The E2 Books Show

Sensitivity Readers - Are They Good for Literature?

January 09, 2020 Craig A. Hart, S. J. Varengo Season 1 Episode 6
The E2 Books Show
Sensitivity Readers - Are They Good for Literature?
Show Notes Transcript

Craig and Scott give their take on one of literature's more recent developments: the sensitivity reader, a person whose job it is to read a manuscript and let the author know how offensive it may be. Is this a good thing for literature?

spk_0:   0:01
you're listening to good sentences podcast that's guaranteed to tickle your literary ear holes and make you wish you'd listen to dear old mom when she said Toe put down those lawn darts and learn how to read. And now here your hosts, neither of whom listened to dear old mom. This is Craig A heart and S J. Baringo. And that brings us to the

spk_1:   0:34
mystery topic that I was teasing you with earlier. When we're talking about whether you like it or not, you and I talked. Oh, I like a private not too long ago about the emergence of sensitivity readers and that took us down several roads, and I was hoping we could explore some of the well, I'm out wth e. The microcosm issue is this specific thing, this invention, if you want to call it that of people who are like beta readers or advanced copy readers. But their specific goal is to read your book and then tell you all the things in it that are going to offend people. And from my point of view, that seems a little bit too much like censorship. I kind of feel like, you know, don't get me wrong. I lean in the liberal direction and almost all aspects of my life, but I feel like the paranoia over should I even open my mouth? Should I even write this story that I need to tell? Because I'm afraid someone's feelings they're going to get hurt or it's going to trigger an emotion or something like that. And it seems like books have been written for a very long time without worrying about that. I mean, can you imagine someone coming to Hemingway and saying, I'm going to be your sensitivity reader? Either punched him in the mouth. You know

spk_0:   2:07
when they're doing it now to his works? No, but he's not here. To defend himself is the problem. I completely agree with you. My politics are pretty mixed, like I have positions on the left eye positions more on the right. I have a lot in the middle, so I I feel very party list most of the time, which makes elections kind, while most not all elections are air difficult, sometimes you know for sure, but a lot of times elections are difficult for me because I I can see both sides of a lot of different issues, but as far as I'm concerned, this issue is also party lis. I don't really understand the what I kind of see and I want to get young, conspiratorial, but almost like an assault on free speech. You know, there's something to be said about getting better about respecting of the groups, particularly like historically marginalized groups way want to be sensitive. I don't think it's a bad thing to be nicer, but that that's not the point. The point in a free society is that you have the freedom to speak your mind, whether that is in verbally or in writing, because we're talking about mostly about writing, because that sense, what we are and the beauty of free speech when it's been practiced throughout history is that it does have a way of weeding out stupid people. And, you know, they say stupid things and they suffer the consequences. Generally speaking, and the good thing about that is that it'll having brought that to the public eye even through the actions of an idiot, allows us to talk about the issue. And that's a really bothers me, is not that I want people to say hateful things. But if you prevent all hateful things or things that are viewed as our current society to be hateful, which is another point I want to make later you prevent the conversation from taking place and

spk_1:   3:51
absolutely no problem. It is because there's probably thoughts and ideas that are waiting to be formed that are gonna happen during the dialogue. That won't happen if everybody's just sitting around being nice. You know what I'm saying? If everybody's worried completely that everything or anything that they say could potentially be offensive and, you know, like you said, there's a need for sensitivity and I'm all for it. But there are times when you're going tol talk about or write about things that someone is going to find offensive. I'll go ahead and and tell the specific story. As it applied to my book, The Count Caroline. I had a reviewer who very much enjoyed the first book, Beauty Bucharest, but was unable to finish the second book because there was a character in it who suffered abuse at the hands of friends of her father or acquaintances of her father At a young age starting at age 10 I did not write this because it's something. I think it's cool. I didn't write it because I wanted to, you know, tell us a story that would appeal to pedophiles. I wrote it because this is what happened to this character to make her what she became. It was crucial to the story, and I think I talked in the first interview a little bit about how difficult it was for me to write it, because I knew as I was writing it, Holy cow. This is a horrible thing to have gone through. But it made the character that it happened. To who she became, the character that happened to his Nicole Porter, who is the central figure in all of the stories. So to me, it was important early in the series for everyone t get a picture of what formed Nicole's mindset and allowed her to become an assassin.

spk_0:   5:47
Exactly, two responded, they having a couple points. One is that if you don't talk about really sensitive, horrible things that actually do happen in a way, you almost invalidate the experience of people who have had that. Now some people who have had that just don't want to hear about it. I mean, that's a trigger for them, and they just don't want to deal with it. I know I understand that I want her special, but there are other people, for example, people who have experienced some sort of sexual abuse. Sometimes hearing about those things that happened to other people makes them feel, and, you know, it makes you understand you're not alone. It's not normal, But there's nothing wrong with you, you know? I mean, it's it's on the person who did it, it's on the perpetrators. It's not on you, So there's that danger. The other thing is that by forcing conversations underground, you don't actually stop that from happening. You just keep them out of the public I and the danger behind that is that it breeds resentment from the people who feel a no longer have a voice. Also, by driving underground, you create a brand of extremism because when you take away the voice from a certain group of people, even groups that we may consider odious, you make them resentful and that creates a better brand of extremism, and it increases their ability to to recruit in some cases increases their appeal to other groups that may normally have been more moderate. But because they're faced with this culture of oppression in their eyes, they're going to react to that very strongly. The third thing would be that times change. So what things that are politically incorrect now may not be down the road. So there are a lot of people who are reacting to the current administration with a good deal of disgust. I mean, there are a lot of things going on that you don't care for right, and then they want them shut down. They don't let them to speak. They want to get a lot of restaurants. They want to do all this stuff. First of all, this one is that, you know, we should be the people we would want our opponents to be.

spk_1:   7:42
All right,

spk_0:   7:42
so that's the first thing. But that's kind of an aside for the other thing, though, is it? And this is the beauty of the principle of free speech, and why it's timeless is that it can exist regardless of the regime. And my point is, if we were to silence the people we disagree with now, later on. When the zeitgeist changes, there will be a precedent for that political culture to oppress us. And we will have been the ones who made that okay on. That's not, you know, this is why it's important to fight for the rights of others, to say things that we hate, you know, because it applies across data flies across the board. And the final thing I wanted to make on this particular point was, But literature has been key in almost every major social change, right, and a lot of it began in literature, and a lot of it was offensive when it first came out, and now we look back in like Albert actually was totally right. But if those people had not been allowed to write it, if they had been censored or lost their jobs or had their reputations ruined by writing it, we would be much worse off. Bad ideas have fallen, by the way, and bad ideas will continue to fall, by the way. But you cannot close it down and only let things through that you think are good without imposing a brain of censorship that I believe will have really dilatory its effects down the road.

spk_1:   9:01
I agree, and it and it's so insidious because, you know, it feels like, Yeah, I guess it's right not to talk about something if it's gonna hurt a lot of people's feelings and so forth. But then we stopped talking about it, But the behavior doesn't stop. The spotlight's just been pointed somewhere else. And so, by not talking about it, are we inadvertently encouraging?

spk_0:   9:26
It's just pretending it's not happening. It's like Lila, Lila, I don't like that. It's not going on now. You have to look at it. You have to observe the ugly. You have to confront the beast in order to defeat it, you know, and you're pretending it's not there in the room next to you is not going to solve the problem. It just makes you feel better for a time, and ultimately that monster's gonna grow larger and larger,

spk_1:   9:49
and he really is under the bed waiting for you to put your feet on the floor. And, you know, it hurts me to think that something I wrote hurt someone in this specific case I'm talking about. But that was one person, and I regret any bad feelings that it caused. But there was a much bigger group of people who said Wow, good job telling that story that was important. And it came down with this one person, two triggers and you talked about that and that's unavoidable. I think everybody has triggers in their lives. Everybody has had some sort of experience, whether you know, be be huge or whether it be minor, that five years down the road, something will happen. And you're right back there, you know? I mean, it's not even always a bad thing. You know, if you smell cookies, it reminds you Grandma Rail and you remember how much you love Grandma, how she spoiled you, rotten and and so that sort of trigger is a good one. But then when you know you've been through, ah, youth of essentially torture and you see someone else who's been through that, the first reaction very often is that unconscious reaction. I'm there again. I feel those feelings again. And yeah, you can understand someone you know in that situation being hurt by that. But is it necessarily a bad thing that they say Okay, well, let's stick with us for a minute and see where it goes, because ultimately Nicole conquered everyone that that did that to her. We'll save one woman. That's another

spk_0:   11:19
story. It's a serious folks Stay tuned. Yes,

spk_1:   11:24
exactly. And it was It was ultimately a story of victory for her. And I feel bad because, you know, the reviewer said that when she got to that part yet she stopped reading. She didn't finish the book, so she did not see the transition from victim to Victor. And that is what makes me feel worse about the whole thing. Is that you know, she didn't see someone conquer that part of their life because as soon as the topic came up, she closed the book.

spk_0:   11:53
And that's unfortunately as I think you and I both know that as writers, in order to part of the strategy on right and I'm not saying what you did was part of a strategy, but that you have to put your character into difficult situations so that they can then come out of that. There is no reason to write a book if the character doesn't have something to overcome. You know you can't just write about somebody having breakfast and lovely. The tea was for on exactly that. You just have, Ah, British novel from the mid 18 hundreds. E think one thing thing we can think about is, and it's difficult to say this because I am not in any way diminishing the experiences of victims. There are times when looking at a situation and saying there are things bigger than me, maybe helpful, that's all that's mean. That's been useful for me and again, that does not diminish the experience. It's just it is a strategy for survivors to take as a way, has a way of self preservation and and to realize that they are hard of something large or something larger. That is good and there are negative experience does not define them. One of the great ways to do that in whatever you're facing in life is to find books who lay this out. Fine literary characters, heroes and heroines who have taken this on and defeated similar issues. The library's full of even biographies and memoirs. You confined him actually being you don't necessarily have to rely on a fictional figure, he confined. People have written books about their own experiences, and if we're gonna cut out the fact that you cannot write about it. Then you say. Well, what were you gonna say? Unless you've actually experienced that, you can't write about it. Mean that doesn't make any sense either to me.

spk_1:   13:31
And how How does the reader know whether the author is experienced it or not, Right? Exactly. You can't No, I have no interest whatsoever in writing exploitative fiction about these topics. Because a lot of the stuff that you know that you see on a day to day basis is appalling. And it's nothing I would ever say. Wow, I'd really like to get into that topic and see all the ins and outs of it, But it might be something to say. I have an opportunity. I have a form where I could talk about this and expose this.

spk_0:   14:03
This is a key point to because, you know, we're in contact on a regular basis, and so I know. But that was not an easy thing for you to write. It was like, Yeah, there wouldn't be a hilarious, You know, it wasn't that, wasn't it at Oh,

spk_1:   14:18
remember, I struggled for several weeks on Yeah. Chapter.

spk_0:   14:22
Yeah, and I don't I don't think I'm certainly not in the mind of the person who was triggered by it. I don't presume to speak for them, but I don't think that the way you presented it, a was exploitative at all. It was just put out that consists would happen. It wasn't sensationalized. It wasn't romanticized. I mean, there

spk_1:   14:38
was really going to a lot of graphic D

spk_0:   14:41
it right? You're very different diplomatic, and you could have been given the fact that you're writing fiction and this was a a key point in the story to understanding Nicole. So I don't think you could get that idea in terms of exploitation from just reading that part. But you certainly. And this is why it's unfortunate that the reader didn't finish was that you certainly wouldn't have gotten that if you had read the entire book, because exploitative fiction does not a revel in victim overcoming their circumstances. That's right, that sort of anti exploitative way when you so show a hero's journey. So I wish that that person had read all the way through because I think that not only would they have had a different viewpoint, but they may have found it again. I don't want to be. I don't want to put myself in their mind for the May have found it helpful. Well, yeah, it is what it is a really mean the end of the day. We're both writers, and something's not gonna be for everybody. You know, people are going to take different things from it, and I want to make clear I'm not trying to invalidate the readers reaction to and

spk_1:   15:45
neither am I.

spk_0:   15:45
Yeah, no, certainly not eyes just a matter of time explaining where we're coming from and explaining maybe the role of fiction in a culture like ours, which in my opinion, is more vital now than it ever has been. Certainly with the fact that you've got indie publishing so on the rise and the the gatekeepers of the publishing world have largely been circumvented. I mean, this is like the perfect time to experience new voices, and we're not gonna be able to do that if we start ushering in my six censorship. That just sounds like a nuclear warning. But there is a danger of making people worried about speaking their truth, which is another phrase I hate. But we don't want to discourage that anyway. And certainly in literature, good