As the world (hopefully) is getting their heads out of their butts about racism and bigotry in all forms, the new area of sensitivity readers/editors is growing. In his article for Quillette, writer Ryan Holiday called out the nonsense pulled by some so-called experts:
“If sensitivity readers were simply about helping a writer improve or consider ways that their message was not getting through, that might be one thing. In practice, these readers—who are by no means credentialed or even accomplished editors or writers in the industry—have begun to serve as a kind of gatekeeper about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be published.”
Holiday is correct: just because someone who claims expertise or some knowledge of the culture does not make them an expert. While I don’t agree with his dismissal of all sensitivity readers, or his use of the much hated ‘politically correct’ words in his piece, he does address some serious deficits in sensitivity readers. I’d like to offer a few suggestions to writers and readers that I’ve done as a cultural accuracy/ awareness reader that might help.
- Change the title! I am a cultural/historical consultant, or cultural accuracy/awareness reader. I am not here to push my own ideas about what is acceptable and what is not on the author. To me, saying ‘sensitivity reader’ implies I am a gate keeper of what you can and cannot say in your work. No one should have that level of power over you or your work. That’s between the writer and your publisher on how you wish to move forward. If I see some terribly stuff including racism, sexism or bigotry of epic levels, I will call you on it. However, I can back it up with sources and examples to prove my point, then you’re on your own.
- What is your expertise? I read for LGTBQ2SIA+, Metis, Indigenous, China, Mongolia, Japan and Canadian history, peoples, and modern culture. No way am I qualified to wax poetic or red flag anything outside these areas of my knowledge. Example: a young man of colour asked me to read the way a Metis woman was portrayed in his short story. I am Metis and a cis-gen female. Done! Understand what expertise they have: Anything else they should shut it.
- It’s about the writer. If you have hired a cultural expert to read your piece and give you feedback, make sure you understand their place in your process. I’m here to help a writer improve, to think and consider ways of representing other people and groups they are not a part of. The writer hiring the reader should make sure the reader is focused on the job, not ranting or shaming the writer. They’re not your mom.
- They are writers themselves. I write fiction and non-fiction daily, and act as a technical writer/editor. By extension, I should know what the difference is between the protagonist point of view and the actual authors. A good example is The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins. This classic thriller set in 1943 has the hero as an Irish Republican Army agent. The IRA’s actions during the Troubles are well documented, and making him the hero of the novel could be ‘problematic’ for some. That’s fine – history is filled with weird grey areas of humanity and so is fiction writing. So flagging this as a problem area and telling an author to change Liam Devlin’s background would be ridiculous as it affects all his decisions and the conflict in the piece. Saying this book is pro-IRA killings in Ireland would be wrong and a huge leap of misunderstanding. There is a difference.
- Do your own research to avoid cultural appropiation. My first love as a historian was the Mongolian Empire. Finally I am writing a complete novelization of the life of Borte, Chinngis Khan’s first wife, with elements of magic surrealism. I am not Mongolian so I had better read up on all aspects, study the experts and also speak with Mongolians I know as well. If I screw this up, I’m sure every historian I know is going to kick my ass. Would I write at all about a modern Mongolian woman’s life? No way – to me that crosses a personal line of understanding and I don’t feel it’s okay. Know your own limits. The best example is a play I worked on last year, where the playwright had a Metis character in it. She made sure we chatted about why it was important to have an lesbian Metis woman in a play about a gay man, and what it was saying. Intentionality is key.
As always, you may disagree with me but this is what I found works so far. Please share your comments below and what works for you as a writer!