Sensitivity Reads and You

Or, I Read Something Annoying So Now I Have To Rant About It: The KJ Charles Story.

Specifically I read a piece about sensitivity readers. I am not going to put you through it because those are minutes of your life you’ll never get back, but suffice to say the linking tweet read “Sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they may not understand or respect” and the piece was, remarkably, even worse. This is an idea that keeps popping up, mostly in the opinions of white authors of literary fiction who are given media platforms bafflingly disproportionate to the number of people who read their books.

Notwithstanding what Lionel Shriver seems to believe, a sensitivity reader doesn’t appear out of the blue like a politically correct fairy godmother to say “You hurt my feelings,”  or tell you to take out the bits where bad things happen. A sensitivity read is a part of an editing process that basically checks two things.

1) Is your representation accurate?

2) Is your representation perpetuating harmful stereotypes and clichés?

Point 1 is basically fact checking. I’m white, neurotypical, cis. I have written point of view main characters who are people of colour, neurodivergent, non-binary. In all those cases I got people from those groups to read the MS, and in every single case someone pointed out ways I could make it better. Things I hadn’t known about, but which were obvious omissions to people with those experiences; reactions or phrasing that seemed implausible to them; extra ideas about what someone in the character’s position might do.

Sometimes this is purely factual. (Different types of hair need different types of hair care. Your character with one hand is simultaneously holding a gun and opening a door.) More deeply, the sensitivity read checks for feel. Does this character, her reactions, her emotions, sound right to someone who has comparable life experience? Can a black/Jewish/disabled reader look at your black/Jewish/disabled character and think, “If I were her, I can imagine feeling that way”? Does it ring true?

I have had quite a few neurodivergent readers say nice things about the portrayal of Clem’s dyspraxia in An Unseen Attraction. I don’t think this would have been the case without my team of readers. My sensitivity readers shared their own (and often painful) experience in a multitude of tweaks and ideas and observations. They helped me turn Clem from my neurotypical idea of what it feels like to be dyspraxic to a character informed by the experience of dyspraxic people. If that character rings true, it’s because people shared their truth with me.

An author can do all the research she likes into dyspraxia; a dyspraxic person will always know more. I can’t believe I had to say that in words. But if you spend any time on Book Twitter, you will see multiple instances of authors insisting, “I looked into this and I’m sure I’m right” to people who’ve been living it for twenty, thirty, forty years and who are telling them they’re not.

I do get how this happens. The author creates a character, knows them intimately in her head. It is not easy to be told, “This is wrong, he would never react like this.” Excuse me? I know exactly how he’d react, because I created him! And yes, of course I, a white British middle class 40something woman, can understand and write a black teenage boy in the Chicago hood. We’re all human, are we not? Isn’t it appallingly reductive and divisive to suggest we are so different, so incapable of mutual understanding? I am large, I contain multitudes. Watch me Art.

We may be all human, but we’re also all shaped by our experiences, environments, bodies, natures, other people’s reactions to our bodies and natures. I don’t know what it’s like to experience a lifetime of racism or homophobia or transphobia, any more than my male Chicago youth knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of misogyny and the specific ways those experiences manifest and shape our reactions. We can be aware those things exist, of course, we can imagine and draw comparisons, and we can learn. But that requires listening, and a willingness to hear, and definitely not handwaving it away with “in the end, we’re all the same”.  We’re all equal. We really aren’t all the same.

Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of flak for his speech about unknown unknowns, but it’s a spot-on concept. There are always areas of other people’s lives that we not only don’t know about but don’t know that we don’t know about. That’s why we have to ask—not just “Did I do this right?” but “What didn’t I do?” If someone doesn’t have the curiosity to ask, the urge to find out, and the longing to get it right…well, they don’t sound like much of a writer.

And this is where the bit about checking for harmful stereotypes comes in. Some authors see this as people trying to dictate what they’re allowed to write about and how they can tell stories. “God, [group] get upset about everything. They try to prevent anyone else having a say, they overreact to everything, they’re destroying literature!” wail such authors, who were all apparently sick the day their MFA course covered irony.

There are of course authors who just want to say what they like without taking any consequences. They want reviews that say “a searing look at our politically correct culture” and “fearless taboo-busting” rather than “grossly misogynist” or “wow, what an arsehole”, and when they do get the latter, they write thousand-word blog posts that can be summarised as “it’s fine for me to give offence but how dare you take it”. Those authors can go step on Lego.

But there is also the Well-Meaning Person who has put in a lot of work and done lots of research, and really honestly thinks that their story is valuable. Their story about a Jewish woman in a concentration camp falling in love with the Nazi commandant, say, or the enslaved person on a plantation who’ll do anything for his beloved “master”, or the disabled person who kills themself to set their loved one free to live a full life, or gets fully or partially cured as part of a happy ending. The story with gay characters who all die heroically/tragically, or the child abuse victim who becomes a serial killer to show that child abuse is bad.

I hope that previous paragraph made you cringe your skin off. If it didn’t, you need a sensitivity reader. Because that kind of book is published all the time—let alone books with subtler, smaller, less obvious fails. And almost every time the author is baffled and distraught by readers’ failure to understand. Look, my book clearly says racism is wrong, how is that offensive? My book shows that we’re all people and love can cross boundaries, how is that bad? I’m one of the good guys!

Because the author may well have thought hard and sincerely about the message she wants to give…but she hasn’t realised the message she’s actually giving. We all have unconscious assumptions, we all find it horrendously easy to stereotype, we can’t all know everything, and we may simply not realise that our brilliant idea is someone else’s “Oh please God not this again”. (Romance authors should be particularly aware of this: every four months someone comes along announcing their totally fresh and original new take on romance, in response to which everyone wearily cites thirty examples of people who did the thing in the 1990s. There’s nothing new under the sun, as the Book of Ecclesiastes told us about two centuries BC.) Basically, much though the Lionel Shrivers of this world like to stand on the platform of untrammelled free speech, a sensitivity read isn’t about saying “Don’t write this because I don’t like it”, so much as “This reflects or supports prejudice and stereotypes.” Less easy to go to the barricades over that, isn’t it?

It comes down to humility. Humility is often confused with being self deprecating, which is rubbish. Humility isn’t saying “Gosh, I’m not very good”; it’s about saying, “I can always strive to do better”. It’s about accepting you can be wrong, or crass, or biased, because that allows you to improve. It’s about knowing there’s always more to learn, and that other people can teach you those things. It is, in fact, about respecting other people.

As an author I need the confidence to believe that my stories are good enough for your time and money. But I also, simultaneously, need the humility to accept that they might need improvement, and the determination to do something about it (preferably before asking for your time and money). That improvement might be a development editor for the story, a line editor to point out my timeline is utterly borked, a copy editor for the poor grammar, a sensitivity reader to check the book’s concepts before I even start and to look at the characters and reactions as I go along, or all of the above. It’s all part and parcel of making a better book.

And sometimes people are wrong; groups are not monoliths; a sensitivity read by a single trans person does not give you “Approved by the NonBinary Community (TM)” status. It’s is always down to the author to do the work and take the responsibility. But sensitivity readers can help you do that work by giving you actual insight into the lives you’re depicting, and telling you: “This thing is incorrect, this thing is missing, this thing is a cliché, this thing just doesn’t ring true to my experience.”

We started with that Hurt Litfic Feelings tweet: Sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they may not understand or respect. Well, I know where I feel the lack of understanding and respect lies. It’s with the person who looks at an opportunity to make their book a more accurate, more deeply informed, wider, better depiction of other humans, as part of the editing process, and says, “No thanks. I already know best.”

_____________________

Edited to add: Sensitivity reads are work; work should be paid. A good publisher should pay for a reader if such as required as part of the editorial process. Whether they actually will is another question. The only publisher I’ve worked with who has paid for a sensitivity read is Riptide Books, and more power to them for doing so. I’d like to hope more publishers will see the value in this, but given the constant chiselling away at editorial costs throughout the industry, I’m not holding my breath. If you are self publishing on a sensitive subject, you need to budget for this, same as for a copy editor, and if your publisher won’t stump up you need to do it yourself. No, that isn’t fair. (And IMO you should book the reader early on in the process and run your ideas by them, just to check you aren’t happily skipping into a field of mantraps.)

The formalised concept of sensitivity readers is relatively new, and authors are very used to just asking “would anyone who is of X group beta-read my MS?” I don’t think that it’s unacceptable to ask for beta readers once you have done all the work you can to make sure your representation is good–though others may disagree with that. But a full-on sensitivity read is something between a development edit and a line edit, including notes, and may potentially be very difficult for the reader (not only reading painful and unpleasant things but then having to communicate the author’s failings with no guarantee she won’t throw a “don’t call me racist!” tantrum). That is hard work, and a professional service, and it should be recognised as such.

And FFS, don’t throw a tantrum.

12 replies
  1. Nadia
    Nadia says:

    Thank you for this perspective. I agree with you 100%, and you’re “watch me art” explanation really resonated with me. This is something that is part of any writing or creative production. Part of being a good writer is learning to detach yourself emotionally from your work so that you can accept criticism. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or a bad person – it just means that your work can be improved, which is almost always true in my experience. If you can’t do that, your work will never get better.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yep. This is why I come down hard on the ‘my book is my baby’ metaphor. It’s really unhealthy for authors not to open their minds and hearts to crit, and we can all too easily pass unhealthy things along to readers if we don’t.

      Reply
    • Elide
      Elide says:

      Oho, yes there is. There was a movie adaptation of it recent(ishly), Me Before You (yes that was really the title).

      Reply
  2. Laura Kramarsky
    Laura Kramarsky says:

    Years ago, long before I heard the expression “sensitivity readers,” I took a lot of flak for taking a book to task on my blog over the portrayal of an epileptic heroine. The people who normally frequent my blog had no problem, but loads of others said “Oh, we don’t read that author’s books for reality, that was just meant to be a little quirk of her character” or various similar comments. I’ll freely admit that those comments pissed me off because they dismissed my disorder as a “quirk,” but they also pissed me off because it was like saying “reality doesn’t matter in romance because romance is trash.” And these were _romance readers._ Arggg. I agree with you (obviously) 100%, and I am glad to see the terminology at least out there more than it was before, even if people still don’t use the readers.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, I agree. IMO representation matters *more* in romance, because you’re meant to put a romance down feeling better about life, not “wow this author doesn’t give a damn about people like me.”

      Reply
  3. Elide
    Elide says:

    Do you think some stories (like the ones you listed) shouldn’t be told, can be told but the telling might require some work or that a holistic (/more holistic) understanding of the issues at play would obviate the desire to tell that kind of story in particular?

    I’m perched uncomfortably on the fence with this. The issues with the examples you listed are obvious and immediate, but then I think of a series like A Land Fit for Heroes by Richard Morgan. I haven’t finished it yet but I’m on the third book and should be done in the next few days. It’s extremely dark, the MC is gay. The MC is not a nice person. I’m preeeetty sure there is not going to be a happy ending. The society is oppressive and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word faggot repeated so often anywhere. It’s definitely perpetuating some harmful cliches/stereotypes, most obviously the tragic gay.

    And yet. Prior to these books it was ACTIVELY difficult for me to imagine a protagonist who was visibly and actively gay, not be entirely defined by it, AND not be aimed at a niche audience. The last book I read that did this was Mieville’s The Iron Council. Taking comics as an example if you mention Midnighter the response you’re likely to get is a blank stare. And then a distant second “Oh you mean the gay Batman?” (nooo not really what I meant but.). I haven’t really engaged with the broader community or with the author’s views yet so maybe the primary takeaway is “Gay grimdark” and not “Grimdark that happens to be gay” but there is just so much here that I doubt it’s the former.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. But my primary point is that the kind of representation that’s happening in A Land Fit for Heroes is valuable and affirming for me, even as it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and cliches. So I’m left wondering (herewith me making wild inferences and extrapolations about a system I don’t understand and haven’t engaged with from either side, just as a disclaimer), if these books had gone to a sensitivity editor, would they have been published? If the author had gotten feedback about things that were problematic and gone “Eh, altering the text this way takes it too far out of my wheelhouse, I don’t want to tell this story” would the greater disservice be in the story not being told, or in it being told problematically?

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s a really good example. For me (cis het), that series worked because it was a lot of horrible people in a horrible world in an equal opportunity way. It was grimdark with everything awful about grimdark including awful amounts of rape, etc etc,, and the world was homophobic as well as misogynist as part of its excruciating awfulness. Which is often the case in grimdark, but here for once we got queer characters and women as MCs who were allowed to be flawed. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say I felt it managed to stay true to the books’ character without descending into tropes.

      Honestly I find it hard to fit this series and the word ‘sensitive’ into the same brain space, given grimdark’s purpose is to put the worst of humanity on display. But for me, it treated the queer characters exactly the same as the straights (ie horribly), and put them at the centre of the story. I don’t myself feel Gil is a ‘tragic gay’, I feel like he’s a tragic hero who’s gay, and his “everyone you love dies horribly” is classic grimdark hero rather than ‘bury your gays’ trope. You may well disagree, and please come back when you’ve finished it as I’d love to discuss!

      Reply
  4. Kate Forest
    Kate Forest says:

    Yes, yes, and thank you. And I hope this also encourages all writers to be more inclusive in their writing. Don’t shy away from writing characters you don’t typically see in genre fiction.

    Reply
  5. Neely Stewart
    Neely Stewart says:

    I just discovered your wonderful words for sale and I intend to get reading. I love the website too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom on writing to those of us who are budding writers ourselves.

    I am so glad you brought up that one needs a sensitivity reader as well as content, and time and such. My only problem is, I don’t have any real life werewolves I can ask this question of, so I ask it of you and your fans. Would it be considered…racist, erm, species-ist to make dog jokes to a werewolf? ROFL!

    I have asked friends what they thought, they weren’t really sure themselves. But, would it be terribly rude to make dog jokes to a werewolf, or would that only be rude in the way they were said? Or the moment it’s said in? Is it if it’s done by a good friend versus a stranger? I ask for my main character’s sake. And no one has really been able to help me. I know this isn’t anywhere close to writing a person with epilepsy, or HIV, or cancer, or…well you get the idea, in a real and tangible way. I thought though that this might be similar, in a way. I want, to after all, make my characters as real as possible, even if they are fictional beings.

    I hope my rambling makes sense. I’ve been tossing and turning this over and over in my own skull to no avail. I am hoping since you work in a world that is like ours but filled with magic (like mine) you might be able to guide me.

    Again I thank you for sharing, I have read all the posts now and I am signed up for the newsletter. I can’t wait to read the next one.

    Reply
  6. Bran Ayres
    Bran Ayres says:

    I really love this article. As a neurodivergent queer person, it’s soooo refreshing to hear a cis/het author who gets it. Even I use sensitivity readers for my stories because like you said, no identity is a monolith. It really does come down to humility. Being humble enough to realize that you can’t know everything and that sometimes there are stories that are NOT yours to tell no matter how much you think you might resonate with the characters and their situation. Thanks for this. ^^

    Reply
  7. Jessica Dawson
    Jessica Dawson says:

    Thank you for sharing on this topic. I had not heard about sensitivity readers before, but they sound like a great resource when one is writing well outside their personal background. Knowing how often even basic fact-checking is skipped (I’m a scientist and OMG the pain that is incomprehensible science), I can only imagine how much worse the more complex area of minority representation gets mangled. I worry that authors/writers feel the pressure for more diversity and so just drop in a random assortment of stereotypical minorities and pat themselves on the back for demonstrating diversity. I don’t know if the UK TV shows do a better job, but in the US I feel like I spend a lot of time cringing.

    Reply

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