Notes of a Degenerate Dreamer: An Analysis and Critique of Sensitivity Readers
By Sebastian Vice
The central contention of this essay is that sensitivity readers are superfluous to the writing and publishing process. But before I defend this thesis, we need to explore what a sensitivity reader is.
The term “sensitivity reader” was first introduced into our linguistic landscape very recently, and as such it’s plausible to assume that the notion is conceptually richer than a mere fact checker or an accuracy reader.
I will work under the assumption that if you’re writing non-fiction, such as a piece of journalism, biography, or history, truth matters. In such cases, if we value healthy epistemic practices, the author would be wise to devote plenty of time researching the topic to the best of their ability. In addition, a fact checker and experts in the relevant field, would be wise to consult before a manuscript is unleashed into the wild.
Example: Suppose I wanted to write a biography of John Gotti. It would behoove me to do all I can to comb through public records, interview people close to him (Such as Sammy The Bull), and provide an accurate context to portray his life. Further, it would behoove the publisher to fact check the claims made in the book, and in places of contention, or contradiction, or speculative claims, indicate such for the reader.
In the above example, the publisher and myself can do our best to be as accurate as possible, while recognizing we might have overlooked something. In other words, there will probably always be errors. However, our aim would be error reduction, with our arrow consistently aimed at the truth.
Neither myself, the publisher, nor the fact checkers and experts have an obligation to paint John Gotti in a positive or uplifting light in areas where facts speak to the contrary. (There’s a real debate on whether or not Gotti himself ever killed someone. But suppose it came to light that he in fact did, and it was supported by a preponderance of evidence. If this offends or upsets the delicate feelings of his family, friends, associates, who cares. To put it bluntly, they can drink a tall glass of who gives a fuck. The point is accuracy, not white washing).
So far, I hope, all of this sounds plausibly boring and uncontroversial.
In a fiction piece, I’ll labor under the assumption that if you’re a writer worth your salt, you’ll also do your best to research the topic. We can forget the goofy advice of writing what you know, and say: write what you don’t know, but do your homework. Continuing with the example of John Gotti, suppose I wrote a story that involved Gotti as a character (or someone like him). I should do my best to research his life, the Italian mafia, read books, articles, and listen to interviews with him, and if possible, consult those closest to him, etc. I then use this information to paint as consistent a picture of him within the work. Notice I said consistent and not accurate. In fiction, we are looking for, I wager, a story that’s coherent with the character, the time period, and historical facts (of course we embellish for narrative effect—such is the nature of fiction). In other words, if my aim is a realistic John-Gotti-type character, making him Irish and not Italian, would be foolish. On the other hand, it’s well known Gotti had a temper, and so while there may be a debate on whether or not he ever personally killed anyone, it’s consistent with his character to personally off a few mother fuckers.
So far, everything I’ve said strikes me as a plausible way to approach the writing process if—and this is a big if—we aim for truth and/or realism.
First Interpretation of Sensitivity Readers: They’re Superfluous
In combing through dozens of articles and videos, I’ve come across a fairly innocuous form of sensitivity reading. For example, a sensitivity reader might check for misrepresentation, stereotypes, biases, etc. So far, to me, this seems reasonable. If I paint one class of people with a broad brush, I’m creating one dimensional and boring characters.
At this level, I see nothing inherently insidious at work here. As a writer, if your goal is to flesh out multi-dimensional characters, giving into a stereotype is lazy. A person is more than their skin color, gender, etc. By extension, the characters should be more than such as well. To employ a cliché: a well-rounded character contains the good, the bad and the ugly.
However, it seems to me the above interpretation either does, or should, fall under doing your research, and aiming for consistency (in fiction) and truth (in non-fiction). If a main character is a set of stereotypes, I’m not drilling to the humanity of that character. To my eye, good fiction drills to the marrow of the human condition. Regardless of how despicable the character, we can usually find the moral grey area. Hence, painting a group of people as [insert stereotype] is just shitty fucking writing.
In other words, if a sensitivity reader is simply checking for misrepresentation (broadly considered), they seem to just be good beta readers or fact checkers. And if we are talking about lived experiences, we can make the obvious, though often glossed over observation, that no one or two or a million members of a group speak for the whole.
I have autism, and my lived experience is drastically different from others I’ve talked to. There are however common threads. For example: those with autism usually have trouble picking up on facial cues. Someone doesn’t need to consult me, or anyone else, to learn this. They simply need to open a fucking book or read some articles.
No two black people are the same. No two trans people are the same. No two gay people are the same. This sounds painfully obvious, but it’s lost on many people who fail to recognize the humanity of each individual and engage in a reductive analysis such as: this is offensive to black people! Who the fuck elected you to speak on behalf of ALL black people? You speak for ALL of them? How fucking presumptuous of you. You speak for yourself, unless you’ve delegated authority to someone else. And to assume all of one group is going to feel or believe the way YOU feel or believe is absurd.
In other words, given the first interpretation, it would appear that sensitivity readers are co-extensive with accuracy readers and/or fact checkers, in which case they aren’t needed.
Second Interpretation of Sensitivity Readers: They Coddle The Reader
The first hint the second interpretation might be a closer approximation to the truth are when articles or videos reference problematic language. What is problematic language? What I’ve gathered are slurs of various sorts: racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, etc.
If the aim is to write realistic fiction, and express the full breath of the human condition, it’s hard to get around using slurs without extensive linguistic gymnastics (which still sound fake). This isn’t to say every piece demands them. However, it’s hard to imagine writing a KKK member without that character liberally using the word “nigger.” What’s the character suppose to say? African American? What sounds more realistic coming from a KKK member:
“African Americans are watering down our heritage.”
“These fuckin’ niggers are watering down our heritage.”
Let’s be honest and ask: which sentence sounds more authentic coming from a KKK member? This should go without saying, but clearly a white person referencing black people as niggers is designed to denigrate them. To other them. And isn’t this, broadly speaking, what the KKK does? The first sentence is too clean, too sanitized, and too inauthentic. And miss me with this bullshit of: But you can just have them say: “those people.” Again, that doesn’t sound authentic. You really think a KKK member is going to hold his tongue? Get the fuck outta here.
If we go with the second interpretation, it appears a sensitivity reader’s job is to make a piece of work non-offensive or easily digestible by the general reading public. A public who doesn’t mind reading about horrific shit so long as it’s couched in PC language.
In other words, removing “problematic language” just sanitizes reality. It makes it so a reader could read about horrific racial violence, but not have to read certain words. But let me ask you this: what’s more horrific, a word or an action?
To finish this off, it seems many readers and writers have difficulty distinguishing a character or a narrator from the author. And if this distinction is vexing to you, then I’m at a loss for words. Do you assume a writer who writes about serial killers is a serial killer? Do you assume a writer who writes about a cop is a cop? If you’re a woman who writes about a man, do we assume you’re a man? Of course not. So to assume a writer who writes a racist character is racist is fucking stupid.
Of course, we can find cases where it’s blatantly obvious the narrator is a mouthpiece for the author. But I wager such cases are the exception, not the rule.
To end: we don’t need sensitivity readers.
P.S. Send all hate mail to James Bergman (a.k.a. Ahead Of The Curve).
Sebastian Vice is the founder of Outcast-Press, an indie publishing company specializing in transgressive fiction and dirty realism. His poetry and short fiction has, or will, appear in Punk Noir Magazine, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Close To The Bone, Terror House Magazine, and the anthology In Filth It Shall Be Found.