So you’re a writer, and you’ve heard the buzz about so-called “sensitivity readers”.
Do you need one? Or is the whole concept of the sensitivity reader a load of B.S.?
To begin with the conclusion: You almost certainly don’t need a sensitivity reader…And if you actually do need a sensitivity reader, then you need a different book to write.
I’ll explain what I mean by that. But first, let’s examine both sides of this debate.
On one hand, the cult of political correctness has empowered Twitter mobs to seize upon the slightest pretext, and virtue-signal on a grand—and often destructive—scale.
Case-in-point: The Black Witch brouhaha of 2017. In The Black Witch, young adult (YA) author Laurie Forest wrote a novel that was set in a completely fictional universe. The Black Witch is a fantasy tale in the old tradition of the genre, featuring imaginary, anthropomorphic creatures like wolfmen, faeries, etc.
Enter Shauna Sinyard, a worthwhileness-challenged book blogger who saw an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Sinyard wrote a 9,000-word, wildly extrapolated denunciation of the book, filled with all the most cutting-edge PC buzzwords. Here’s a sample:
It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.Source article from Vulture.com
Sinyard then asked her lemming followers on social media to slam the book…which they did, like good little lemmings. An exercise in adolescent/early twentysomething Internet melodrama followed, fulfilling all of the worst stereotypes about Millennial “snowflakes”.
The Black Witch, thankfully, seems to be doing well on Amazon today, the best efforts of one worthwhileness-challenged, basement-dwelling book blogger and her social media goons notwithstanding.
But of course, there would be a repeat. A similar situation befell Amelie Wen Zhao, author of another YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir. Advance copies of her book were sent out, and once again, a mob of Internet cretins decided that her [completely imaginary] world was actually racist/sexist/homophobic/(yawn!) you fill in the blanks.
Amelie Wen Zhao was bombarded by accusations of being racist/homophobic/ableist…over a novel that wasn’t even set in this world.
Amelie Wen Zhao, who is an immigrant from Communist China, was both emotionally battered and honestly puzzled by the backlash. Rather than tell the Internet to trolls to go fornicate themselves (which would have been the appropriate response), she submitted to the howling mob. Zhao asked the publisher of Bood Heir not to publish the book.
Zhao then issued an apology to “the book community”, along with the news of her act of contrition.
As Larry Correia recently pointed out on his blog, in a post entitled, TO THE BOOK COMMUNITY: GO FUCK YOURSELF. AN ANTI-APOLOGY, if this is what the online “reader community” is all about, then we writers don’t need them.
I certainly don’t need readers like that. Neither do Amelie Wen Zhao or Laurie Forest.
And we know where Larry Correia stands.
That all said and fully acknowledged, it must also be noted that these tempest-in-a-teapot firestorms are mostly limited to the young adult genres—and especially to young adult fantasy literature.
This is partly because the younger generation is most immersed in the leftist obsession with identity politics that academia has been inculcating for the past twenty years or so. It is also because fantasy literature, at the moment, is dominated by leftwing cultural concerns. (Military science fiction, by contrast, has been mostly freed of its leftwing literary overlords, thanks in no small part to the explosion of indie publishing.)
The net result is that someone who has an interest in YA fantasy literature (enough to blog about it online, at least) is typically a bootlicking little PC weasel, with aspirations of becoming a Lavrentiy Beria in the Internet bookspace.
Most readers of crime fiction, adventure fiction, and political thrillers, by contrast, could care less about such nonsense
But I said at the outset that there were two sides to this, and there are. The other side is best demonstrated by example.
Suppose that I were to set out to write the next breakout, coming-of-age novel for African American women—set not when I was actually a young person (the 1980s), but in the present day.
I would make a total mess of that project. I would get everything wrong. My entire life experience illy positions me to write such a book. I haven’t been a young person since 1980-something. I’m not black. I’m not female.
I’m a middle-aged white guy who grew up in the (mostly white) suburbs of the 1980s. I would need not merely a single sensitivity reader, but an entire team of them, to accomplish such a task.
And the odds are high that I would still bungle it.
And this really is the other side of our opening question. Writing is an art, but it is also a business. I stand by my earlier assertion that Laurie Forest and Amelie Wen Zhao should have told the online mob to…well…go fuck themselves.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every author is the right author for every project.
I know that there are some projects I should stay away from as a fiction writer, because I lack the perspective. For example, I would never attempt to write the definitive novel about the experience of being gay, transgender, African American, or female. I don’t know what I’m doing in those areas.
To the extent that the concept of the sensitivity reader is legitimate (and that’s a very, very thin slice of ground), the following rule applies: If your book project legitimately needs a sensitivity reader, then you are probably the wrong author for that book.
Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that every book that has an African American character needs a professional sensitivity reader, if the author is white. There is a difference between a book with an African American character, and a book that attempts to define the African American experience.
The first book anyone can write with a bit of observation and common sense. The second book should probably be written by someone who is actually African American, or someone who has at least spent a lot of time in that culture.
For example, Michael La Ronn, author of Old Dark and many other fantasy novels, recently said in an online video that he plans to feature African American characters in most of his future novels. (Michael La Ronn is an African American writer.)
This makes perfect sense to me. Michael La Ronn can do that better than I ever could. There is no reason for him not to pursue that niche.
Likewise, there is no reason for me to pursue it at all.
A white-bread author like me can feel free to not worry overmuch about racial diversity in my books. And to be perfectly honest: I mostly don’t. I’m not interested in box-checking every story I write, to see if it has the ideal balance of race/gender/sexual orientation. Why should I try to write intimately about perspectives that are unfamiliar to me…when other writers can cover such ground from a position of firsthand experience?
This doesn’t mean that all of my characters are exactly like me…though many of them are. As noted above, I don’t get too worked up about this. And I’m not alone here.
Amy Tan writes almost exclusively about Chinese American women. The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter…All these books explore the specifically Chinese American, specifically female experience.
And guess what…Amy Tan is a Chinese American woman! If Amy Tan were to attempt a novel about redneck men in southern Ohio—where I’m from–she would probably need a sensitivity reader.
But why should she bother with such a book?
Sometimes I do employ a loose version of sensitivity reader—not in regard to race, but to age. My books often involve characters of other generations, both older and younger.
When such a situation arises, I ask one of my younger (or older) relatives or acquaintances if I’ve gotten a particular detail correct.
At this level, what we’re talking about here is research. No writer should knowingly publish something that is blatantly distorted, or hackneyed, or stereotyped, because “free speech”. If you’re a straight white guy and your story contains an African American or gay character, there is nothing wrong with soliciting the input of someone who actually has an insider’s perspective.
That isn’t political correctness, that’s due diligence.
Realize though, that your ability to convey such a perspective secondhand is inherently limited. How much this limitation hampers you will depend on the type of book you are writing.
In a thriller, you could probably rely on common sense alone. If you’re writing a literary character study, however, your lack of real, experiential perspective will likely get in the way.
But again: Why are you writing such a book?
To realize one’s limitations as a writer is a far cry from submitting to the arbitrary dictates and whims of the political correctness mob. It is a matter of common sense, and also a matter of obvious, observable intention.
Shauna Sinyard was reading what she wanted to read into The Black Witch, a fantasy novel set in a nonexistent world. Shauna Sinyard’s intentions were clearly bad (borderline evil, in fact).
As explained above, though, my low opinion of Shauna Sinyard doesn’t mean that I should write intimate character studies about Chinese American women, or that Amy Tan should attempt the next great novel about Appalachian men.
Context matters. It will always matter. Each situation is unique, and must be individually evaluated. This is art, not physics.
But as a general rule of thumb: If you conclude that you really, really need a sensitivity reader for a particular project…think about writing a different book.