Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Do Sensitivity Readers Hurt or Help Our Novels?

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)

This month’s column is more a discussion invitation than a tutorial. ‘Sensitivity Readers’—I confess I am on two sides of the column on this issue.

Now, at their base purpose, ‘sensitivity readers’ are critical partners in the novel crafting process. For example (and in an effort to keep races, sexual orientations, religions or genders out of the equation) let’s pretend you are writing a story about a social worker. It would be in your best interest to have your story vetted by a few bona-fide social workers because let me tell you—as a social worker myself I find that characters crafted in the vein of my profession almost inevitably fall into one of two (grossly aggravating) stereotypes: they are either baby-snatching lunatics who rip well-loved children from the arms of doting parents OR they are brain-dead dupes who can be hoodwinked by teens with one single, well-spun lie.

Reading characters like these has given me a wide breadth of empathy for ethnic or religious minorities or those in the LGBTQ population. For if it is irritating to me to see my profession watered into weak (and false) stereotypes, imagine what it must be like for folks who are feeling marginalized due to the skin they’re in. It is unacceptable, and not only does it propagate misconceptions, it frankly makes for weak and cardboard storytelling. Ergo, a ‘sensitivity reader’ is crucial here—for not only can they keep the writing honest, they can offer the nuances, the minutiae, and the authenticity to make diverse characters rich, deep, and credible.

But on the other hand…

How far is too far in the sensitivity process? When does a corrective effort become a sanitizing endeavor? One of the articles I reviewed in preparation for this piece suggested that sensitivity readers also be used to cull scenes from manuscripts that may ‘trigger’ people.

Say whhaaaaatt? If that is the case, say a potential goodbye to novels that fall into step with masterpieces like The Prince of Tides, (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption, or A Time To Kill. Heck, say goodbye to my own novel, Divinity &The Python due to the graphic and brutal rape scene therein. Say goodbye also to building awareness if or when the vulgar, violent, shameful incidents in stories are erased in the effort of “protecting someone” from them.

Lionel Shriver, author of arresting fiction such as We Need To Talk About Kevin, is aware that she is often described as someone “not known for her sensitivity”. She wrote a controversial piece on sensitivity readers within which she quite derisively—but maybe rightly—says that “being offended has become a national pastime.” She’s opposed to the idea of sensitivity readers because she feels they are the first stop on the slippery slope toward censorship—and she fears that they will stifle artists’ creativity. Is she right? I read some of her points and I can see their validity.

So…where to land on this issue? I am of the mind that, where there is unintended racism, misogyny, or any other passage that may be unintentionally damaging–and that does not serve the plot in some way—clearly this is a place where prose needs to be flagged and, at the very least, a conversation needs to ensue as to its integrity. But what about flagging other material, so-called “triggering” material? Here’s where my twitch starts twitchin’. What constitutes “triggering”?

As a counselor, I can assure you that this is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy; what triggers some won’t trigger others—so even a team of ‘sensitivity readers’ might not get it right. And not only that, but when does the onus fall upon the reader to either put the book down, write a scathing review, or not buy it at all if it contains an offensive scene or material that might throw them into the deep end of the emotional ocean? Further, without the (so-called) ’rough stuff, how can we expect people to develop empathy, awareness, or even have a sense of kinship in knowing that they are not alone in their experiences? It seems, in this regard, that sensitivity readers culling for triggering material may, in fact, create the opposite effect of what they are aiming for.

As I wrap this up I admit I do not have any ready answers. All I do know is that we, as fiction writers, are crafting stories in what may well be the most emotionally enlightened time in history. Never before has there been such a push for a more inclusive, broad-strokes awareness of emotional and psychological well-being of consumers. Thoughts and comments most welcome.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About No Vacancy

There’s always room…

When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.

Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.

They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…


  1. Personally, I think a good sensitivity reader should suggest a warning for triggering content, not removing it entirely.

  2. We had this very discussion at my writing group. I agree, you need someone to check that you're not being inaccurate. Warning of potential triggers is fine (eg. if you've said something that could be misinterpreted)... if it needs to be in the book for a reason, it needs to stay in the book.
    Excellent article. Thanks for this.

    1. You're welcome. It's a big topic with no set answers, no question.

  3. Thank you, Bonnie, for this thoughtful article. Yes, we need good references, but sometimes the references take things personally and could wreck the story we are trying to tell. If something offensive stays in the book, the writer needs to say something like, "Many other people from this community would not do this, but my character did it anyway because she needed to for her sanity, etc." I think if you, as a writer, are aware that something will be offensive or sensitive, then show the broad picture and tell the reader that your character has deviated from the common path because your character is just her or him and he or she is trying to find his or her way. But I suggest not to sound ignorant. Yes, I'm sure some social workers can be baby-snatchers, but that's because they are prejudiced or are being unprofessional or someone forces them to do this, but say it is rare. Just explain your character circumstances in the light of what this group is typically doing.

    1. Great analysis. Thanks for the contribution :)

  4. When we write fiction, anything goes. That fact should be abundantly clear from all the strange new genres created to alert readers to whatever floats their boat.

    The word FICTION says loud and clear, this story is NOT true even though it may feel true. And If it feels true, we’re doing a good job! Fantasy is even more clear.

    Novels are written according to the author’s imagination, personal insight, and discretion or lack thereof, for the purposes of entertainment. As-is.

    And since there’s no way an author can please everyone, or even anticipate the highs and lows of anyone else’s personal deal-breaker issues, it makes no sense to censor one’s own creation to please a few. Otherwise, we’re writing to someone else’s formula, or marching to someone else’s drum, or worse deferring someone else’s narrow mind.

    Readers aren’t forced to buy books. Genres they don’t like can be bypassed. Books they don’t like can be reviewed. They can return library books unread at the first sensitive hurdle. Prospective readers can peruse the back blurb, avail themselves of the ‘look inside feature, and read reviews.

    Writing a novel is a brave act. Writers are urged to be bold. To be emotionally honest. To tell a story we feel compelled to write for months or sometimes even years.

    There is one notable exception. In my opinion, the only text that should fall under the red pen are verifiable historical facts that an author has unwittingly or mistakenly referenced incorrectly after due-diligence. ‘Hysterical facts’ are in the mind of the reader.

    Oh wait, I almost forgot, check with a lawyer before you use product names, real people’s names, and song lyrics that aren’t in the public domain. Otherwise, the Amazon is your oyster... or not.

    1. Sensational contribution to this discussion. A thousand yeses to everything you just said !

    2. Hello Veronica! And, nice piece, Bonnie -- well done! :)

      Vero, I'm totally with you, and the key points as you correctly put it are,

      "The word FICTION says loud and clear, this story is NOT true even though it may feel true. And If it feels true, we’re doing a good job! Fantasy is even more clear. [...] Writing a novel is a brave act. Writers are urged to be bold. To be emotionally honest. To tell a story we feel compelled to write for months or sometimes even years."

      That's it. That's the whole thing. My personal take, for precisely the reasons Bonnie stated including the "this is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy; what triggers some won’t trigger others" and the ensuing para, is that while sensitivity readers *may* in some instances be of value, trigger warnings are undesirable and unrequired, a good long stretch along the road to hell paved by good intentions. The onus is on the reader to put the book down if it makes them uncomfortable; to read reviews and the book description and not buy it if they suspect it will not be for them. Art is not supposed to always be comfortable, and any attempt to sanitize or constrain or flag it as possible uncomfortable for certain populations is just censorship under another name.

      Great post and great comments!


  5. Sensitivity readers function as primary readers of a work in progress ― but while a traditional editor would read with a view for overall quality, a sensitivity reader focuses on the accuracy and potential offensiveness of a specific minority group’s portrayal.

  6. So, here's the thing. In the YA writing realm, at least, sensitivity readers check an author's work to be sure there's no content that's racist, ableist, misogynistic, etc... They do this because incorrect and offensive stereotypes are actually harmful to the people who then unknowingly read those books. Just look at the reviews highlighting blackface in P.C. Cast's MOON CHOSEN, or the self-harm/labeling of chronic, debilitating pain as a gift in Roth's CARVE THE MARK. Or THE CONTINENT. Or THE BLACK WITCH. When reviewers who do call out the problematic aspects of these books are the ones being harassed because they say they were hurt by it, it's obvious to me that sensitivity readers are needed.

    It's a matter of checking that you, the author, aren't promoting something that's wrong or harmful. You wouldn't write a police procedural/thriller/mystery/historical without consulting the proper experts (at least I hope not), so why would you write a book without getting the input of experts on sexual identity issues or race or disability or anything else? They live this stuff. They're experts.

  7. Great piece, Bonnie. I agree that some "sensitivity" needs to be addressed when writing about a character with a disability or of a culture the author knows little about.

    But the idea that all readers of fiction need to be swathed in bubble wrap and never exposed to the reality of the world they see every day on the news or "Law and Order SVU" seems ludicrous in the extreme. As you say, anybody can be triggered by anything. Say a woman was raped by a man wearing a blue shirt. Do you then ban the color blue from all books? From the sky? Where does it stop?

    It used to be that education was about expanding the mind. Now it seems to be about embalming it. Once women fought for the right to be treated as the equals of men. Now they want to be treated like little delicate flowers who can't survive even the mention of sexual assault. I think it's time to fire the sensitivity police and get the little dears a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" or something by Gloria Steinem. Otherwise, I'm sure the Taliban has a nice burka they can wrap themselves in.

    1. Boom! Shots fired! I appreciate, and agree, with your candor!

    2. Absolutely, Anne. Well said.

  8. I don't think writers should cater to people who enjoy getting offended, but I also think accuracy is essential. Not adding to popular misconceptions about real people should be a matter of conscience. I belong to a religious minority that is frequently stereotyped. I don't waste energy being offended, but I think that even fiction writers have an obligation for accuracy. A writer who wants to include a Mormon or Native American or undocumented immigrant in their story should do the real people the courtesy of having conversations with actual members of that group before writing about them.
    I also agree that historical accuracy is a must. For example, I think what the movie Titanic did to the name of William Murdoch, who was actually a hero, is inexcusable.
    Only lazy writers don't do their research!

    1. Yes! Accuracy is crucial, but paralyzing our pens out of fear of offending someone....? Yikes. None of us would ever write again!

  9. I am a sensitivity (or I prefer the term expert) reader on transgender and gay issues. My goal is to make sure that trans or gay characters are portrayed accurately and with complexity, avoiding one-dimensional characters and overused stereotypes, as well as medical inaccuracies. My goal is never to sanitize or censor.

    Often I help authors better understand the complexity of gender identity and sexual orientation (and the communities that form around gender and sexual minorities) in ways that they are able to write more authentic and interesting characters, as well as more engaging scenes.

    As a writer of crime fiction from a queer perspective, I do have characters that engage in hate speech and anti-LGBT behavior. But I do it in such a way that it doesn't normalize those behaviors any more than my work normalizes murder or gang violence.