Tuesday 21 February 2017

Sensitivity Readers

Sitting in the middle of a thunderstorm with nothing better to do than respond to an article I've just been reading: Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.

Suggest reading the article before my response, otherwise it isn't going to make much sense.

Jumping in on the point:

Still, some sensitivity readers feel they are in part contributing to the problem. Clayton said she's unsettled by the idea that she's being paid for her expertise, but also is helping white authors write black characters for books from which they reap profit and praise.

"It feels like I'm supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery," Clayton said. "Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don't understand it?"

Then don't be a sensitivity reader - that's the job description. Become a writer. Whereas I accept the point about being less likely to be published than a white woman, a white woman is apparently eight times less likely to be published than a man. Do what a thousand authors have done throughout history and choose a nom de plume if it helps, but overcome your own fear of rejection and put yourself out there. 

I absolutely accept there's a massive market disconnect for African writers. I trawl the submissions pages for my students, looking for competitions and publishers specifically asking for submissions by African writers, but the majority of those submission calls are for African-American writers and most require submission fees that writers without access to PayPal are unable to make.

The misnomered international publishing scene puts writers in economically developing countries at extreme disadvantage. Small publishing houses are springing up across Africa, and some authors do have access to digital publishing tools, but many can't accept online payment for their work and haven't got access to strong editing or marketing support. 

I totally accept that. The problems are very clear.

But, moving on a little from the underlying root issues, I absolutely disagree that the way to respond to that is to attack artistic freedom to switch places, and to suggest that writing from different perspectives is cultural thievery.

And you may say 'Oh, but you're a white British woman, you would think that.'

But if you tell me that I can't write from another cultural perspective, then you tell Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie she should never have written Richard Churchill, or Lawrence Hill that he should never have written as a woman (aren't there enough female authors on the planet?).

Both Richard and Aminata were wholly authentic to me. They truly brought home the point that storytelling transcends time, place and gender - when done well.

But art isn't perfect. Artists are not perfect. We make mistakes, we don't always know where to look for the research we need, we try, we fail, and sometimes we succeed.

Bad writing is bad writing, or poorly researched, or flourishing a touch too much poetic license. Let the critics point that out, let the publishers run it through a sensitivity reader, but under no circumstances tell people to stop trying, or that they can't, or that they mustn't.

I've read pieces by African writers which have put forward extremely stereotypical portrayals of westerners, things that were totally inauthentic, biased or one-dimensional, but all I thought at the times was 'this writer hasn't quite got it,' never 'this writer should stop imagining, should stop writing, should stop experimenting.'

Curb writers, you curb writing.

It's very easy to see something not written as you would like to write it yourself and suggest that it should never have been written. But if it wasn't written, we wouldn't now be having this dialogue. That's in no way to say that publishing isn't overdue an overhaul, and that vast numbers of people aren't represented on the world market, but the way to address that isn't to malign those who are already writing, however little you might think of what they have written. With each brilliant book written by a writer from a culture that isn't their own, we break down barriers. We start to find the threads that bind humanity together. And there are as many of those as threads which divide us. Which do you want to search for?

[See also: Experts Or Censors? The Debate Over Authors' Use Of Sensitivity Readers]

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