On Writers, Sensitivity, and the Savvy of Modern Readers

Fiction writers have always employed the advice and experiences of subject-matter experts to help bring authenticity to their stories.

Sensitivity readers, as it happens, are subject-matter experts on experiences with different types of marginalization in mainstream society.

As far as I’m concerned, that could be the end of the post right there.  However, for the sake of context and further elaboration, I’ll continue.

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Over the last week, without even having to stray from my usual online media outlets, I managed to read no less than four different articles about the use of sensitivity readers by some fiction writers.

Half of these articles mainly reported on the phenomenon as a seemingly growing trend; the other half, meanwhile, editorialized on the practice, one in favour of it and the other against it.

What most of these four articles had in common, though, was a comments section.

After reading through scores of comments, I similarly noticed that some people were in favour of the use of sensitivity readers while others – a seemingly greater proportion – were not.

Yet those not in favour were not all opposed for the same reason.  Rather, it seemed they could be further subdivided into at least two broad categories.

One of these categories is of those who seemingly know nothing about how good writers operate in general.

To reiterate my opening assertion, writers – modern ones in the very least – have always drawn upon the knowledge of subject-matter experts.

Commenters within this category of opposition expressed concerns about sanitized writing, threats to a writer’s vision and imagination, and “novels by committee”, as if it’s the goal of a sensitivity reader to dictate what subjects a writer can and cannot write about.

(FYI, it’s not.)

What you (want to) know

The imagination concerns were especially telling of a lack of understanding of how writers work.  The thing that people often misunderstand about imagination in the arts, especially people who themselves are not artists, is that an ingenious idea is entirely subordinate to the manner in which it’s executed.

In the case of writing, there are numerous mundane tools and considerations one must employ, such as story structure, grammar, genre, and paragraph density to ensure the story best communicates itself to its readers.

Yes, some writers like James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy are incredibly imaginative in how they execute stories.  But most readers – most writers as well – are perfectly happy with such things as quotation marks and sentences that end on the same subject as they began.

Another of these routine considerations of writers includes verisimilitude – the appearance of something as realistic or true.  Unless specifically creating a piece of fiction where the avoidance of realism is the goal, every writer seeks to bring as much faithfulness to their work as possible.

Yet contrary to the oft-cited advice to “write what you know”, a great many writers lack intimate knowledge of the subjects of their books, instead more so writing what they want to know.

The goal of enhancing their learning and feeding their curiosity about the world is the reason many people become writers to begin with.

More research required

All writing requires research, even if just to find out how long before a dead body starts to decompose or the quickest route from Oxford Circus to Westminster on the London Underground.

However, research conducted via sources that themselves weren’t well researched (Hollywood movies, TV shows, and other forms popular media often fall squarely into this category) is almost as bad as doing no research at all.

We are slowly seeing a change in the literary landscape.  In recent years, interest has increased for stories about characters from groups that are marginalized by mainstream society: characters who may be people of colour, LGBTQ+, non-Christian, disabled, neurodivergent, or some combination of the above.

No two marginalized people, even those from the same identity group, are exactly the same – just as no two non-marginalized people are.  That said, marginalized people have more in common with each other in the way they perceive marginalization than do people from the majority culture.

This generally makes it very difficult for non-marginalized people to write convincingly about marginalization without help.

There are certain universal experiences that almost all marginalized people have experienced that non-marginalized people aren’t even aware of, let alone able to capture authentically in a work of fiction.

For this reason, writing about a marginalized person when you yourself are not and haven’t consulted with anyone who is will almost always ring false to those who know better.

This is no different than how writing about characters who are doctors, detectives, soldiers, who are pregnant, who live in Thailand, who suffer from tendinitis when you have neither direct nor indirect experience with any of these things almost always rings false.

(Even if you do have direct experience with these things, because no two people are exactly the same, there’s no way that looking into the experiences other, similar people can’t help you, even if you end up not using that research.)

Recycled misrepresentations

When writers lack experience with marginalization yet write about it nonetheless, it then becomes a question of where their information on the matter actually comes from.

True, one could try to extrapolate from similar experience, but not all experiences are transferable in that way, or transferable enough in that way.

If one’s information about marginalized people comes from similar characters depicted in popular media, these sources may well be rife with stereotypes and inaccuracies – both unintended ones, due to their creators’ implicit biases, and blatant ones that support any supremacist social narratives the creators might subscribe to.

Not only is such non-research insulting to knowledgeable readers, it seriously calls one’s credibility as a writer into question.

Modern day readers are not like readers of the past, who read many of the books we now consider classics when they were new.

Back then, readers had to take everything presented in books at face value, for they hadn’t the extensive educational and experiential opportunities we enjoy today.

Today’s readers are incredibly knowledgeable, and at least passingly familiar on a wide variety of topics.  To say nothing for our ability to delve deeper into any subject from the comfort of our living room via the internet.

Most modern writers want their stories to speak to the knowledge level of the highest common denominator, not the lowest one.

Living primary sources

Sensitivity readers – as experts in the lived experience of marginalization – can thus help a writer identify trouble spots in their portrayals of marginalized characters to make them more authentic and true to the genuine experience of people from those groups.

They can provide advice on such things as customs, beliefs, vernacular, interactions with others, and generally how to devise and describe story events that don’t fall back on the same harmful stereotypes and misrepresentations that are already so prevalent in mainstream media.

(They can do this not only for members of the majority culture, but for other marginalized people as well to help them better represent marginalization that’s different from their own)

Sensitivity readers can play an important role within the so-called “committee” that frankly all novels require to be written, be they traditionally published or self-published.

At a minimum, writers already enlist the aid of beta readers and copyeditors.  This is to say nothing for the additional availability of critique partners/groups, developmental editors, book coaches, and fact-checkers for assessing the veracity of objective facts.

Of course, if a writer wants to publish or have published a work about marginalized characters without making use of sensitivity readers from among those marginalized groups, they’re fully within their rights to do so.

And if readers find these portrayals lacking and make their displeasure about them known – well, they’re within their rights to do so too.  But that is the subject of part 2 of this post.

What are your thoughts on sensitivity readers?  Writers – have you ever made use of one, or would you, under a given set of circumstances?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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5 thoughts on “On Writers, Sensitivity, and the Savvy of Modern Readers

  1. ‘Content experts’ – a policeman or two if you’re writing about the police, a gun expert or two if you’re writing guns, my university pastor to vet the bits of Catholicism I chose to include but had no primary knowledge of (in my case, the underlying reasons a marriage is invalid from the beginning, currently the only way to get an annulment in the Catholic church) – those are important because one of your readers out there may know a lot more about something than you chose to find out, and it’s important. They leave nasty comments in the reviews if you annoy them enough!

    On the other hand, there is such an enormous variety of stories in the worlds I have direct knowledge of that I’m happy leaving Native American characters to those who are or have direct experience. And while I’m happy to read a novel from an author with obvious understanding of the inequalities that still exist in this country where we have to remind people Black Lives Matter, I wouldn’t write one myself. Other writers do – and they will have to do their homework if their experience isn’t primary.

    It’s enough to have to deal with that degree you speak of. My main character has ME/CFS – and it can range from completely incapacitating to something people hide so they can continue to work full time (and collapse from when they get home). I wish I had been in the latter group; I was not. So I have primary experience – but have to be very careful to keep my story character in the range of the plausible for story purposes AND for illness. Some people think I’ve done a marvelous job – other think I have left out too many of the real problems. It helped to make the character somewhat stoic about those problems: she acknowledges them when forced to, tries to ignore them the rest of the time. Many of us live that way, so it’s realistic. Many other of us can’t.

    I’ve read enough of the comments from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which, though it isn’t explicitily about an autistic child, is assumed by many to be so. The author has followed a highly controversial way of dealing with autism in a character – and readers with and without the condition have spoken up in the comments. It is instructive to read the higher rated comments.

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    • Writers should take on whatever topics they feel called to write, be that something within their direct experience or not. But once the commitment is made, one must be prepared to put in the necessary work to get it right, for as you say, there may be readers who know more about certain aspects of your story than writers. These are the readers we need to write toward, not the lay reader.

      Of course, for me, the challenge of tackling a topic that I don’t know much about is a big part of the appeal of writing. It’s likewise a big part of why I switched to historical fiction rather than remaining in fantasy, where I started out. I really love the research aspect of it, and to me, the use of sensitivity readers is just another facet of that process. An even better facet, in fact, for you get to work directly with the person and their experience rather than read about it secondhand. What I wouldn’t give to be able to speak to a medieval lady about her life in the 13th century.

      Not that sensitivity readers are meant to be a layer of insulation against reader criticism. As you reiterate in your personal example of writing about ME/CFS, which you yourself have, every firsthand experience is different, thus still leaving every portrayal of a set of circumstances open to negative feedback by some. As a writer, we’re never going to please everyone, so the best we can do is feel confident that we did our due diligence in making our portrayals as faithful as possible and then prevail upon our thick writer’s skin to help protect us from whatever might come.

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      • I like the way you put it: once you pick a subject, you make a committment to getting it right – and that separates the quality writer from the one who writes whatever is trendy.

        It IS a lot of work. So?

        As for sensitivity, it helps me to stick to subjects I know something about – because I don’t have the energy to dig into something historical, for example. I know about the worlds I write, even if in a small way.

        If I had to, I could tell you where every piece came from.

        Write what you like – then come to know it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a good observation Janna that writers – new writers in particular – are curious and wish to explore things beyond their present knowledge.
    I got a fair way into a story based on human trafficking through the perspective of the trafficked girl. You did a critique of a small section a few years ago. But crucially my Kolkata-based advisor Sudesna punched big holes in my understanding of Nepalese village and family life.
    That project ran out of steam but I doubt if I could ever have really captured the essence of the locations (never having been there) and the feminine perspective. It’s for someone else to write.

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    • I remember doing that critique for you, Roy. It can be extremely difficult to put oneself in the shoes and surroundings of someone so far outside of our firsthand experience. To do it justice, a writer has to feel very strongly drawn to the project. Even then, it can take a very long time to make it work.

      You bring up an interesting point about this story being “for someone else to write.” While I personally believe that any writer should feel empowered to tell any story, some stories really might just be impossible for some writers to tell (at least unless they’re prepared to make it their life’s work). I think it takes a humble and compassionate person to recognize when a story truly isn’t for them to tell.

      This, of course, is why it’s not enough to simple have more diverse books; we also need more diverse books written by people who actually experience that diversity firsthand.

      Liked by 1 person

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