Sense And Sensitivity

It’s reared its head again – the subject of using ‘sensitivity readers/editors’ in fiction.

This positively Orwellian term has emerged in the past couple of years to describe the pre-publishing process to prevent ‘cultural offense’ – either by accident or by design.

What an insult to you, dear reader.

Publishers are using, or considering using, these sensitivity readers to decide what you should or shouldn’t be allowed to read. Even authors are feeling under pressure to use ‘sensitivity readers’ during the writing process.

If that doesn’t fill you with dread, it should.

Novels have always been dangerous creatures.

They are the imaginings of an author who examines the human condition – with all the good, the bad and the ugly that goes with it – through the eyes and perspectives of its protagonists – the heroes, heroines, antagonists and villains.

(If you’re not sure the difference between an antagonist and villain, I have a primer for you.)

A novel is a self-contained universe, similar to, but separate from our own.

Like other art forms (a beautiful painting, an exquisitely rendered sculpture, a haunting piece of music), novels can tug at our emotions and make us feel pleasure, love, anger, hate.

However, novels do something unique from other art forms and literature. We get into the heads of the characters, we understand the fullness of their motivation and therefore the actions they take – even if those choices lead to their destruction.

First and foremost, novels are a work of fiction, that’s why it contains the disclaimer that: ‘Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental’.

An important disclaimer, as MGM discovered to its cost in 1932.

Novels are not real. They are completely made up.

I can’t believe I even have to say that, but considering the disproportionate amount of publicity and flak Lionel Shriver received at the Brisbane Writers Festival address, I feel I must, because it seems it’s not obvious to everyone – even taxpayer funded activists.

This is not to say the writers shouldn’t do their research – absolutely they should – if only for our own self-interest. We don’t want to look like an idiot by getting something wrong which can easily be fact checked.

The operative word here is ‘fact’. Fact you can check. Something is either true or it is not – at worst it becomes a matter of conjecture and therefore ripe for speculation and interpretation.

Feelings and sensitivities are not facts. They are many, varied and entirely subjective.

Herein lies the danger of ‘sensitivity editors/readers’. What is offensive to one person is not to another.

Whose sensibilities should triumph in such a battle?

Isn’t it arrogant in the extreme that one person who identifies with a certain socio-political or ethnic group should speak for all of them?

Human experience and perspective is many and varied. I would say it is even unique.

No two people are going to think or feel the same no matter how many little identity boxes they appear to check.

This is why the issue of sensitivity editors/readers is important to you, dear reader.

  • You are a smart, intelligent person who knows the difference between fact and fiction
  • You are quite capable of reading things that challenge pre-conceptions and make a decision whether to accept or reject the author’s premise
  • You are also self-aware and self-assured enough to know how to close a book if you read something you would rather not continue with. This is not assigned reading at school. There is no one to make you continue if you do not wish.

Every man his own ‘sensitivity reader’ – oh wait, was that problematic? Never mind, I know you’re intelligent enough to recognise a variation on a well-known literary phrase.

It is you, dear reader, who should be the sole arbiter of what books you read, not some backroom activist who doesn’t know you.

An author has just one responsibility – tell an interesting story with compelling characters.

Everything else is propaganda.

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