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.
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.)
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.