Welcome to the Author Remake podcast where we interview authors who want to improve their book marketing. Today I’m excited because we’re talking to Patrice Williams Marks, author of So, You Want to Be a Sensitivity Reader?, who’s looking to make authors aware of sensitivity readers.
We discuss what sensitivity reading is, when it’s needed and how Patrice can spread the word about it.
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Patrice Williams Marks says
Alinka, thank you for opportunity to share with people what sensitivity reading is all about. If anyone has any other questions, they can contact me directly from my websites;
( patricewilliamsmarks.com )
( sensitivityreviews.com )
Personally, I see the whole idea of ‘sensitivity readers’ as the thin end of the wedge… Why am I not surprised that it originated in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. Now that’s what I call irony. It’s effectively having our work censored before it gets published… and we all know what kind of societies were big on censorship, don’t we.
As I see it, sensitivity readers’ sole purpose is to make sure that anyone who might get upset is pandered to, and that our books are suitable for any readers, from kiddiwinks to aged strict chapelgoing maiden aunts… and are so bland and innocuous, that they aren’t worth reading by anyone.
I write crime fiction for adults, and if someone doesn’t like my characters and the way they interact, then they can always put the book down. No one’s forcing them to read my books… or anyone’s books. My novels are meant for grown ups. If they don’t like it, they can stick with the comic book material found in those awful superhero movies the Americans seem to like so much.
Today, everyone’s wanting sensitive treatment for the slightest thing, ‘safe places’ in universities, and to be sheltered from hearing or reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. Free speech pretty much guarantees that someone will get offended. It should foster debate. We shouldn’t try to shut it down.
The history of title changes to Agatha Christie’s most popular novel (based on copies sold) shows this has always been a concern, but it was a matter of the books time, and I’d like to think that even the very non-PC title of that book can be accepted as a product of different time… and that time’s different sensitivities. Its current title is the one it’s always been published under in the US. In the UK, Christie’s home market, it once had a far less PC title.
A number of different titles have since been used, then rejected as political correctness or sensitivity issues demanded. Now it’s called “And Then There Were None” here, as it always has been in America, though in some foreign editions, the racially sensitive title still remains (albeit, translated into another tongue). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_Then_There_Were_None
75 years ago, teenagers were wading ashore on France’s channel coast, under heavy fire from all kinds of armaments… Did they whinge and complain?… Probably, but those young heroes did their job… which for many involved dying for Europe’s freedom (and America’s too, if Hitler had got his way.) There were no safe places on the beaches of Normandy.
It’s the writer’s job to sometimes make readers feel uncomfortable. Long may we be allowed to do it.
Anne Emerick says
While I can understand your feeling that books shouldn’t be watered down, I had a different take on the role of a sensitivity reader. I viewed it as the sensitivity reader could alert the author or publisher to someone else’s perspective. For example, if you had used a phrase or an image that might offend someone OR might not accurately portray reality, a sensitivity reader could alert you to that fact. It’s up to you, the author or publisher, what you choose to do with that information. You can choose to say, “hey, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it” or “hmm…. I never thought of it that way. Thanks for making me aware. Maybe I’ll make a change.”
But Anne…isn’t that what your editor is supposed to pick up on? … particularly the inaccuracies. Mine will check anything he’s not sure of with his own tame contacts in various fields. He’s an author too… writing thrillers, sci-fi, military etc., whereas I write crime fiction/thrillers (and edit his work). There’s crossover where things like security services, firearms, explosives, vehicles, etc., are concerned so we both have our ‘go to’ guys who can advise us. (We both believe in the mantra: ‘Get the facts right and they’ll believe the fiction’). However, if either of us spots something we feel needs putting in a different way… for whatever reason, like causing offence or simply causing confusion… then suggestions are made. Why bring in someone else? (If your book is published without being edited, then trust me, it WILL cause offence… though maybe not for the same reasons).
As for seeing other people’s perspectives: surely that’s all part of the author’s research when writing, isn’t it? If one has researched properly, any sensitive areas will have been identified already, and therefore what’s written will be what’s meant to have been written, however offensive it may seem. You know as well as I do what kind of things ‘sensitivity readers’ will be looking for… and you’ll know if you’ve written it.
Besides, where do you draw the line? Do you avoid your characters having sex, or swearing, so as not to offend maiden aunts?… or drinking alcohol, because it might offend Muslims or tempt recovering alcoholics?… Having them uttering ‘Jesus’ or ‘God almighty’ as exclamations of shock or surprise, in case it’s considered blasphemy (or indeed inferring something was gifted by god, or attributing good luck to acts of god, because it might cause atheists to relegate the book to the realms of fantasy… yes, I’ve seen this in a book, where a protagonist in a hopeless situation used ‘answered prayer’ to get them magically free.)
Do you avoid having gay characters because that might offend… either the LGBT lobby if the character’s a bad guy (or you’re too patronising), or fundie Christians who, from what I’m told, take offence as a national pastime in the States. (If you take it to the extreme, the Bible or Quran wouldn’t be published…There’s plenty in those that I and many others find extremely offensive.)
As long as a book isn’t promoting hatred, or breaching any laws, then that should be OK. If the reader doesn’t like it, they don’t have to continue reading it, do they?