On February 19, Lionel Shriver wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian regarding the rise in the use of sensitivity readers. What follows is both my analysis and rebuttal.
Here is my direct link to the article. I’ll quote specific passages, but my intent is to go through it paragraph by paragraph, and since I can’t simply copy and paste the entire thing in here, you can use the link to refer to it.
Paragraph 1 – In which Lionel Shriver explains the writer/editor relationship to us.
Shriver, in her opening salvo, posits that it is the editor’s job to guide the writer, to “ensure that the author’s intentions are fully realised.” In this, she is both correct and incorrect. A good editor will do just as Shriver has said, but will also make sure that the writer’s intentions are worthy of being realized. A good editor can and will help guide an author who has gone off course, or point out a direction that the author may not have seen previously. A good editor doesn’t simply guide an author to their destination, a good editor questions whether that destination is the best destination, and guides the author appropriately.
Shriver then goes on to say that she’s gone against her editor’s advice numerous times, often without detriment. Which on the surface seems rational. No author working ever agrees with their editor all the time. But Shriver’s inclusion of this at the end of the first paragraph is a set up. She’s pushing the idea that she can disagree with her editor and that there are no repercussions. Which is false. A writer can certainly disagree with their editor. And an editor can choose not to push the issue. But the editor and publisher also have the right to choose not to publish the work should the author refuse edits. I’m not sure it happens often, but it does happen. A writer can refuse to make edits and can pull their work from the publisher, and a publisher can likewise cancel a contract should an author be inflexible about making edits. The more famous an author, the more likely that they can get away with it, but it’s not a consequence-free game.
Paragraph 2 – In which Lionel Shriver intentionally misrepresents the role of a sensitivity reader.
Shriver delivers the result of her paragraph 1 setup by saying, “It’s not clear that authors are equally free to ignore the censoriousness of ‘sensitivity readers’…” See what she did there? She started by telling us that she (and, by extension, other writers) could ignore their editors without repercussion, and then posits that the same lack of consequences could not be said of ignoring a sensitivity reader. Which is patently untrue. A writer who employs their own sensitivity reader, paying for it out of their own pocket, is under no obligation to take any of the advice given to them. And should a publisher choose to employ a sensitivity reader on the writer’s behalf, the same circumstances as apply to the editor/writer relationship I wrote about above.
I find it most egregious that Shriver chose to put quotation marks around marginalized groups in her definition of what a sensitivity reader does as if she’s unsure whether such groups even exist. I can assure Shriver that we do, in fact, exist. We are not “marginalized.” We are marginalized. She then goes on to talk about how sensitivity readers are employed before a book is acquired as if this is somehow a grave sin. Next, she’ll be advocating that we should avoid editing or fact-checking a book until after it’s published because an author’s words should go right to the people untouched by anyone.
Shriver mentions that while sensitivity readers are most often employed by those seeking publication in children’s or YA publishing, “lately mainstream media have consistently drifted toward pandering to the thin-skinned.” And she laments that “grownup fiction” may be the next target.
Let’s unpack that, shall we? First of all, there’s a reason we don’t routinely call members of the gay community “faggots” anymore. It’s not because we’re thin-skinned. It’s because it’s fucking insulting, and we’ve earned the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and most civilized members of our society have recognized that. Calling someone who doesn’t want to be denigrated “thin-skinned” proves simply that Shriver believes she is better than others and doesn’t have to abide by the rules of polite society. That said, as a writer, I also understand that words, even words we find insulting, have their place in literature. I have used the word “fag” in my own work because it felt necessary. At the same time, I also understand that doing so means accepting criticism from those who disagree with me. But that’s something Shriver seems unable and unwilling to do. She seems to believe that she (and other authors) live in a world beyond criticism. That because we create art, we should be exempt from being criticized for the art we create. She is wrong. I’ll get into why later.
Paragraphs 3 and 4 – In which Shriver attempts to deflect criticism of her own work.
Not much to be said here. These weak paragraphs are simply Shriver’s attempt to position her detractors as mealy-mouthed and weak, and herself as a rebel who takes on “polarising issues” and is thus “apt to step on a few toes.” But what she fails to realize here is that it is quite possible to be polarizing without being a total jackass. Ann Leckie’s brilliant Imperial Radch trilogy definitely ruffled some feathers by exploring issues of gender and race and rampant nationalism while also being sensitive to the very issues she was exploring.
Paragraph 5 – In which Shriver bemoans the chilling effect sensitivity has on the creative process.
“At the keyboard, unrelenting anguish about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and constipates creativity.” Shriver spends this entire paragraph discussing how thinking about the effect a writer’s work might have on others leads to a lack of creativity, a stifling of the process and writers giving up just to avoid the humiliation of having their hands slapped if they get anything ‘wrong.'” While I won’t deny that this is the message writers like Shriver seem to take from the discourse regarding sensitivity, it makes so many flatly wrong assumptions that it boggles my mind.
When I was working on At the Edge of the Universe, my agent called me out for writing a character in a way that was racist. Tommy and his mother, both of whom are black, spoke in a southern style. I’d developed an entire backstory for them, where they’d come from, why they spoke that way. I’d developed the manner of speech based on my own family. They sounded like my family did. But my agent pointed out that as Tommy and his mother are the only major black characters in the book, it didn’t read like I was writing southern-style speech, but rather like I was making a bad attempt to write the way I thought black people spoke. She knew that wasn’t my intention. I knew that wasn’t my intention. But a reader wouldn’t. And I saw the harm that could come from not making changes. Not to me. But to the readers I was attempting to connect to.
Now, in that situation, I could have done a lot of things. I could have chosen to leave it and hope that readers understood my intention. I could have changed Tommy and his mother, made them white and kept the southern slang. Ultimately I chose to rewrite Tommy’s and his mother’s dialogue. And rather than stifling my creativity, doing so forced me to be more creative. To find better ways to incorporate the backstory I’d created for Tommy and his mother. Ways that allowed me to show readers where they’d come from without being a racist shithead.
The most telling part of what Shriver says here is the fear of being called a racist (or homophobic or ableist) rather than fear of actually being a fucking racist. She doesn’t care if what she writes actually hurts people, she only cares about not being called out for it. But no one is immune to criticism. No one should be immune to criticism. I used to have this idea that being gay meant I couldn’t possibly be racist or misogynistic or ableist. I imagined that being gay meant I understood where members of other marginalized communities were coming from. I was mistaken. Majorly mistaken. And knowing I was mistaken doesn’t mean I haven’t or won’t screw up in the future. But I’m not concerned with being called racist or sexist or misogynistic. I’m concerned with trying not to be those things. Not to write them. And when I do those things—and I will—my goal won’t be damage control. It won’t be to rail against those who call me out on my bullshit and to make specious claims that being called out stifles my creativity. It will be to shut up, listen, and learn so that I can try not to make the same mistakes again.
Paragraph 6 – In which Shriver mocks those with eczema.
Again, Shriver fails to recognize the point. She sees any criticism of her as an assault on her “rights” to write whatever she wants, no matter how harmful. She doesn’t care about the subjects she writes about, only about herself. I mean, why should those suffering from terminal illnesses actually get to have a say in the literature written about them? The hubris Shriver exhibits shows a severe lack of empathy regarding people in general. If you, a writer, are not willing to truly listen to and understand the very people you’re writing about, you have no fucking business writing about them. Period.
Paragraph 7 and 8 – In which Shriver attempts to undermine the authority of a sensitivity reader first by questioning their moral authority then by insinuating they’re just in it for the cash.
Shriver says, “As a woman, I’d be uneasy about being given the power to determine what is insulting to women in general.” And, frankly, I’d be uneasy allowing Shriver to determine what is insulting to anyone ever. But her argument here is an attempt to ask the question, “What gives you the right to determine what’s offensive?” What she fails to address is that no single person is the arbiter of what is offensive. Whereas there are books about gay characters I find horribly insensitive, other gay men don’t find them so. Does that mean she has a point? Yes and no. Yes, because what is offensive to one member of a marginalized group may not be offensive to another. But no because any writer who seeks out one opinion and calls it a day is a moron. If you’re a straight writer writing about gay teens and you ask only one gay person to read it, you’re doing yourself and your readers a disservice. You don’t just seek out one person’s opinion. Seek many. Do your fucking homework! Doctoral candidates don’t base their entire thesis on one source, so why should you base your character on only one? Get real!
But Shriver wants it to seem like this is how it is. That one voice from one marginalized group has the ability to shut down a book. Ask any black woman if that’s true and see how fast she laughs in your face. Shitty books with shitty representation get published all the time. They get called out and criticized, and then still go on to sell a million copies. Shriver wants to frame the argument as Us versus Them, but she’s the one with the privilege. She’s the one publishing books. She’s the one making money. You think there are any sensitivity readers out there getting rich off this? Shriver is sitting on her throne criticizing people who are trying to help make books better while she gets to keep on publishing her shitty work.
Paragraph 9 and 10 – In which Shriver attempts to link sensitivity reading to full-on censorship.
“There’s a thin line between combing through manuscripts for anything potentially objectionable to particular subgroups and overt political censorship.” Shriver’s attempt here is to make the point that the real world is messy. People are horrible and say rude things and are racist. She’s not wrong. People are horrible. They do horrible things. They say horrible things. But she’s also attempting to subvert the issue with pretty weak straw man argument.
Most people, I would assume, understand that the word “fag” isn’t okay to use. Yet there are people who still use it. They use it as a joke or as an insult. That’s life. I’ve been called a fag. I’ve been called a fag by people looking to insult me or antagonize me. I’ve been called a fag by friends who thought it was okay to use because they see themselves as allies and therefore believe I understand they don’t mean anything by it. But, generally, I think we can agree it’s not okay to use. Does that mean we can’t use it in a book? Of course not, despite what Shriver is trying to suggest.
Imagine I wrote the following exchange:
“Did you do your homework?” I asked.
John shook his head. “No.”
“Mrs. Smith is going to be pissed.”
John rolled his eyes. “Why do you care? You’re such a fag.”
A sensitivity reader would probably point to that and suggest using a different word. Shriver would probably rail against the suggestion, claiming people use words like that in real life and she has every right to do the same. But the question she should be asking is why she chose that word? Why is it necessary? What impact might it have on a gay teen reading it? A writer who asks those questions might choose to change the word. Does it alter the exchange if John calls the narrator an asshole or a suck up instead? It could, if the author is trying to imply that John is homophobic. So how could a writer go about using such a slur in a way that’s not harmful? Well, they’d have to be creative (something Shriver seems to think sensitivity makes impossible). They could do something like this:
“Did you do your homework?” I asked.
John shook his head. “No.”
“Mrs. Smith is going to be pissed.”
John rolled his eyes. “Why do you care? You’re such a fag.”
David punched John in the shoulder. “Dude, not cool.”
Oh look! One line. One line to show that John is an asshole for calling the narrator a fag and that it’s not okay. It’s creativity at work, folks! Shriver says, “Fiction won’t help younger readers to make sense of their real lives, if in books…transsexuals never regret transitioning.” I’m not even going to pretend Shriver didn’t know the use of “transsexual” in this context is offensive. She knows. Just like she knows that the problem isn’t with writers writing about transgender individuals who might regret transitioning, but rather with how those same writers approach the topic. See, writers like Shriver just want to write what they want without having to do their homework. All these arguments she’s making are just excuses to keep writing poorly-researched, stereotypical, two-dimensional characters without having to face the consequences of doing so.
I don’t write coming-out stories because I’ve read so many of them and they’re mostly terrible. They’re cliche. They feature the same tired tropes. Boy lusts after hot straight guy. Boy tells girl best friend he’s gay. She probably has a thing for him. Boy’s parents find out. Boy gets kicked out of house. Sympathetic adult takes him in. Hot straight boy is actually gay. You know how many times I’ve seen this tired old narrative? Too fucking many times. And it’s almost always straight writers writing them because they’ve watched a couple of movies and they have a gay best friend or nephew or uncle. But does that mean no one should be able to write coming-out stories? No. Does that mean I think straight writers can’t write coming-out narratives? Nope. I think Becky Albertalli wrote a wonderful coming-out narrative with Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda. You know what the difference was? She did her damn homework. And it shows in her book.
Then Shriver goes on to list books and shows that wouldn’t have been made now. Of course, I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong there. I’ve traveled a lot in the last year. In nearly every hotel I could always find either Friends or Modern Family playing. You know what I noticed about watching Friends now? Chandler, who was supposed to be the comic relief, is a fucking creep. He’s a full on sexist creep. If they were making Friends now, he would have probably been gay (like it was originally intended). Because, guess what?, times change. We learn, we grow. That’s not censorship, it’s wisdom. We’ve learned that, here in the United States, the greatest terrorism threat we face isn’t from Muslims, but from fundamentalist Christian white men. So while Shriver is correct that some of those books wouldn’t have been published or shows created (or they would have been done differently), that’s not a bad thing. It’s called progress. And the only people railing against that are the people who want to keep living in their world where it’s okay to be a shitty person without consequences.
Paragraph 11 – Now we’re Soviet Russia because sensitivity = communism
So now Shriver has gotten to the point where sensitivity is stifling the rights of writers to publish shitty books. Boo-fucking hoo, Shriver. She mentions the case of Kiera Drake, who’s book The Continent was postponed because it featured racially offensive stereotypes. In Shriver’s world, it’s a bad thing that a publisher recognizes a racially offensive book and pulls it to try to make it better. She says, “Poor Keira is probably sweating it out in some Manhattan gulag.” When the truth is that Drake’s sales, when the book releases, probably won’t suffer. In fact, the controversy will likely help her sales in the long run. The Continent likely would have been just another fantasy on a shelf crowded with them and faded into obscurity. But now people are talking about it. They know the name. Those who might have passed it by will now probably buy it just to see how bad it really is. I’m sure Drake will be suffering all the way to the bank. My sincere hope is that Drake, unlike Shriver, makes a sincere effort to listen and understand why her book was problematic, and to make positive changes to The Continent and any future books. Time will tell.
Paragraph 12 – In which Shriver makes a promise I hope to god she keeps.
Not much here. Just Shriver equating being offensive to being daring. Which is bullshit. One can be daring without being offensive. I think what Shriver lacks is the creativity to see how to do that.
To sum up, Shriver’s entire argument rests on the notion that paying attention to what we write, that being sensitive to the cultures and groups we write about, stifles creativity. She’s wrong. Because if all you can do is fall back on old stereotypes and tropes when you’re writing, it’s not sensitivity that’s stifling your creativity, but a lack of it.
Shriver ends her essay with this choice line, “The day my novels are sent to a sensitivity reader is the day I quit.” To which I say: Dear God, someone make that happen ASAP. That day can’t come fast enough.