Sensitivity Reading and the Aim for Thoughtfulness Versus Inoffensiveness

From what I’ve read and from how some people have explained it to me, it seems the purpose behind sensitivity readers is a noble one. If, for example, you’re writing a story that features a Chinese-American character growing up in NYC, then you work with a sensitivity reader from a similar cultural background, and they’ll give you feedback about potential biases and thoughtless stereotypes in your writing.

At best, the process may be similar to any sort of useful feedback you receive on your book, especially if the sensitivity reader understands the qualities of good writing. Sensitivity reading may help you spot things you’ve missed or haven’t thought about. But it also has its pitfalls, especially when the aim is to make your book “less offensive.” These potential problems include the following:

  • A sensitivity reader is one person. They may be part of a larger group in some demographic sense (race, sex, sexuality, etc.) but they’re still one person sharing their own viewpoint on what may or may not be offensive, and they’re subject to their own biases and ignorance. They aren’t a spokesperson for millions of people.
  • There’s always a strong element of subjectivity to what’s offensive. Yes, there are occasions when most people can agree that a character is written as a grotesque stereotype. But other times, there’s much more disagreement, especially when you consider the complexities of literature. Books contain irony and satire, and they convey real-life observations, such as the unpalatable things said or done by people (including individuals who are part of minority groups). When characters reflect how contradictory, flawed, and complex people can be, the results may prove offensive to some, but the writing is often better for the messiness.
  • The recommendations of sensitivity readers don’t occur in a vacuum. There’s a temptation to minimize subtlety, ambiguity, and humor, to not leave room for misinterpretation and the possibility of offense, especially in our charming age of social media, when mobs form over excerpts taken out of context, and influential people act as if they’re on patrol for offenses. The collective result is writing that’s more flat, more homogenous in opinions, and more timid, with characters sanitized to the point of dullness, and with authors tempted to sermonize to prove that they’re attuned to certain fashionable attitudes.
  • Hiring sensitivity readers may make authors feel complacent, even though sensitivity reading isn’t a guarantee that your work is good from a literary standpoint, free of mistakes, or a palatable offering to the most influential self-appointed judges of what’s offensive and what isn’t. It doesn’t guarantee you zero offensiveness. (Nothing does.)
  • Sensitivity readers aren’t a substitute for actual research and fact checking.

This last point is what I want to build on further. When people write about past eras or different cultures or socioeconomic groups, a critical problem is lazy writing. This includes falling back on popular myths or stereotypes instead of making an effort to get to know your subject matter better and think of your characters as three-dimensional people.

Feedback from a sensitivity reader may catch some of the problems of lazy writing, but getting your book vetted by a sensitivity reader isn’t the same thing as conducting research or giving your characters greater thought. A well-researched and thoughtful book may still be considered offensive, for various reasons; and it can remain a worthwhile book to read.

A lot of times, what jars me in the middle of a book is an obvious fact that an author has gotten wrong – like the meaning or practice of a holiday, or a technological anachronism. Other times, it’s a historic character who sounds like they’re a 21st century transplant (something I just wrote about) and has the same values and concerns; the character may be less offensive that way, at least in certain respects, but they’re also less convincing.

I can be forgiving of mistakes in a book, especially if the book as a whole has many good points, but I think it’s important to invest more resources in fact-checking and research, which includes talking to people thoughtfully about their experiences. These activities do, in certain ways, overlap with the purported aims of sensitivity reading – catching laziness or thoughtlessness. And the result can be fiction that’s richer and more complex. But you aren’t promised inoffensiveness.

Inoffensiveness isn’t the main aim of writing anyway, I hope.

(Also, let’s face it, there’s never going to be a book that gets it all right. Even with an enormous amount of research, there are probably things you’ll miss, like little period details you may get wrong. You can still tell a good story with characters worth reading about. Will people criticize your work? Of course, but that’s part of sharing your writing.)

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