Authors Are Employing ‘Sensitivity Readers’ To Problematic-Proof Their Novels

(Photo: Piotr Marcinski/Dreamstime)
An assault on art in the name of PC

According to a piece in Slate, novelists are now employing “sensitivity readers“ in an attempt to avoid representing characters from other communities in an inaccurate or offensive way.

The article highlights one particular group, “Writing in the Margins,” whose website explains that since “authors will write outside of their own culture and experience,” it’s a good idea for them to hire one of their readers to look “through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page.” So if, for example, you’re a straight person writing a book that features a gay character, you should hire a gay “sensitivity reader” because you don’t know what it’s like to be a gay person and you might misrepresent that experience to others.

This may sound nice and sweet, but there are so, so many problems with it. For one, no one knows what it’s like to be a person in a fictional novel, because the people in fictional novels do not exist. Writing about experiences that you yourself have not had is literally what fiction is, and to discourage that is to discourage the art itself. For two, getting upset at authors for things that their fictional characters say is probably the most absurdly stupid thing that I have ever heard of in my entire life.

Slate’s piece begins with the story of an author and clinical psychologist named Becky Albertalli, who wrote a book in which her protagonist “muses that girls have an easier time coming out than boys, because their lesbianism strikes others as alluring” — which led to Albertalli’s being slammed for playing “too readily into a narrative” that they found “offensive,” the “fetishization of queer girls.”

Albertalli felt terrible about it, and made sure to employ “sensitivity readers” to review her next book before publishing it in order to avoid making a mistake like that again — but she should have responded by saying: “Give me a f****** break.”

Is this view that Albertalli’s character expressed “problematic”? Sure, but why the hell is anyone getting mad at Albertalli about it? It’s not like she was saying it was her view, it was simply the view of a fictional protagonist. But apparently, it’s not even enough to be perfectly politically correct in your own life to avoid angering people, you also can’t write a fictional book where a fictional character has a single “problematic” thought.

Much like real people, fictional characters can be good people, bad people, or problematic people, and demanding that every story feature only perfectly good, perfectly woke people sounds like a way to create only the most boring stories in the world. Yes, sometimes characters do do bad things — sometimes, things that are even worse than having problematic thoughts — but stories need villains to have the conflict that makes them interesting. For example: It was, in fact, totally not cool for the White Witch to hold Edmund at her castle and turn people to stone if they threatened her power, but I highly doubt that a The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Edmund went to her castle for some nice sensitivity training, and then returned to his siblings to share his newfound insights about institutional racism without ever facing a single danger or microaggression along the way would be a The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe that anyone would want to read.

If “sensitivity readers” are given the freedom to hijack authors’ visions, we’re going to lose some beloved works of art that we could have otherwise enjoyed. Think about it: Great Expectations wouldn’t be the same story if some single, female “sensitivity readers” had told Charles Dickens that Miss Havisham’s inability to be happy without a husband was “problematic” and demanded that she instead respond to being left at the altar by relishing her freedom to have casual sex and focus on crushing her career at Planned Parenthood. It’s not that there would be anything wrong with that story, it’s just that that story wouldn’t be the author’s vision, and messing with artists’ visions equals messing with their art. If you don’t like an artist’s vision, fine, but you don’t get to decide what people should and should not create. In the name of political correctness, “sensitivity readers” stifle the creativity and imagination that makes fiction what it is — and I’d rather not see an art form destroyed because of some nutjobs who get mad over the things that made-up people say.

– Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online

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