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.)

Problems With Making Historical Characters Relatable

How relatable does a historical character need to be to a modern audience?

With historical fiction, one of the problems is when characters sound like 21st century transplants. It’s especially jarring when they’re used as a mouthpiece for trendy opinions or current ideas about what is appropriate or approved. (Like when you’re watching a show set in small-town 1950s England, and the protagonists neatly share the viewpoints of a Brooklyn-based Twitter commentator with a blue checkmark.)

I understand why writers don’t want to create protagonists who heartily endorse all the common prejudices of their era. And the thing is, you don’t have to do this in order to write a good piece of historical fiction. You don’t need to go out of your way to make a character (especially a heroic character) deeply bigoted or hateful. You can also write about certain harsh historic realities without resorting to slurs or lazy stereotypes (for example, you can write a servant as a more well-rounded character and not a caricature with a Cockney accent).

But you don’t need to use characters as a vehicle for preaching certain opinions. Or soothe modern audiences by promising them that they won’t encounter anything truly different in fiction – they’ll see themselves or people just like them wearing historic costumes, like at a Renaissance fair. Reassuringly familiar, even if it’s also more boring and the story loses some truth, becomes flattened.

Why does every character need to be completely relatable anyway? Humans have always been humans, but thoughts, beliefs, and emotional expressions are all shaped by culture and historic period. I can enjoy a story from the 19th century and gain insight from it without needing to pretend that the protagonists would see eye-to-eye with me on everything (or even most things). In many ways, including how they think of words like “honor” and “love,” they’re drawing on different conceptions, different interpretations. It’s possible to find some common ground with these characters without pretending at sameness. 

As for showing a protagonist’s relative lack of prejudice or greater compassion, it’s best to use actions rather than preachiness. Even subtle actions can convey understanding, humanity, and good-natured humor, and there’s less risk of the character sounding like they time-traveled.

Eliminating cliches through careful observation

I previously posted a version of this piece on a defunct blog of mine, so I’m sharing it here.

Cliches often result from a lack of attention or from indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write.

While they save you effort or time, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully pay attention to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

As an example, let’s consider Sightlines, a collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each essay. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

And from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing people as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say?

Reading good writing reminds you to observe the world more carefully. So does being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

Emma (2009) vs. Emma (2020)

It’s interesting how the same novel can give rise to multiple screen adaptations that are strikingly different in tone and their approach to the characters. Neither of them is really like the novel either, because you’re not going to capture the experience of reading Austen in a screen adaptation.

Overall, I prefer the 2009 Emma, but there were things I liked about the 2020 one too. I haven’t watched either of them recently, so I’m working from memory here.

In both versions, Emma is conscious of her social rank and needs to become more mature, considerate, and perceptive. The 2009 version brings out something a little vulnerable and lost in her, connected to the fact that she’s led a sheltered life and seen little of the world; also, the acting is more informal in that one, so her mannerisms come across as younger and even childish sometimes. In the 2020 one, she’s steelier and more sophisticated (even though her readings of social situations can be wildly inaccurate, which is part of the humor).

The 2009 version has beautiful pastoral imagery, and the interiors are both grand and soft; they have an earthy palette, lovely furnishings, and a lived-in feel. The 2020 version takes grandeur to another level. The interiors look pristine and lavish. Emma and the other characters are like dolls in a bejeweled dollhouse. This also fits the sense of Emma living in a bubble; nothing exists in the world outside of the dollhouse. (There are similar differences in the outfits – the 2009 adaptation gives Emma some lovely gowns, but the 2020 one takes the fashion to a whole other level.)

The 2020 one plays up the social comedy more, especially with the introduction of the quiet, long-suffering servants who try to iron out every inconvenience in the lives of the wealthy people having fits of drama around them. (The servants’ facial expressions subtly reveal what they dare not say.) 

As for Knightley… overall, I prefer the 2009 one (Jonny Lee Miller), but Johnny Flynn was also good in the 2020 adaptation. I think each Knightley is a good Knightley for the adaptation he’s in.

The 2009 Emma is a mini-series, which makes it feel more expansive and gives the scenes more breathing room. The 2020 one is a regular movie, more constrained in time with a faster pace, and so the humor also has a more staccato feel.

Watching different Austen adaptations is an interesting way to study filmmakers’ choices. What do they try to emphasize from the books? How do they try to communicate a different social world to a modern audience, or bring out a novel’s humor (which in some scenes comes down to a turn of phrase or an ironic tone)? If you’ve watched either of these, share your own opinions on what worked for you.

In Fiction You Don’t Have to Show Everything

Years ago, I watched Laura, a film noir that came out in the 1940s. At the start of the movie, you learn that a young woman has been found murdered in an apartment. The police assume that she’s the apartment’s tenant, Laura Hunt. It’s a reasonable assumption, based on the information they have.

This information doesn’t include facial recognition. Why? Because the murderer fired a shotgun at her face.

It’s a chilling detail. Even though the murder happens entirely offscreen, we don’t need to be told explicitly why a shotgun blast to the face would render someone unrecognizable. We understand why, and we understand how gruesome the scene must have been.

When contemporary novels, movies, and T.V. shows depict graphic violence or sex, explicit portrayals are common. These days, it’s much more likely that the murder or at least its aftermath would be shown onscreen. We’d see the bits of brain and bone and the splashes of blood, maybe a closeup of the ruined head. Would that make the story better in some way?  

What are your preferences when it comes to graphic portrayals? My own, especially for movies and shows, is to not show everything. I have more tolerance for graphic descriptions in text, but even then, I think there can be immense power in hinting at things or at least being more careful about what to depict and what to conceal. There’s power in letting people strain with their imagination towards the shadowed corners, the dark rooms where a horror is unseen but still very much present.

I’m reminded of a scene from Ivanhoe, a novel published in 1819 and set in the days of Robin Hood and Richard I. One of the main characters, Rebecca of York, gets captured by a rapacious knight and brought to a castle. There, Rebecca meets an older captive, Ulrica, a Saxon princess who has been enslaved for years. None of the horrific crimes against Ulrica are described explicitly, but what she tells Rebecca is still dreadful:

Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.

What would a contemporary adaptation of Ivanhoe look like? Would it show flashbacks of Ulrica’s captivity with explicit portrayals of her abuse, with her body positioned in a way that an audience might find more titillating than terrifying? It would likely be desensitizing and gratuitous. Nothing like the excerpt from the book.

I won’t say that there’s no room ever for explicit descriptions. They can be done well; they can have a place in a story. I just see so much that isn’t thoughtful. Explicit portrayals are often a knee-jerk choice, included because they’re expected, not because they’re the best way to tell the story.

Ella Minnow Pea: Anti-Censorship and Prompts for Creativity

I just read Ella Minnow Pea, a novel set on a fictional island where the High Council has begun to ban the use of different letters.

Along with its humor, there are two main reasons I like the novel:

Its Anti-Censorship Theme

One of the strengths of Mark Dunn’s novel is how it portrays the psychological costs of censorship. The mental tiptoeing around the language, the fact that letters have become minefields, the way neighbors begin to inform on each other for verbal slip-ups. One of the island’s residents, a teacher, says the following:

In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade. Yet in the company of the children I cringe and cower in a most depreciating way.

When the letter ‘D’ falls prey to the power-hungry and zealous Council, how do you teach kids grammar? (Never take the word “and” for granted.)

Semicolons are simply not an option. These youngsters are only seven! Young people of such age can’t fathom semicolons! Nor can I employ an “or” when I want the other one – the one that brings together, not separates.

The Way It Inspires Writing Creativity

Unlike the island’s residents, you don’t have any penalties hanging over your head for illegal letter usage. So you can use this novel as a creative writing exercise. Try writing a piece of flash fiction without the letter ‘V.’ Or a haiku without ‘O.’

The island’s residents have to scramble for synonyms and to find new terms for things. “Sun-to-suns” (as a substitute for “days”), and “learny-house” instead of “school.”

How well would you do during a letter purge?

How Important Is the Mystery in a Mystery Novel?

I’m not asking this question with complete seriousness (because a thoughtfully written mystery is important). But when I’m reading these novels, I’ve noticed that a lot of times I’m most interested in things that aren’t directly about the crime. I tend to care less about who the murderer is and more about a dozen other things.

For instance, the two most recent mystery novels I’ve read are Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan and Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten. The first one is set in the Philippines, and the second one in Sweden. With both novels, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about who committed the murders. I found the novels absorbing for other reasons.

In Smaller and Smaller Circles, the two main investigators are Jesuit priests who are trained in forensic sciences; they’re unusual lead characters for a mystery novel. What stayed with me most about the novel was the exploration of corruption – in law enforcement, government, high society, and the Catholic Church. In Detective Inspector Huss, I enjoyed the peek into Sweden (specifically Gothenburg in the late 1990s) and the way the author portrays the methodical work of a police detective and her colleagues.

Other mystery novels I’ve read in recent years, like some of P.D. James’s books, were most memorable to me because of some of the psychological insights and beautiful descriptions. Even if I’d found out the murderer’s identity in advance, I would have kept reading.

A “shocking reveal” often doesn’t turn out to be that shocking, because readers have seen it all (or feel as if they have). Other things can suck the reader in. An exploration of richly detailed settings, other cultures, ethical issues, psychological states, and character dilemmas make the story more compelling. So that even if I’ve figured out who used the garrote in the attic, I still don’t want to put the book down.

Four Mistakes People Make When Writing About Abuse

Abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual) shows up a lot in fiction. Whether it’s written well or not depends on multiple factors, but the following are some mistakes I’ve come across when people write about abuse:

They include it just for a bit of drama

Any event in a story can contribute to the unfolding drama. What I’m talking about is when authors seem to not know what to do with the characters or plot, so they toss in some abuse. Because it’s a thoughtless inclusion, they don’t consider the ramifications of the abuse or explore its impact on the characters. It’s just there to add some adrenaline-fueled moments.

They include it just for “sympathy points”

Abuse can make a reader’s heart go out for a character. The problem is when it’s written thoughtlessly. The author wants to make the character seem more vulnerable, and they aren’t sure how to do it, so they add some abuse. They don’t really follow up on it or think about how it might affect the character both short-term and long-term.

They don’t do any research

There isn’t one way to react to abuse. So it’s important to not just find a checklist somewhere and make the character do all the things on the list (like a generic guide to post-traumatic stress). However, it’s still important to research potential responses to abuse and consider the ways in which your character may react. How might the abuse might change them? How do their responses and decisions reflect their specific character traits or psyche?

There are many factors that influence the effects of abuse, including the victim’s age and temperament, the type of abuse, the identity of the abuser, and the influence of helpful and supportive people. Research may also cover things like court trials, custody disputes, or life in a domestic violence shelter. Some authors make the mistake of not looking into these things.

They rush to happy endings or force Forgiveness scenes

Happy or hopeful endings are possible in a story with abuse. But you need to build up to those kinds of endings. Sometimes, authors slap them on to the story, and they seem to come out of nowhere. They’re rushed or otherwise unconvincing.

Another problem is when authors try to push forgiveness. Maybe because they want to send a message that it’s best to forgive. They may also assume, incorrectly, that forgiveness always means reconciliation or a restoration of a relationship. Forgiveness is not a requirement post-abuse; furthermore, how victims experience forgiveness (if they do experience it) varies. Even if an author is very pro-forgiveness, they need to take that into account.

These problems with writing about abuse boil down to not thinking enough – about the specific characters, the situation they’re in, and what it might really be like for them. To make your fiction convincing, you need to get to know your characters. And if you put them through something like abuse, give it thought, so that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick or throw the readers out of the story.

How to Write a “Strong Female Character”

It’s easy! Just follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t bother too much about character development.
  • Give her a lot of the following kinds of dialogue: expository statements about key plot points; echoes of what other characters have said; chiding comments (verging on nagging, but try not to make her nag too much); sarcastic quips in response to something interesting or funny that the hero has done.
  • Toss in some action sequences where she’s beating someone up while wearing tight clothes, short skirts, and/or high heels.

There you go. Behold the strength.

TV Writers Coming Up With Ideas for a New Show

Three TV writers (known from here on out as T1, T2, and T3) get together to brainstorm ideas for a new crime show.

T1: Ok, we want a show with some originality, but not too much. It needs to appeal to a lot of people. We want to give them something new but not too strange.

T2: How about we make the two leads a man and a woman? They don’t have to sleep with each other right at the start. We can wait a few episodes.

T3: Or maybe a few seasons. Ratchet up the sexual tension for years. Throw in all kinds of drama to keep them apart.

T2: To really keep them apart, we need to make sure they act out of character. They need to sometimes act much dumber than they are for reasons that don’t make sense.

T1: How about they never sleep together. They’ll be played by attractive actors who have a lot of sexual chemistry, but they’ll never have sex, ever.

T3: Because one of them is married?

T1: No. Because male-female friendship can be one of the things that makes our show fresh. The idea that men and women can be friends.

T2: In that case, let’s also have them be different races.

T3: Yes! Diversity cred.

T2: Though, whatever the woman is, we should make the man white.

T1: Yes! He’ll be an arrogant know-it-all who’s really smart and has a good heart, deep down.

T3: And if any of the fans want to see them have sex… that’s what fan fiction is for.

T1: The woman has to be smart but not unattractively nerdy, and assertive but not too pushy, and independent but also really self-sacrificing, and gorgeous but sometimes she eats hotdogs and her hair is a little messy.

T2: If we ever show her sleeping, she’ll need to have a full face of makeup, even in the middle of the night.

T1: Of course.

T3: She has to be like a mother to the male character. Like, she keeps reminding him to eat his vegetables and be nicer to people. She shouldn’t really have a sense of humor. Just a lot of fond and exasperated eye rolling at his shenanigans.

T2: Ok, but if they aren’t going to sleep with each other, who will they sleep with?

T1: The man will have some tragic ex-lover or ex-wife who died or betrayed him or something. The ex will be blonde.

T2: And fair-skinned.

T3: And if he gets together with anyone else on the show…?

T2: Also blonde and fair-skinned.

T3: Right, and she’ll be different from his ex in important ways. Like the fact that she’s alive and not evil.

T1: What about the female lead? She sleeping with anyone?

T3: Maybe she can have a sexual hangup. One that makes her super cranky. Sound good?

T2: Who cares. I’m getting kind of bored thinking about her.

T3: She’s an important part of the show. We need to give her stuff to do.

T1: She’ll be doing a lot. She’s supposed to be smart and tough. We’ll also put her through some traumatic moments.

T2: Trauma can get boring if it drags out too much.

T1: Don’t worry, we won’t follow up on the trauma. Something terrible will happen to her, she’ll have a nightmare or two, and then, you know, she’ll be ok again two episodes later.

T3: We need to make her complex. She needs to be as interesting as the male lead.

T1: That’s what fan fiction is for. Some of the fans get cranky. They say the characters are underdeveloped, the ethical issues are unexplored, the plots are underbaked. So they write their own versions of the story or fill in missing scenes.

T3: Oh, I know! The female lead is kind of a tomboy. But she also wears stiletto heels everywhere, and her hair is always long and lustrous.

T2: There you go. See? It isn’t hard to make her complex.