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.

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.

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.

A mix of hopeful and bleak: the ending of If I Had Your Face

The endings of some novels are unambiguously happy, while others are overshadowed with tragedy. What about endings that occupy a more ambiguous space?

I recently read If I had Your Face by Frances Cha, a novel focusing on the lives of a group of young women in South Korea. They all live in the same apartment building, and each has her own struggles.

These struggles involve their job or career, appearance, relationships, and some of the paths they’ve gone down on (based on decisions they made before they knew better). Their problems are also connected to their precarious position in society – they aren’t wealthy or born into elite families. Their missteps aren’t as easily forgiven or recovered from.

By the end of the novel, they’ve generally become more savvy. Their self-awareness has increased. They’ve also helped each other out, and they seem to want to continue giving each other support when necessary. At the same time, their lives continue to be precarious. They’ve pushed disaster away for the time being, but disastrous possibilities still loom in their future or wait for them in the shadows of the paths they’re taking. They may have adapted to dealing more effectively with some of the brutal realities of the world. But the sense of hope at the end of the novel is tempered by some bleakness.

The ending feels more like a pause for breath. They’re breathing a little easier in this moment in time. But it doesn’t feel like a secure happiness.

You may be thinking that this is true of real life, which is one reason the mix of hopeful and bleak works well. However, it takes skill to pull off an ending like this. It doesn’t cater to people’s need for a conclusive answer one way or another. There’s no quick summary about how these women are doing years after the events of the novel.

But there’s still a sense of finality, because of everything that leads to the novel’s closing scene. Some scales have fallen from the characters’ eyes. They’ve stopped lying to themselves in certain ways. At the close of the novel, it’s night, and they’re all back in their apartment building. The sense of solidarity is strong. They’re better able to face the morning, whatever it brings. For the time being, they can count on each other for different kinds of support.

And maybe that’s enough, for now.

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]