‘Hire some Sensitivity Readers,’ the reader suggests, blissfully unaware that they cost alot and stiffle creativity. Usually I ignore such comments. I plan to publish my novels one day, and if I’m told to use sensitivity readers, I will shop elsewhere. I make no apologises in my opinion that ‘sensitivity reading’ is essentially, taking money that should be going in the author’s direction. By making books go through such services, it delays publication and can make an authors advance less.
All so a book doesn’t offend the Twitter mobs. Honestly, that’s pathetic. Books are meant to change the world. Sometimes that means sometimes upsetting people or causing them to think in different ways. Sensitivity Readers, who are mostly from the United States of America, often reduce oppression to buzzwords.
If you are writing a fantasy series with a Korean protagonist, chances are the sensitivity reader you’ll hire will be an American-Korean. However, they will have a different experience than a Korean in South Korea or Japan. So how can a single Korean ‘sensitivity reader’ speak for all these groups? It’s quite frankly, a very offensive way to view races.
This may shock American publishing houses, but there are people outside of the States who love literature and don’t want to see it censored. I was disturbed to hear the story of Blood Heir written by Amélie Wen Zhao. Apparently, according to the book Stasi agents, Zhao was unqualified to write about slavery because she was Chinese. Like slavery never existed in China! Sensitivity Readers have a strong connection to cancel and outrage culture. And I’m sick of it. It has no place in literature- a field that should be accepting to alternative viewpoints. I really wish the best for Zhao.
This article was inspired by the Washington Post. In a recent article, titled ‘Is it ok for a white author to write black characters? I’m trying.’ While the author’s perspective is understandable- she does not want to offend anyone- this whole article is frankly, pathetic. If you are an author, you can write whatever you want. Making rules on who can write what is fascist and would only exist in an unfair society. Literature should not be segregated by the colour of your skin. Have we really reached a point where we judge books- not by content or literary merit- but by the author’s race? Do I need to explain how racist that is?
Laura Lippman, who wrote the article, ends it saying that authors have to be open to readers saying their feelings were hurt. To be honest, I understand this point. Readers are under no obligation to like or read a book. On the other hand, having your feelings hurt by literature doesn’t make the book an evil piece of trash that needs to be destroyed. Just because you had your feelings hurt, doesn’t mean you are in the right.
I’m going to be brutally honest now. An author’s right to freedom of speech and expression is more important and worth protecting than anyone’s feelings. There, I said it. Sensivity Readers water down the authors perspective, until the author is no longer talking. It’s corporate, it’s dull and it doesn’t result in good literature. Name one literary masterpiece that used sensitivity readers. You can’t, because great literature doesn’t require the permission of others. It has a mind, and an attitude of its own.
Those who look at literature and just see it causing societal problems are the sort of people who blamed the Columbine shooting on video games and Marilyn Manson. I should also write that sensitivty readers are a new addition to publishing. Literary greats such as Cormac McCarthy never used them for ‘Blood Meridan‘ and thankfully, neither did Rushdie for ‘The Satanic Verses.’ You can’t convince me that those books would have survived sensitivity readers.
I know alot of authors, who write in a variety of genres, follow me. And what gives me strength as a writer is knowing that I don’t need the permission of a sensitivity reader. Instead of wondering ‘is this offensive?’- I just write. I don’t care if I’m ‘not qualified’ to write about rape, because it is no ones business if I’ve been a victim of sexual assault. Why can’t we judge books by their merits and not by the traits of the author? Are we, as a society, that regressive and tribalistic? Sensitivity Readers don’t just produce worrisome books, but also bland ones as well.
Here’s to literature that rocks the boat. Here’s to authors having empathy and good judgement with their own writing. Overall, here’s to trusting authors with their own work.
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I think sensitivity readers are just letting the author know what may hurt sales? I’m not sure they actually advocate changing the story against an author’s ethics. They simply point out what may offend readers. This is part of an editor’s job anyway…
Hi! Thank you for commenting, you raise some interesting points!
My problem is that detecting potentially offensive content should be the editors job, and that a sensitivity reader is a waste of time and money (that could be devoted to the author). Another issue I have is that sensitivity readers promote the idea that you need to be a certain race / gender / sexuality to write about an experience. Personally, I believe in the power of empathy and the author doing their own research.
If an author really wants to use a sensitivity reader, then that’s fine. Big believer in personal freedom. But if authors are forced to use sensitivity readers then that’s a problem. Considering sensitivity readers tend to have no marketing or publishing experience, it’s hard to see what value they add.
This is pretty silly. Editors don’t know everything. If you write a blind character, you better know about assistive technology, what canes are and how to use them, stereotypes, etc. It’s not about hurt feelings or censorship. It’s about portraying people correctly. I’ll ask a blunt question: why are you writing about marginalized people if you refuse to listen to their voices? Why do their feelings not matter, while you clearly believe yours do? If you don’t get sensitivity readers, you better do your research. Loads of it. And be prepared to get things wrong. Because you can’t know everything, especially if you don’t bother to listen.
By the way, there is a difference between rocking the boat and having a blind MC learn to use a Brailer in 2019. If you don’t understand that reference or why it is wrong, you need a sensitivity reader.
Hello. I respect your opinion, but ultimately, I disagree. There is a fine line between research and listening to other voices, and Paying someone. The former makes sense, and I do encourage it, but the other is just a waste of resources. I believe the human mind is capable of empathy and understanding, especially in writing. Considering sensitivity readers have zero professional qualifications, unlike editors, I don’t think it is an apt comparison.
Editors don’t get everything right, but at least they stand by what they say. Sensitivy Readers often come with a disclaimer that they can’t foresee everything. No offence, but that is quite unprofessional. There are a myriad of problems wrong with Sensitivity Readers, but they are unhelpful. What could be considered ‘offensive’ to one ‘marginalised’ person may differ to another. Sensitivy readers treat minorities like monoliths.
Also, I find the implication that fiction has to be ‘sensitive’ is rather disturbing. Writers are free to be as offensive as they please.
So, whilst I understand where you are coming from, I strongly disagree.
I can see you are getting some hate for your opinion. I have also publicly said a couple times the same thing you did and I got attacked and bullied till the point where I spiralled into deep depression. I was supposed to release a novel… I never did because today’s society where everything is offensive to everyone and we are so quick to cancel people horrifies me. If you manage to overcome this fear please share your experience because I’m still not able to function like a normal human anymore. I’m constantly paranoid and scared to not say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. I feel like I’m being told what to say and what I really want to say is being deemed as the wrong thing… what a horrible downfall this sensitivity reading phenomenon is for writers….
Hello Daisy, and thanks for sharing your story. It’s tough. And it’s absolutely unfair that you got bullied and attacked for your perfectly legal opinions. Part of what motivates me with this blog is to help writers understand that they shouldn’t go through this toxic culture. I too, was depressed a few months back, thinking that my publishing dreams was all hopeless because ‘who’d want to hire someone with the ‘wrong’ politics. Then I realised something. There’s nothing wrong with me. If anything, there is something rotten in the state of literature. Authors should not be fearful to write or publish their work. Ever. Take time to look after your mental health, but also understand that returning to writing may help. You need to write, and even publish, with pride in yourself. It takes alot of courage to get through depression.
What also helped was discovering like-minded authors. Lionel Shriver (who writes for the Spectator) is a fantastic novelist and journalist, who frequently speaks out for free speech and against sensitivity readers. Salman Rushdie has a great attitude against censorship, moral hysteria and bookburning. My point is that you do have allies, who’d love to see a writer’s career blossom without overbearing rules.
Personally, I overcame this fear of cancel culture by creating a blog, Snowy Fictions. I had so much thoughts on literature bottled up in me, that I let them go, over time. I also have this idea: what if I create a readership, consisting of authors and readers, and we use that to campaign for a better society? (Or at least, fair publishing contracts). Now, you don’t have to blog. But you should write. Try to find ways to write naturally, and without pressure. Don’t worry about what others think. Learn to love storytelling again. As you have depression, finding someone (ideally a therapist) that you can open up to will help.
You may always have moments of fear. And that’s okay! It’s what you do after them that counts.
Good luck, Daisy.
The agent, cis-gender white middle-aged, said, “Who are you to write this?” If looks could kill it would have been homicide.
The gatekeepers, like insurance companies, want to keep out anyone who is not a safe bet. A price for admission is hours of one’s life. Cash, check, or credit.
Development edit, line edit, sensitivity reader, beta reader, online platform, and God(ess) forbid, you’re writing outside of the prescribed box.
Do art. Survive the business. It is torturous slog. No promises but the love of creation.