Sunday, February 19, 2017

Culturally Sensitive?

Okay, perhaps I'm wading into rough waters here, but this article from The Chicago Tribune caught my eye(h/t to The Passive Voice).  As writers, we often do lots of research for our books in addition to the hiring of editors, the use of beta-readers, and the countless hours we ourselves spend pouring over our work to make sure we got each nuance just right.  However, some authors and a number of publishers are going to a new set of eyes, based in large part on the potential(mostly through social media) to edit their stuff.

Sensitivity readers.

If you're anything like me, you just did a double take at that phrase.  Yes, it's exactly as it sounds - you or your publisher pay someone to comb through your book looking for signs that you've been culturally insensitive to this group or that one.  Sensitivity readers supposedly provide you tips on your portrayals for characters that are part of a group you aren't a part of(or maybe even one you are a part of if you're not sufficiently "woke" to your own group's travails).

I've touched previously on topics of "cultural appropriation," and this seems to fall in the same overly sensitive, politically correct strain of "let's not hurt anyone's feelings."  To start with, I find it offensive that any one person thinks they have enough expertise on an entire group of individuals that they feel qualified to tell you how they think or act.  This will sound kooky, but people have a tendency to be different, even with shared cultural experiences.  Harvey Fierstein and Milo Yiannopoulos couldn't possibly be any more different in terms of outlook or activism, despite both being gay men.  Ben Carson and Al Sharpton may both be black, but does anyone here have any doubt that their portrayals in books(or characters based on them) would and should be completely polar opposite?  How does one look at anyone based on an immutable characteristic and say they are sufficiently read in that they know just how a character should act, especially when it's your character?

Next, this should insult any writer with half a brain.  The implication here is that we don't do our own research.  I can tell you from experience that research is one of the biggest ways I spend my time...and I write fiction!  Akeldama will come out in May, and since a large part of it is based on the Catholic Church - a church to which I don't personally belong - I had to do a ton of research on how it works.  I didn't leave it up to some "sensitivity reader" to tell me where I went wrong - I spent countless hours combing over each nuance and talking to Catholics(and Mormons) to find out what I didn't know.

Further, and I hate to break this to the culturally sensitive among us, but not everyone is going to like your book.  I promise that someone somewhere will find something offensive about what you have to say.  Just look at our polarized world today.  You can't shake a stick without finding someone saying something you dislike, or without seeing mass protests over a perceived slight.  Each person being different, with a different outlook, will read your work in a different way, and you can't cater to everyone.  Not only will you drive yourself nuts, but you'll never accomplish that task.  On the off chance that you get close, your work will be so boring that no one will buy it.

I wonder if the gatekeepers of such political correctness have given thought to which works wouldn't stand a chance at being published today.  Does anyone really think that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would even be given a look under these conditions? Or To Kill A Mockingbird?  Given his writings about poverty, despite his relatively well off status in English society, I doubt much that Charles Dickens wrote would make it past these folks.

What happened to letting the reader decide our work?  The market is pretty responsive, and if you've gone over the line, it'll usually let you know by not buying your stuff.  While I want everyone to enjoy my stories, I write for me, and I hope others come along.  But I find out by giving it to all of them in my style, not by culling out the offensive parts that might upset people(and believe me, I've got some stuff that many people simply will not like).

If you feel the need for a "sensitivity reader" to check your stuff, go ahead.  That's your right.  But don't tell me I need one before I publish(yet another reason to avoid traditional publishing).  If someone wants to raise a ruckus, they can do so, but they'll find me about as responsive as a statue.

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