During dinner, J, who is English, kept referring to one of the small group of diners around the table as ‘Jock.’ After he did this a few times, David (Jock) asked him to stop as he found the term offensive. J tried to laugh it off, but I could see the request had annoyed him.
The next morning at breakfast he approached me and said, ‘you’re Scottish, do you find ‘Jock’ offensive?’
I told him I didn’t, but I hadn’t lived in Britain during the Scottish independence referendum when I had seen it used as a derogatory term time and time again on social media. If I had lived in Britain, I might have felt different.
The Problem With Sensitivity Readers
For those who don’t know, sensitivity readers are a growing trend in writing. They’re referred to as fiction’s new moral gatekeepers. These are people who cast their eyes over a manuscript, checking the author has portrayed characters accurately and not in a stereotypical, derogatory manner. One view is that it results in a more accurate depiction of characters who have identities or experiences that are outside those of the author. Another way of looking at it is, as the publishing industry trying to pre-empt books being cancelled, especially in a time when witch-hunts on social media are commonplace.
A high-profile example from recent years is Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a book that was lauded on its release, and then vilified to the point it was ‘unpublished.’ If anyone still thinks cancel culture doesn’t exist, they should read The Guardian’s account of the events that unfolded after a Goodreads’ reviewer accused the book of using ‘racial stereotypes.’
Nobody comes out of it well in my view, and it reveals polarised views on all sides.
In another Guardian article, a sensitivity reader wrote, ‘Through my fiction, I’ve been a Time Lord; a Scot; a fashion model; an oligarch’s daughter and Bloody Mary. It’s all part of the job. However, when I’m writing a character who has experienced oppression, I need to take extra care.’
And this is just one reason why I have a problem with sensitivity readers. Where do you draw the line?
Here’s a sensitivity reader who seems to have suggested the Scots haven’t experienced oppression. I am offended by that.
Who gets to say which characters require a sensitivity reader and which don’t? To avoid any potential offence, do publishers need to send manuscripts to an army of sensitivity readers, one for every different character and experience depicted in the book? Cause if they don’t, wouldn’t that be prejudicial in itself?
It’s a minefield.
But here’s another massive reason why I have a problem with sensitivity readers. What makes anyone an authority on the experiences of a specific slice of society? I’m Scottish and working class, but I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to speak for the thoughts of every other Scottish person, hence the example at the start. I’m from the West of Scotland, my Scottishness is quite different from that of someone from Edinburgh. The dialogue I use in my Scottish book is not the same as that used in Glasgow, even though Glasgow is also in the West of Scotland.
One author wrote in The Times, ‘I had three sensitivity readers and they had three different, contradictory perspectives on how my book should change. It’s all shades of grey.’
Of course they did, it’s obvious that’s going to happen on a regular basis.
All our experiences are unique, they shape who we are as individuals. I don’t want to be defined in some lazy way by an all-encompassing label (ironically, partly what sensitivity readers are trying to avoid), or by somebody whose personal experiences/views don’t match mine. No sensitivity reader on this planet can talk for me. Not that they would, as Scottish working-class doesn’t seem to be on the sensitive list yet. Are we not an oppressed race? Go ask any Scottish sensitivity reader that question.
And yet there is clearly a role to play, as highlighted by examples such as a passage I read recently in the opening pages of a memoir where a German character’s cringeworthy dialogue was straight out of a 1970s Brit sitcom.
There is a definite need for sensitivity in writing, but are sensitivity readers really the solution?
The jury remains out.