Writing diversity: sensitivity readers

23 May

Originally posted to the Literature forum at MyMedia. I have imported a few
of those posts here under the Publishing tag, if you are interested.

While it may seem, particularly when reading the “classics”¹ and the ‘great literary fiction masters’¹ that there is a default in characterization (heroes are straight able bodied white cis males, and most often, of Anglo Saxon descent), the reality is that people come in many more flavors than that.

In the past few years, readers who do not fit this ‘universal’ characterization, have started seeing themselves represented in the fiction they pay good money to read, in still small but increasing percentages.

All good, right?

Except, not all representation is good representation.

If the one homosexual/non-binary/non-gender conforming character in the work is written as a deviant.
If the one person of color is either a criminal or a victim.
If the one immigrant speaks broken or no English.
If the one female character with speaking lines is there exclusively to either be killed or rescued.
If the one neuro atypical person is either a savant or an idiot.

In short: if whatever diversity is there, consists of clichés, that representation is more harmful than the outright absence of anyone who doesn’t conform to the white, straight, male characters of yore.

Enter sensitivity readers.

Sensitivity readers are, at their core, beta readers who read for issues with characterization.

Writing a character with diabetes? Ask someone living with the disease to check that you didn’t write something impossible for the character to do/say/think/survive.

It only makes sense, wouldn’t you say?

Because no matter how much you’ve researched something, unless you live with it, you are likely to not know some things–and you won’t know that you don’t know them.

And yet, there is incredible pushback on accepting the wisdom of having a sensitivity reader check manuscripts–let alone, actually listen to what these readers may have to say.

What right, authors decry, have these readers (insert sneer) to edit my work? I am the writer, I know the characters, I know the world, I know better than they do.

Well, let me tell you what right they have: if they have lived the experiences you are writing about, they know everything. You may know your fictional world better than anyone ever will–it comes from your mind, your heart, you own lived experiences. But if you are a straight white author born in the US, you have no clue what it is to be a green card immigrant from Latin America. Or a second generation Asian American. Or a black trans person.

You may get a lot of it right, but there will always–always–be things you didn’t now that you didn’t know. You think you know, but for those who’ve lived it, the knowing is visceral and reflexive. They won’t miss a detail, because they won’t have to think about research.

The story is yours, the characters are yours, and your work can only benefit from having someone who has lived the life you are narrating, point out where something would never happen, because (insert lived experience).

~ * ~

This rant brought to you today by this post by author K.J. Charles, and the usual pushback from majorly white publishing against diversity. Here, have a bit of wisdom:

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!

As a footnote: I can actually give you titles for some of the more egregious examples in the second paragraph of that quote–one of them published just last year.² Doesn’t mean others with the same, or worse, issues, have not been published this year–it just means I have managed to avoid learning about them–so far–this year.

~ * ~

¹ There are masterpieces from other traditions, but I’m talking about the English speaking world right now.

² Off the top of my head as I type here: Nazi Komandant ‘hero’ = For Such a Time; child abuse victim becoming a serial killer = Mr Perfect; disabled person killing himself to ‘free’ his loved ones = Me Before You.

9 Responses to “Writing diversity: sensitivity readers”

  1. Patricia Burroughs aka Pooks 23/05/2017 at 9:21 AM #

    I am looking for a Bajan/Barbadian sensitivity reader for a 6,000 word short story written from the pov of a part Irish, part Igbo slave in 1800. I even passed up an opportunity to be in an anthology because I hadn’t found a reader. [sigh] I can’t imagine authors who have the chutzpah to think they can write about experiences so totally out of their own experience without error, and who don’t care that the error may have consequences.

    That’s interesting about KJ Charles. I assume this means that either she [I assume she’s a she] has always had such connections and readers. I am uncomfortable with the idea of m/m romance written primarily by women, but since I’m not drawn to m/m as a rule, I leave that to others to deal with. However, I read two of KJ Charles’s books and thought they were remarkable, so I will read more of hers.

    • azteclady 23/05/2017 at 11:23 AM #

      I’ve been reading KJ Charles’ blog for a while; from what I’ve seen, she’s long been open to learn what she doesn’t know, and to apologize when she screws up.


  2. Erin S. Burns 23/05/2017 at 9:25 AM #

    For the first one, I submit Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour. Personally I got past that part, but that is more a failing in my own sensitivity than any proper action on Ms. Garwood’s part.

    • azteclady 23/05/2017 at 11:47 AM #

      erm…I confess, I’m confused here. Please explain?

      • Erin S. Burns 23/05/2017 at 10:36 PM #

        Whoops, my use of language today has been uniformly poor.

        The first item-“If the one homosexual/non-binary/non-gender conforming character in the work is written as a deviant.”

        Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour had gay characters, who were the villians. And there was no real need to make them gay.

      • azteclady 23/05/2017 at 10:52 PM #

        Oh, I see! But it’s not your writing as much as what I was focusing on when I read your comment.

        Which was the instances listed in the quote from KJ Charles’ post, where the second just didn’t make a lot of sense.

        (Of course, it didn’t help that I don’t remember a lot of the plot of Honor’s Splendor)

  3. Lori 23/05/2017 at 2:43 PM #

    Nobody ever wants to think of themselves as wrong or insensitive. But damn, we all are. It seems if we could stop refusing to believe that we’re all paragons of perfection, we might learn more and make the world better.

    • azteclady 23/05/2017 at 4:40 PM #

      …for everyone, including ourselves.



  1. An Unseen Attraction, by K.J. Charles | Her Hands, My Hands - 21/06/2017

    […] ¹ Here’s but one reason why. […]

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