Time for another “Sunday magazine”-like post. Again, you may want a second tea or coffee as you scroll down. I’ll wait…
…You are back. Good. I have seen enough of this of late that when this got retweeted into my timeline I thought it was worth a blog post:
Hi Felice. At the risk of sounding a bit dumb... what is a sensitivity reader? 🤔 twitter.com/queenbee_fifi/…—
(@SaraJaneKehler) December 13, 2019
This “sensitivity reading” is evidently a developing new thing.
A.J.L. Zarychta (@AJLZarychta) December 13, 2019
My reaction: If you as an author feel you may need basic outside guidance as to the “reality” of the writing of your main character,
dear God, gimme a break perhaps that character and the entire effort is well beyond you (at least not without years of research)? Maybe your creative strength instead lies decidedly elsewhere and you should for your own authoring good be freakin’ realistic and head in another writing direction? Or, let’s put it this way, “Write what you know?”
That said, though, aren’t we also lectured ABSOLUTELY NOT to do that?:
As for bad tweets of writing advice, I have already addressed in a recent post that “totally false” – in my opinion – one about NOT “writing what you know.”
My top writing rule: I write as if the entire world might someday suddenly pick up and read my book(s); that is a terrifying and necessary self-discipline. I believe: Never write anything for the public you don’t want possibly the entire public to see. I don’t think a writer can go wrong if you write with that possibility always in the back of your mind.
I think in my novels a reader can spot pretty quickly “what” and “who” I am as the author. You may have noticed my stories tend to come largely from a “perspective” I feel I know better than anyone anywhere. “He,” uh, very well… may be living in “1805”:
Or “he” may be living just a couple of decades ago:
Incidentally, on that latter, I took those cover photographs. The front was snapped at the Bastille Day parade in Paris on July 14, 1995: French air force jets zoomed past overhead. The back is on Normandy’s Utah Beach, later that same month.
As that cover is rooted in reality, the characters in those are mostly not entirely invented either. For example, in those three novels…
…is a woman fictionalized from a couple I came to know. There were a myriad of potential pitfalls in that creation of “her,” with the biggest likely reflecting what we see voiced in those tweets at the opening. Essentially, yes, it could be asked: Who am I to write about a half-Lebanese, half-French twenty-something woman?
Answer: I wrote “her” as I knew “her(s)” and sourced from what was often spoken and shared between us; that is why I had that right. “She” is certainly not alone in that among my characters. Aside from on historical and certain other plot matters, on the people I write overall based largely on my own experiences and my own observations, as well as on what I have been told by those (now fictionalized) people and others.
So “she” in those three books is 100 percent my responsibility. I do not contend “she” is “representative” of anyone else or meant to be. “She” is no one but “herself”:
I am damn well not going to be told I should “farm” “her” out to some third party for “approval.” Absolutely I would not do so when any “checker” DID NOT KNOW “HER(S),” or WHAT “SHE” THOUGHT, or WHAT WENT ON between “she” and “I” (often) privately. After all, that is part of the underlying reason(s) why there are those three novels in the first place – to share such, and much more, about “her,” and about others, with readers.
Sci-fi/fantasy has long been something of an authors’ genre retreat in order to keep clear of angry and offended readers baying for the authors’ blood. A major reason I believe we see so much sci-fi/fantasy published nowadays is in part because if you are NOT writing about humans, but instead set your tale 60,000 years in the future on the planet Unanunadiuyadid, where the beings of Thxn struggle against their Starinian overlords, there is much less to worry about as the writer. It is simply socially and even politically safer.
Through sci-fi/fantasy a writer may explore themes largely as they want. There is no easy “handle” provided really for someone(s) to double-down and “critique” every word and character in looking for “bias” and how “sensitive” the writer may, or may not, be. Concerns in a writer about how best to portray race/ gender/ ethnicity/ disability/ national origin/ sexual orientation, vanish when they are not writing humans.
Nathan Rivers Crime fiction author (@CrimeRivers) December 13, 2019
I don’t know if I would term those studying novels for “insensitivity” to be “thought police,” but it is also pretty clear that due to social media human-based tales face closer scrutiny than ever before. In a real sense, if you want to be truly fearless now as an author, write about people. As we see increasingly, putting humans on your pages is dangerous authoring territory.
Does some of what is offered up by human characters make me as a reader uncomfortable? If so, good, because it should, because we learn NOTHING new as readers – as in life – by being made comfortable. Feeling caught up in it all, moved, gripped, upset, fearful, angered, wanting to question, and maybe a bit teary, and even UNCOMFORTABLE at times, is what reading a novel is fundamentally all about: it should make us THINK.
However, writers are of course also a notoriously insecure bunch to begin with. Some may be easily manipulated into thinking that after getting that “required” MFA in creative writing, and then taking on board the “suggestions” of all of those “beta” readers, that they SHOULD now also start giving their work to yet another additional someone else(s) to “check” it… for something(s). And those someone else(s) also may well (here’s a real shocker) require payment.
When all is said and done at least we know who is wholly responsible for, say, The Great Gatsby – its weaknesses as well as its strengths. That is, I believe strongly, how it should be; Fitzgerald did not have “checkers” on how he portrayed the likes of car accident victims, suburbanites in less well-off Long Island communities, and potential infidelity. It is all his.
Yes, my novels are proofed by a few trusted souls who may make suggestions about this and that, but that is all. If I were the last author on the planet who views writing as an intensely personal artistic statement for which I – and I alone – am fully responsible, that is an authoring creative hill on which I would be willing to die. A reader should be in no doubt: My name is on the book cover(s), so – for better or worse – my novels are entirely mine.
Have a good what is left of your weekend. 🙂