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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.”

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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.