Skin in the Game

Sensitivity readers are the new thing. At least, it was new to me when I read an article by Lionel Shriver entitled We need to talk about sense and sensitivity. Apparently, US publishers are sending out manuscripts for review by sensitivity readers. Their job is to

check for any misrepresentations, stereotypes, inauthentic dialogue or anything else that might conceivably offend “marginalised groups”, which include a host of racial, gender, and disability variants. 

Shriver calls them the sensitivity police and warns of censorship coming to a bookshop near you.

critical theory

Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver. Image source: By Tony Sarowitz [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Shriver likes a good fight. In 2016, she gave a speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival. It was so controversial that some of the audience walked out to write their own speeches. Shriver’s topic was cultural appropriation, in her eyes another form of censorship.

Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

When I was in college, it was fashionable to read literary texts through the lens of the author’s identity. This school of critical theory is called New Historicism and its purpose is

to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time.

What I remember from class, however, was that our inquiry went farther than that. Who taught Austen to read and write, what sort of family did she have, did she ever kiss. In my memory, those were prurient pursuits that had nothing to do with the quality of her writing. Here we are, decades later, revisiting the art of judging a book by its author.

diversity in publishing

Behind all the hype behind cultural appropriation lies a noble cause. Publishing, especially in the US, is woefully homogeneous. White authors dominate, especially the men. There is a serious need to expand the number and nature of the voices we hear, lest we all remain tightly sealed inside our own bubble.

sensitivity reader
Dhonielle Clayton. Image source: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7359319.Dhonielle_Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton has made it her life’s mission to diversify US publishing from the inside out. She’s an executive with We Need Diverse Books (a non-profit that promotes diversity in children’s books), co-founder of a book development company Cake Literary, an author of children’s fiction and – yes – a professional sensitivity reader.

Clayton sees her job as steering a writer away from stereotypes and cliches.

I read a middle-grade book about a little black girl who loves to go to national parks, and I told the author that the first thing she needed to reconcile was, how did this black girl get into national parks? Historically, black people weren’t allowed to visit national parks, so going to national parks is not a thing we do, as a group. I wrote to her that if this little girl loves to camp, you need to figure out how that happened, how that passion was stoked, how her parents and grandparents felt about it. Or you have to make her white. Because otherwise it’s a paint by numbers diversity piece and it rings false.

self-censorship

I think Clayton has done this author a tremendous service. But I also wonder why the author hadn’t done her research. Had she read up on the National Park Service? Maybe looked at photos or videos of happy campers and noticed the diversity in the faces beaming back at her? This author doesn’t seem insensitive to me. It sounds like she doesn’t really know her character.

As a writer, you want your characters to jump off the page as fully formed, three dimensional, real life people. You don’t want to hear that the accent is off, the slang dated or the props inappropriate. Let alone called a racist because you’ve chosen a character who doesn’t look like you. Or whose experiences do not match your own.

I’ve written a novel set in 1930s Shanghai. Since I am ethnically Chinese and my family comes from Shanghai, I’ve got the race and place cards covered.  But I have no personal experience of rape, opium addiction or self-mutilation, all of which takes place in my novel. Does that mean I must be incapable of writing an authentic sounding scene? Must every novel be, in fact, a thinly-disguised memoir?

For Shriver, sensitivity readers can only induce a chilling effect on writers.

Some writers terrified of giving offence will opt to concoct sanitised characters from “marginalised groups” who are universally above reproach. Others will retreat altogether from including characters with backgrounds different from their own, just to avoid the humiliation of having their hands slapped if they get anything “wrong.”

zero sum game

Clayton’s livelihood relies, in part, on her work as a sensitivity reader. Yet, she is unhappy.

The fact is that sensitivity reading is a band-aid over a hemorrhaging problem in our industry. That’s what we should really be talking about — that’s what real censorship looks like. The systematic erasure and blockage of people of color from the publishing industry.

Clayton has cause to say this. She’s had manuscripts rejected because the publisher already had a similar piece written by a white woman. Clayton’s conclusion is that white women

writing a story about a black kid prevents me from writing one, because when I show up with my manuscript, the publisher tells me that the position is filled.

This is the truly shocking part: a US publisher can only afford to acquire one manuscript about a black kid. To be sure that manuscript won’t offend anyone, the publisher must then hire a sensitivity reader. Apparently, US publishers have lost their own ability to sense cliche and stereotype.

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The Dancing Girl and the Turtle: publication date 01.04.2017