Here’s a dirty little secret – almost no writers sit down at the keyboard (or with pen in hand, if you’re a retro kind of person), open the channels to the muse, and let flow a stream of writing that becomes the final product. Between blank page and finished product there are a lot of stages, some of which include input from other people. Generally we call those people beta readers. They read a work in progress and provide feedback. What the writer does with that feedback varies from person to person and suggestion to suggestion.
While most beta readers are just that – readers – sometimes you might need a beta with a particular background to provide feedback on a story. Writing a sci-fi story set largely in a genetics lab? You might want to have someone who’s worked in one read through it, just to make sure the little detail ring true. Writing a fantasy story that involves a lot of swordplay? Might want to have someone who knows about such things give it a read to make sure characters aren’t treating broadswords like fencing foils (or vice versa).
So it’s not a surprise that, as writers start to concern themselves more with diversity in their work, that a new crop of betas is emerging – sensitivity readers:
These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.
On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create ‘outside of [their] experiences.’
While critics may bemoan such a development as just another example of political correctness run amok, the Slate article points out that it’s really down to the oldest of Western motivations – the profit motive. Younger readers, in particular, desire more diversity in their fiction, so this is a way to provide a product they want to read.
Besides, the ultimate issue with any beta reader’s feedback isn’t the feedback itself, it’s what the author does with it. For example, one author in the article talks about how she changed some bits involving a black college student because the feedback from beta readers was that students at historically black colleges wouldn’t speak the way she had the character speaking. It’s not a matter of offense, it’s a matter of trying to portray something unfamiliar as accurately as possible.
Having said that, the very subjectivity of the undertaking makes it kind of hit or miss. That’s obvious from a distinction the author of the Slate story makes:
Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author. If Lolita had been written from Dolores’ point of view, Ireland said, “it might be useful to have an advocate of children’s rights, a childhood sexual assault survivor, or a psychologist read the manuscript and give critique”; but since it was told from the perspective of a pedophile—not regarded as a marginalized group—that wasn’t necessary. Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?
Buried in that interesting observation is the whopper that pedophiles are “not regarded as a marginalized group.” In an already marginalized bunch (criminals), pedophiles are at the bottom of the heap. Consider the ongoing registration requirements for people convicted of such offenses, the closest thing the 21st Century has to a scarlet letter. That all may be for the good (a discussion for a different time), but to say they’re not regarded as marginalized is so erroneous that it questions the entire endeavor.
Which is a shame, because I think the development of sensitivity readers is, in general, a good thing. At the very least, it’s a tool for writers who want to do their utmost to tell a story that doesn’t offend anyone. More likely, it lets writers who aren’t part of a particular socio-economic, ethic, or racial group bring more diversity to their work by providing valuable feedback about characters they might otherwise not be familiar with. Like anything else, a sensitivity beta reader is a tool for a writer to use. Whether it’s a tool wisely used is, in the end, up to the writer.