Skin in the Game - Karen Kao

Sensitivity readers are the new thing. At least, it was new to me when I read an article by Lionel Shriver entitled We need to talk about sense and sensitivity. Apparently, US publishers are sending out manuscripts for review by sensitivity readers. Their job is to
check for any misrepresentations, stereotypes, inauthentic dialogue or anything else that might conceivably offend “marginalised groups”, which include a host of racial, gender, and disability variants. 
Shriver calls them the sensitivity police and warns of censorship coming to a bookshop near you.


critical theory

Shriver likes a good fight. In 2016, she gave a speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival. It was so controversial that some of the audience walked out to write their own speeches. Shriver’s topic was cultural appropriation, in her eyes another form of censorship.
Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
When I was in college, it was fashionable to read literary texts through the lens of the author’s identity. This school of critical theory is called New Historicism and its purpose is
to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time.
What I remember from class, however, was that our inquiry went farther than that. Who taught Austen to read and write, what sort of family did she have, did she ever kiss. In my memory, those were prurient pursuits that had nothing to do with the quality of her writing. Here we are, decades later, revisiting the art of judging a book by its author.


diversity in publishing

Behind all the hype behind cultural appropriation lies a noble cause. Publishing, especially in the US, is woefully homogeneous. White authors dominate, especially the men. There is a serious need to expand the number and nature of the voices we hear, lest we all remain tightly sealed inside our own bubble.

Dhonielle Clayton has made it her life’s mission to diversify US publishing from the inside out. She’s an executive with We Need Diverse Books (a non-profit that promotes diversity in children’s books), co-founder of a book development company Cake Literary, an author of children’s fiction and – yes – a professional sensitivity reader.

Clayton sees her job as steering a writer away from stereotypes and cliches.
I read a middle-grade book about a little black girl who loves to go to national parks, and I told the author that the first thing she needed to reconcile was, how did this black girl get into national parks? Historically, black people weren’t allowed to visit national parks, so going to national parks is not a thing we do, as a group. I wrote to her that if this little girl loves to camp, you need to figure out how that happened, how that passion was stoked, how her parents and grandparents felt about it. Or you have to make her white. Because otherwise it’s a paint by numbers diversity piece and it rings false.


I think Clayton has done this author a tremendous service. But I also wonder why the author hadn’t done her research. Had she read up on the National Park Service? Maybe looked at photos or videos of happy campers and noticed the diversity in the faces beaming back at her? This author doesn’t seem insensitive to me. It sounds like she doesn’t really know her character.

As a writer, you want your characters to jump off the page as fully formed, three dimensional, real life people. You don’t want to hear that the accent is off, the slang dated or the props inappropriate. Let alone called a racist because you’ve chosen a character who doesn’t look like you. Or whose experiences do not match your own.

I’ve written a novel set in 1930s Shanghai. Since I am ethnically Chinese and my family comes from Shanghai, I’ve got the race and place cards covered.  But I have no personal experience of rape, opium addiction or self-mutilation, all of which takes place in my novel. Does that mean I must be incapable of writing an authentic sounding scene? Must every novel be, in fact, a thinly-disguised memoir?

For Shriver, sensitivity readers can only induce a chilling effect on writers.
Some writers terrified of giving offence will opt to concoct sanitised characters from “marginalised groups” who are universally above reproach. Others will retreat altogether from including characters with backgrounds different from their own, just to avoid the humiliation of having their hands slapped if they get anything “wrong.”

zero sum game

Clayton’s livelihood relies, in part, on her work as a sensitivity reader. Yet, she is unhappy.
The fact is that sensitivity reading is a band-aid over a hemorrhaging problem in our industry. That’s what we should really be talking about — that’s what real censorship looks like. The systematic erasure and blockage of people of color from the publishing industry.
Clayton has cause to say this. She’s had manuscripts rejected because the publisher already had a similar piece written by a white woman. Clayton’s conclusion is that white women
writing a story about a black kid prevents me from writing one, because when I show up with my manuscript, the publisher tells me that the position is filled.
This is the truly shocking part: a US publisher can only afford to acquire one manuscript about a black kid. To be sure that manuscript won’t offend anyone, the publisher must then hire a sensitivity reader. Apparently, US publishers have lost their own ability to sense cliche and stereotype.

Note: Skin in the Game was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir


Umberto Tosi said…
I'm with Ms. Shriver, also Ms. Clayton, also with you, having so clearly defined the various overlapping and opposing aspects of this latest publishing industry, well, sop to sensitivity. You point out the issues with an even hand, adding a dash of well-chosen satire, and put it all in clear perspective.

You send this author and former editor's thoughts flying. How about publishers achieving diversity by actually diversifying their enterprises, marketing, book selections, authors and editorial staffs) rather than via memos and self-conscious panels?

You point out, deftly, however, that diversity readers are way better than no action at all, and that adding a layer of smart, culturally aware editorial reviewers (especially those from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds) can do wonders for writers and their manuscripts.

How much are these sensitivity readers being paid? Does it cost publishers as much as it would to expand and make their professional editorial staffs more inclusive and diverse? What about seeking wider and more diverse readerships by offering (and marketing) more relevant content? It's a self-fulfilling circle.

Common sense should tell editors to send manuscripts to readers most savvy and appropriate to each one's themes and content. How is that any different from consulting sensitivity readers - except for the spin?

You do set wheels spinning here. In any case, great post. It deserves a panel discussion at least. Thanks!

Lydia Bennet said…
It's in the interests of these sensitivity readers to find 'offensive' material so find it they will. Apart from the censorship angle, this whole issue is encouraging offence-taking by readers who seem to assume that any character is representative of all people of similar ethnicity/ability/religion and so anything they do or say which falls short of sainthood is an insult to all the rest. It also implies that any sensitivity reader speaks for all those of similar background, which they do not imo. The example you gave didn't mean the writer did no research, as she seems to have placed her little black girl nowadays when there is no problem going to national parks, the sensitivity reader assumes black people don't go because they once were excluded, it's not beyond the bounds of imagination that this particular girl goes to them. I agree diverse characters parachuted in for the sake of diversity don't work, but giving all those back story details every time you mention someone unlike yourself will mean more padding in a world of boringly padded out novels.
Enid Richemont said…
Lydia - I agree with every word you have said. There are destructive, and professional 'complainers' out there who are perpetually offended. Historical writers appropriate the time they're writing about - they haven't actually lived in the 14th century. We all appropriate the Bronze Age when we read and then re-interpret the stories about Troy; likewise the folklore of any country that isn't our own. The ability to do this is called imagination, or, more succintly, empathic imagination, and it's very precious.

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