Notes on writing

Sensitive skein

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I try to keep up with the modern world, I really do. I read the news headlines every morning, I read a newspaper most days, I subscribe to a few of the weekly magazines, I listen to podcasts. Even so, stuff passes me by. So it was only recently that I became aware of the line of work known as sensitivity reading. Several newspapers reported in the summer that the Oxford Student Union had voted to set up a ‘Student Consultancy of Sensitivity Readers’. The task of this body of elected (and paid) members will be to prevent ‘problematic’ articles that are ‘implicitly racist or sexist’ from being published in student newspapers. It’s fair to say that the national media reaction to this resolution was mixed.

So what exactly do sensitivity readers do? According to one succinct definition, ‘sensitivity readers are a subset of beta readers who review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language’.

All well and good, you might think. Nobody wants to publish a book or article that trades in cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes, and in most cases, nobody wants to read such a book or article. The danger is that the cure might turn out to be worse than the disease. What’s really driven the adoption of sensitivity reading in mainstream publishing, particularly in the YA sphere, is not so much a desire for accurate representation as a fear of a social media backlash that might lead a book to being cancelled. Both publishers and authors, I think, see sensitivity readers primarily as insurance providers. You pay the premium, somewhere between £250 and £500 per book, and hope that it will protect you from any imputation of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the rest.

That’s all quite logical, but of course it’s not how things work in a culture which rewards offence-taking. Laura Moriarty’s 2017 novel American Heart was vetted by two Muslim sensitivity readers before publication and received an enthusiastic review from another Muslim reader on the Kirkus Reviews website. That wasn’t enough to save Moriarty or her book when the Twitter mob got going. American Heart was attacked on the grounds that it was ‘offensive and dehumanizing to Muslims’. And just to demonstrate how much bad faith is at work in these matters, the Kirkus reviewer went back and altered her original review, removing the star that indicated approbation and complaining that the primary Muslim character ‘is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter’. Poor Laura — she tried to do the right thing and much good it did her.

Every fiction writer has a duty to make their characters as rounded and convincing as they can within the constraints of the story. This requires particular care if you are writing about characters outside your own socio-cultural sphere and experience. But fictional characters are not there to represent a particular ‘marginalized group’. Their reason for being is their individuality, not their universality. This points to a deeper problem with sensitivity reading as a profession. If such readers are evaluating characters, events, and psychological descriptions against a notion of how ‘representative’ or culturally ‘accurate’ they are, then sensitivity-laundered manuscripts will inevitably tend towards homogeneity and not diversity. The danger is that one set of (‘negative’) stereotypes is replaced with another set of (‘positive’) stereotypes. And the writer that dares to reject advice from a sensitivity reader leaves themselves open to having their work labelled ‘problematic’ or something worse. No doubt there are many helpful, diligent sensitivity readers out there but the practice seems more about ideology than craft as it currently stands.

It occurs to me that a writer attempting to make their book inclusive in a broad sense, with characters from multiple ‘marginalized groups’ and who decides to go down the sensitivity reading route, will inevitably find themselves dealing with feedback from multiple readers. The book will be in danger of becoming the work of a committee. The art will suffer.

I took a look at the website of Salt & Sage Books, a leading consultancy in this area. Their register of sensitivity readers covers far more areas of expertise than I could have imagined. Here’s one person’s entry as an example:

  • African American
  • Racism & microaggressions
  • African Americans functioning in predominantly white spaces
  • Interracial relationships
  • Gender nonconformity
  • Bisexuality/sapiosexuality
  • Weightlifting/powerlifting
  • Eating disorders
  • Body positivity/obesity
  • Mental illness (focus on anxiety/depression/bipolar disorder)
  • Sexual abuse/rape
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Grief after death/loss of a parent/loss of a sibling
  • Infertility
  • Psychological therapy
  • Agnostic/living without religion
  • Child of a parent dealing with addiction
  • Baking from scratch
  • Knitting
  • Fraternity/sorority life
  • Dog rescue and rehabilitation

I admit I did a double take at ‘knitting’. The first was simple surprise. The second was because I remembered a storm in a purl stitch from a couple of years ago: ‘The knitting community is reckoning with racism’. Every field of craft is now a field of battle.

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