A new phenomenon is out in the ether: hire someone to hold novelists back when we are about to publish something insensitive. In addition to editing and proofreading, another sector is out there waiting to vet your book for narratives that might offend.
Here’s the problem with that: No matter what you write, you will offend someone. Guaranteed. (I just offended someone.)
Whether you use “bad words” or allow bad characters to do bad things (in character) someone out there is ready to object. I can understand the allure of employing a sensitivity reader. Particularly nervous novice novelists might look for another layer of protection against offending readers (or at least have someone to blame when the reviews go south). Writing is not a profession for overly nervous people, though. Writers have something to say. Writers plant their feet and take a stand. Having opinions is how we win friends, earn fans and make enemies. I dream of building better worlds as I accept that this reality frequently falls short of my ideals.
I once gave a reading where a character says something mildly sexist. A woman in the audience groaned. I didn’t stop the reading to confront her with, “Hey! I’m not saying that. The character is saying that! You know, the guy who has a body in the trunk of his car? Not a good guy!” Next time, I swear I will stop the reading and say that. Damn it. I hate missed opportunities.
So, anyway, do you get your money back from the sensitivity reader when you get that bad review from an offended reader?
Employing readers specifically to police our stories just won’t fly on any large scale. Editors and proofreaders and my beta team have held me back here and there and I have taken their sage advice gladly. I have also bulled ahead with plot points that might (will) offend someone. We are writers. We will always offend someone on some point and I’d worry if I didn’t. I’ve written a lot of horror. If my work doesn’t make your skin crawl, I haven’t done my job. (See the coffin birth in Season 2 of This Plague of Days. See the monstrosity when the head vampire finds Shiva in Season 3! Holy crap, I creeped me out in parts of that book!)
The sensitivity of some readers is not a good enough reason to change our stories for all readers. I’m not making anyone read my books and the sales copy does not depict descriptions of kittens chasing butterflies in a peaceful meadow. (That’s a horror story for the butterflies and all who love pretty insects, by the way.)
Attempting to appeal to everyone is a formula for bland books as well as being an impossible task. The internet is an anonymous rage machine so don’t even try to cater to the fringe. Use your best judgment, serve the story and serve the majority of readers who are your readers.
In Dream’s Dark Flight, one of the main characters is an African American woman. When an otherworldly entity swears to enslave her, she tells him she is a descendant of slaves. Heroically, she defies the devil and proclaims that she will never bow. One of my beta readers worried that this was a dangerous facet of the narrative. Was this cultural appropriation? I’d say I am promoting diversity as I serve the character and the story. Many of my characters are of diverse ethnic origin. The alternative is I only write about white guys. I’d rather my fiction reflect the real world: good, bad, diverse, messy, blended and ultimately transcendent.
I will not stay in my lane. I write for the future not the past. In the future, all humans will be of mixed race and the world will finally become what some thought we once were: post-racial, more forgiving and peaceful.
Peace to you today.
~ In addition to posting here, I write horror, SFF and crime thrillers. I also host the All That Chazz Stress Relief Podcast. Find out more on my main website, AllThatChazz.com. In my latest podcast I rant about arguing with people, weight loss and dealing with cravings. Yes, I’m diverse.