Should you hire a sensitivity reader to scrutinize your novel?


When you write about things outside your experience, do you know what you’re talking about?

You’ve just finished a novel certain to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you’re particularly proud of one character, an individual not of your race, sexual orientation, and gender. You’ve struck a blow for diversity in literature, one of your core values. Blogger and consultant Mikki Kendall has a suggestion: If you think you’ve done a good job, get a second opinion. Hire a “sensitivity reader.”

Her idea is timely, given the national debate over transgender issues, racism in the justice system, and the possibility of a woman getting elected as president. And publishers want fiction with non-traditional characters, judging by literary agents’ Twitter postings with the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag.

A self-described “diversity consultant for fiction,” Kendall is a black woman in Chicago who identifies with the gender she was born with, that is, “cisgender.” In her post, she thunders against writers who perpetuate gender, racial, and other stereotypes and refuse to recognize what she believes is the harm they do to individuals and communities represented in those characters. “Art” is not an excuse to hurt people, deliberately or accidentally, “[b]ecause your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.”

Kendall does not cite examples, but the point is on target: Writers, like all humans, have blind spots, and even well-intentioned writers can screw things up for people they may be trying to help. To mitigate the danger, she advises hiring or at least showing the work to someone from the community you attempt to portray to ensure you haven’t encouraged the thing you’re combating.

On the surface, it’s a fine idea, but on reflection, I find it troubling.

Full disclosure: I’m a white, middle-aged male from lower middle-class background living in a privileged, rich, two-thirds-white city. I fit the stereotype of The Man pretty well. While I have libertarian sensibilities, I also vote almost exclusively Democratic, caucused for Bernie Sanders, and I’ve served on two non-profit boards, one of them as president. Maybe I don’t fit the stereotype as well as I thought.

Kendall’s first advice is Fiction 101: Do your research. If you don’t come from a perspective you hope to portray, or at least have significant experience with it, then read, talk, learn. Failure to conduct due diligence is simply lazy. However, a writer doesn’t have to hire a diversity specialist to check their work. In the modern publishing world, writers, particularly new writers, should hire a trained, experienced editor before self-publishing or submitting the work to agents or legacy publishers. I’m always amazed at the crap my editor finds, beyond stereotyped, one-dimensional, hackneyed characters, though you can’t assume an editor is automatically sensitive to these things. Again, due diligence is the key.

More important, however, is your motivation for hiring or recruiting a reader sensitive to portrayals of non-traditional characters. Are you doing it because you care about accuracy and moving society into a more tolerant future? Or are you afraid of defending your choices as a writer, and hope a reader can scrub your text of offense? Or perhaps you are crass enough to seek out an editor to squash text bugs because they might hurt sales?

Success at handling characters with backgrounds alien to your own starts with your inner voice. Is your choice for this character essential to the narrative? If I make this man Hispanic, or this individual trans-gender, what difference does it make in their lives and their relationships? If you do it just because you think its smart or popular, you’re pandering to the market. If you do it because it’s necessary to your ultimate storytelling goals, then go for it.

It’s too easy, I think, for writers to chase publishing trends or the issue of the day, instead of trusting their instincts about what they want to say. Employing a sensitivity reader might result in wise perspective, but it may be a reflection of a writer’s lack of self-confidence, or a fear that readers might reject controversial ideas, or trepidation at the prospect of swimming against the cultural tide. A writer should accept that he or she WILL offend somebody sometime. It’s the world you’ve chosen.

How to write a gripping news release for your new book

This is me writing a news release in 1947. Just kidding.

In my day job as communications director for a pair of tall ships, I write a lot of news releases, mostly announcing where the ships will be and when. Our non-profit company has no money for advertising, so we depend on local TV stations, newspapers, and bloggers to help us get the word out. I’m assuming that you, as an independent author, have little or no funds for a full-scale publicity campaign. Some of the techniques I’ve learned can help you get the attention of editors for your new book. You start with the tried-and-true of answering the basic questions: Who, what, when, where, how, and most importantly, why.

Who: Tell the editor who you are in one paragraph, sticking to facts relevant to your book. What other books have you written? How long have you been writing? What makes you qualified to write this book?

What: Tell the editor about your book in a single paragraph. What is the title? What is a one-sentence summary of your book? What is its genre? How long is it? What are the other books in the series?

When: The time elements of your news release take two forms, those related to the release of your book, and those related to promotional events, such as signings or readings. When will your book be available for purchase? When will you appear for author signings? (“Where” is also important for the latter element.) Continue reading

How to cope with criticism without losing your mind

Peanuts criticism cartoonGive someone half a chance, and he’ll criticize you for the smallest thing. People who read my manuscripts criticize the color of a character’s boots, or the choice of “a” over “the.” We give acres of screen space and paper to members of the chattering class who have nothing better to do than to point out our flaws. Critics can win a Pulitzer Prize, for Christ’s sake. Imagine this: Two Pulitzer winners standing on a stage, one the winner of the criticism award, who slammed the novel of the writer standing next to him, having just won the literature prize. Awkward!

The word “critic” implies finger-wagging in the popular culture. A more nuanced definition points out the critic’s role as an objective viewer who offers explanatory analysis. (Or he’s just a finger-wagger with a bigger vocabulary.) In the creative world, we have to put up with critics, and by the same token, reviewers. And in the literary world, criticism has become a pastime, rather than a vocation.

The new writer is especially vulnerable to critics. If the idea of someone criticizing your work terrifies you, here’s some ideas for coping.

It’s Never Personal. Well, almost never. I swear some of my reviewers were out to get me because I transposed two letters of their name or said they were 34 years old instead of 33. Lay off, already! Fortunately, the larger reality is comforting. The vast majority of people who pick nits don’t know you, and so the criticism can’t be personal. That’s especially true on Amazon and other online booksellers. Some critics just feel the need to speak their mind, no matter how empty it is. If you’re lucky enough to have friends and relatives who’ll give you honest feedback about your novel or poem without hurting your feelings, my hat’s off to you. On the other hand, you may have handed them the best passive-aggressive hate tool ever.

They’re Trying to Help. Most critics who offer positive suggestions are either loving friends and family or editors. An editor is a unique type of critic, in that he or she is paid to criticize you, and then must put up with whatever updated drek you send back to him or her for further criticism. I’ve had a few editors who had no idea what they wanted or what they were doing, and these people ought to be registered as instruments of torture.  It’s a joy to find a reader or an editor whose ideas actually improve a story or manuscript in substantive ways. Believe it or not, they’re out there.

Let It Roll Off Your Back. Like water off a duck’s feathers, that is. This is probably the hardest thing for new writers, or practically anyone who has to endure a review of some kind, to internalize. The trick is separating the facts and concrete suggestions from the emotionally charged packaging. We tend to focus on our own hurt feelings, even if the critic tries to let us down easy. For writers, it’s easy to withdraw after a bout of negative feedback. But then you’ll never build those emotional calluses that help us survive future onslaughts. Or you could just do what I do: Imagine that the critic wrote their review without their pants on. It’ll make your day.

How do you cope with criticism? Comment below.