 
This story ("Sensitivity Readers...") gave me pause for thought because one of the two MCs in my children's fantasy adventure series is mixed race. At the moment, I haven't mentioned any physical characteristics that would tell the reader this (the only thing I include is the fact that the character has to wear glasses and is short for his age). He's mixed race for no particular reason, it's just how I imagine him. And as the series is aimed at children aged 7+, I figured the illustrations could show he isn't white, in any case.
The fact of my MCs colour isn't relevant to the story in any way. There are brief references to him being bullied at school, but this could just as well be because of his size, his bespectacled appearance and his air of timidity.
So... am I being lazy by not describing the racial aspect of his appearance? Or over-cautious? Or am I just overthinking it?
 
This story ("Sensitivity Readers...") gave me pause for thought because one of the two MCs in my children's fantasy adventure series is mixed race. At the moment, I haven't mentioned any physical characteristics that would tell the reader this (the only thing I include is the fact that the character has to wear glasses and is short for his age). He's mixed race for no particular reason, it's just how I imagine him. And as the series is aimed at children aged 7+, I figured the illustrations could show he isn't white, in any case.
The fact of my MCs colour isn't relevant to the story in any way. There are brief references to him being bullied at school, but this could just as well be because of his size, his bespectacled appearance and his air of timidity.
So... am I being lazy by not describing the racial aspect of his appearance? Or over-cautious? Or am I just overthinking it?

I think it's kind of cool that you didn't mention it. I think I feel different about kids books than I do about books for adults... which might not be nice to kids but ... can't help it.
 
One of the biggest problems with politically correct writing, is that it's one way traffic.

As are racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-hate, ablism, et cetera.

Also, it's only "politically correct" if you swear allegiance to the Daily Mail or Fox News and can't bear to see uppity minorities given anything. Otherwise, it's decency. Possibly, in this context, it also qualifies as good research.
 
One of the tales I work on from time to time is set in Victorian London. The MC is a member of the aristocracy and her views are a reflection of the age in which the story is set. They are certainly not politically correct by modern standards. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

As long as it’s believable and I think outdated views are believable in characters from the past. What am i saying? As this thread would indicate, they’re believable in the present.

You could make her daring for her times, but it would always have to be ‘for her times’ wouldn’t it? And it wouldn’t make sense to pretend otherwise.

Unless you’re writing alternate history.
 
I think it's kind of cool that you didn't mention it. I think I feel different about kids books than I do about books for adults... which might not be nice to kids but ... can't help it.

I'm kind of pleased (and relieved) you think that. :)
 
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