Linda Maye Adams

Soldier, Storyteller

Sensitivity Readers: Another reason to go indie


I just got back from my cruise–a very long day yesterday flying back!  Anyway, I ran across this article this morning on “sensitivity reader” to look for offensive content and was horrified that the industry is doing this.

It’s a form of censorship, plain and simple.

It starts with the simple thing of avoiding stereotypes, which sounds reasonable.

And there is a problem with that.  Most of it, in my opinion, comes from the media.  The news tends to focus on what sells and that often crosses into stereotype territory.  Films, TV, and even commercials tend to use stereotypes as a shortcut because of time limitations.  If you were, say, a soldier in an all-male company and grew up without any sisters, you might think the images of women being helpless victims on every TV show are true.

However, let’s suppose I create a nasty individual–character’s well-drawn and the motivations for the nastiness is obvious in the context of the story.  It’s even something that’s the heart of the story.  And maybe I decide to make the character a woman.

Enter sensitivity reader, who gets offended that I made this woman such a nasty person and publisher tells me I need to change the character.  Yet, if I’d done the character as a male, no one would had noticed any problems.  That’s just plain wrong.

People can be offended at pretty much anything.  Maybe I get offended because someone mentions rabbits.  Does that mean writers should jump and change their rabbits to cats because one person is offended at rabbits?

I grew up watching Star Trek, the original one, when it went into syndication.  There was something magical about it, seeing a woman on the bridge in an important position. As good science fiction does, it slipped in issues that could be brought up in the context of a fictional futuristic story.  And it pushed a lot of boundaries that made people uncomfortable (especially judging from Gene Roddenberry’s battles with the network).  But suppose a sensitivity viewer said that Uhura’s mini-skirt was offensive and GR’s response was to change the character to male?

Right.

I know the sensitivity reader idea has good intentions, but it takes control of the story away from the writer.  It takes away our ability to push boundaries that need to be pushed.

3 Comments

  1. I agree with you, Linda – although I watch TV and movies and see way too many women who can beat up and overpower every man they meet, and I don’t think that’s all that accurate either. We all pick up on whatever it is that niggles us. The thing is we don’t need to make a big fuss over it everytime it happens. That’s where it starts causing problems.

    Sometimes, yes, things need fixing, but many times, a lot of times it seems these days, we’re making mountains out of molehills.

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    • And it would help if people like the publishers, making up these “rules,” would clean their own house first. If there isn’t enough diversity beyond stereotypes in fiction, then they should be questioning how they can do better.

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  2. spiralwriter

    I could not possibly agree with you more! Even the possibility of having a manuscript land in front of one of these sensitivity readers will lead writers to narrow down what they’re willing to explore and the stories they’re willing to tell. Fiction and storytelling in general is ABOUT pushing boundaries, not making sure everyone feels safe. That’s part of how a wonderful story helps change the world, even if it is one reader at a time.

    I also see this as part of what I consider an ill-advised trend to try to make writing appeal to everyone, along with making sure no one could possibly be offended. To me, this is a recipe for bland, forgettable, boring stories. Not what I want to do. I’d so much rather find readers who are as passionate about what I write as I am, not worry about being a time-filler they forget even before they close the book.

    I’m with 100% with you, Linda. Yet another of the many reasons to stay indie!

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