It was written by Lionel Shriver who also recently stepped into the fray with an article about 'cultural appropriation', so we could likely guess what her take would be... (though more than anything I bristled at her comment , "Though this practice is now largely confined to children’s and young adult fiction, lately mainstream media have consistently drifted toward pandering to the thin-skinned. Grownup fiction* may not stay safe from the sensitivity police for long." (*my italics - I think adult fiction would have been more accurate and not had the implication that children's and YA fiction was somehow childish - but there you go).
Anyway, I have three comments...
I've primarily spoken below about being sensitive around culture and race, but the comments apply more broadly, I hope.
1) Publishers now employ...
So, this was a shock to me. I heard people talk about it at a wonderful SCWBI meeting recently, but I'd already ranted twice so didn't want to talk again, but it is shocking to me that this is some kind of a new thing! Surely publishers have been doing this for years? I certainly would not have published anything featuring a particular racial group without checking that it was correct any more than I would publish anything set in a historical period, for example, without making sure the story didn't contain errors.
This is a book I worked on in 1995 with the wonderful Margaret Bateson-Hill. She had already contacted the Lambeth Chinese Community about her story, and once I'd acquired it, I continued to work with them. They vetted the artwork, recommended a paper-cut artist and a translator, and put me in touch with people who typeset a Chinese newspaper who I used for the Chinese text.
I'm not singing my own praises here, just making the point that this has been good practice for sensitive publishers for over 30 years.
Two points here actually. Firstly I hate the term sensitivity readers - like we are all some kind of snowflakes! If I set my book in a historical context and I as a writer/editor/publisher ask someone with knowledge and expertise/experience of this context, I don't call them 'sensitivity readers' I call them consultants. Though those who coined the expression in the first place didn't mean it in a pejorative way, it is important what we call things and certainly, I think calling them 'sensitivity readers' feeds into the kind of attitude expressed by Lionel Shriver - that it's all about sensitivity rather than accuracy or authenticity. Lee and Low (who I'm sure have also been using readers for a very long time call them 'cultural consultants' and I think this is a far more sensible term. It also speaks to the attempt by authors, editors and publishers to 'get it right' rather than having the 'unrelenting anguish about hurting other people's feelings' Shriver talks about.
Which brings me on to the second point - the offence bit.
See, as a writer myself and as someone who writes, edits and publishes stories set outside of my own experience, I am concerned about giving offence, sure - I think that goes without saying. However, the main motivation behind asking someone who is more knowledgeable or has more experience about a situation I'm writing about, it to get it right, to find an authenticity...
Sadly, I think one of the reasons publishing is recently talking about 'sensitivity readers' is that it has long been writing/publishing for an assumed white audience and white readers' notions of 'blackness' (or any other 'other'). In this context, a reasonably informed stab at representing any non-white character/voice/situation is good enough as long as it seems OK to the white writer/editor/publisher. This is the white gaze Toni Morrison talks about and which was recently referred to by L.J. Alonge in his recent brilliant article, Writing Past The White Gaze As A Black Author.
I do some consultancy myself and I have often experienced this. To take an example, I was a tutor on a Summer writing school some years ago and mentoring among others a white English woman who was then living in India. She was passionate (and well informed) about issues around the environment and had been working on a story about very poor young Indian boys who collected and 'recycled' refuse (in the India city she was living in). We read some of the story together and she expressed her concern that something 'wasn't quite working'. I agreed, and asked her to close her eyes and imagine that somehow (setting aside issues of language and translation) she had been able to gather 50 of these little boys and that she was now reading the passage to them...
Within moments she opened her eyes in shock - "God, it's embarrassing, it's patronizing!' she said. I suggested that, without really thinking about it, in her head her audience was likely a group of Year 7 English children and she agreed. Now, of course, in reality, her audience is most likely to be a group of Year 7 English children, but unless you see the possibility of readers who are other than that, it's likely your story will not be authentic.
I think this holds for anyone writing on any topic - even where you have experience... I worked with another writer who was the mother of a young girl who was a wheelchair user and who had just such a girl as the main character of her story. Reading the draft, I felt that the mother had overwhelmed the writer as it were, and again asked her to imagine she'd managed to invite a large audience of children wheelchair users and was reading her story to them. Just like the writer above, she gasped and said, "Oh it's awfully patronising!". She'd fallen into the trap of writing her story to show able bodied children the challenges faced in getting on with life using a wheelchair. One might call it 'the able-bodied' gaze.
In recent years, especially in the YA forum, readers are now routinely voicing criticisms of texts which are inauthentic, and this perhaps is why publishers are waking up to the diversity of readers their stories are being read by - and that is feeding the (good) move to consult.
* Little side note, it was interesting to me that in the Toni Morrison video she speaks of asking her Mali friend various questions including finding an authentic name for one of her characters. Publishers may be waking up to checking white writers, but we all need to be sensitive when writing about any other culture.
3) Sensitivity Readers
Though the word readers is used in the plural when talking about this, it seems to me from a lot of the comments that in reality people use one reader. And while I understand how hard it is to get multiple readers, that surely has to be part of the exercise.
Chimamanda Adichie says pretty much everything worth saying on the topic in her amazing Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story. And I think everything she says also applies to cultural consultants as I shall now call them. It is unfair to ask one 'cultural reader' to represent a whole group of individuals and we should remember that what might sound off to someone from a particular class/city/religion in a country, might be just fine for someone else from a different class/countryside/religion. Finding more than one reader might seem a daunting task, but actually it's not.
So, that's where I'll leave it. I think consultants are vital to anyone writing outside of their own experience - but it's important they don't feel the burden of being one voice from that community - whatever it is. For me at least, this is not about “marginalised groups whose feelings must be specially protected" it's about the authenticity of the story. I'll close with one anecdote. When I came to the UK first I was quite a fan of The Bill, but over time, I had to stop watching it. I found that every time an Irish character appeared on screen, he was likely to be the criminal. That was offensive. However, the other thing that made me stop watching was the inaccuracy - I watched one programme where two Irish guys were supposed to be brothers. Now, their accents were from different parts of the country - so I assumed it was part of the plot that they were not in fact brothers. However, it turned out they were (supposed to be brothers that is) - it was just some casual casting and lack of attention to detail. But it spoiled the whole plot and resolution for me and I was confused for much of the programme. That is what a consultant might have fixed - the authenticity bit.
Finally, I think we need to guard against over reliance on readers - the story is ultimately the writer's responsibility and then that of her editor/publisher... a sensitivity reader can comment, but it should never be seen as some kind of tick of approval or badge against criticism.
Thoughtful comments please.