From time to time the topic of sensitivity readers comes up in my writing circles, and naturally most artists I know in the independent world balk at the concept. I tend to agree — I think it’s a scam of a few people who are telling people what’s okay and what’s not to write, which amounts to a soft censorship. As Big Publishing adopts this more and more, we’re going to get more watered down, monotone sounding books as a result.
What’s occurred in the fantasy and science fiction field over the last decade, and has recently trickled into YA is this: there’s a few active book bloggers who are extremely negative, extremely bitter, and scream at people if the book doesn’t match what their utopia worldview of phony skin-deep diversity looks like. These book bloggers have armies of readers ready to go onto a book’s amazon or goodreads page and torch the author and work with fake reviews without even having read the book.
Publishers, attempting to be business-minded, met this shrieking with a smile, trying to get good reviews out of this cabal for their books, promising and virtue signalling that they will make a “commitment to diversity.” You started seeing calls for women and minority authors more often, and then projects where only women and minorities were invited to work on projects. At first it was a “hey, we’re just giving equal representation” concept, which was innocuous enough, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As time went on, the innocuous publishers were replaced with some of these more rabid people from the book blogosphere in editorial decisions, and the entire industry came to a point where it actively attempts to blackball and discriminate against white, male, Christian or Conservative authors. If you’re a mix of those, your chances of being published diminish significantly — if you’re all of them, consider yourself blackballed.
In content itself, the conversation shifted in the last year away from one of “you should include a diverse representation of characters”, which I always found to be fine. Depending on your world, it makes sense to have the people you’d see in a day to day environment now in the future extrapolated. I take exception with putting token representation into historical fiction or alt-history, as it comes across as really forced and it’s inaccurate, but for visions of the future, having different characters from different backgrounds feels natural. I feel like Firefly accomplished this without sounding preachy, and created a cool setting with it, for example.
But now it’s “you’re culturally appropriating.” Now a white Christian writer isn’t allowed to put those cultures in the work, but simultaneously their work is constantly being hammered as “not representative enough.” It’s not about actual content anymore, it’s about censoring a certain class of individuals listed above. And that’s where this is dangerous.
A writer should be able to write what they want. If you want to write a message, do it. If you want to write about other cultures, do it. If you want to make the villain in your book an allegory for Muslim terrorists, that is just as valid as every villain being a type-A white male that we see in almost every book and film these days. Most of the time fiction isn’t about a message, and one’s overly-read into it to the point where it’s absurd. I took a lot of flack for being “too anti-corporate” in my debut novel for example, to the point where I had people calling me a fraud for actual my political/religious identity. That’s a prime example of reading too much into a villain (though I mean… big corporations are pretty bad, that’s kinda the point of this article too!).
I don’t believe in censoring myself, and I don’t want other writers to censor themselves either. It’s very easy to see how this creeps in from “you must have representation” to “you can’t write about that culture because you’re appropriating!” These mandatory diversity ploys aren’t concerned with actual diversity at all, but with forcing social justice politics into every aspect of our lives. There’s a reason that in the science fiction elite spheres you don’t see many Hispanic writers for instance. If you think it’s because Big Publishing underrepresents Hispanics intentionally, you’re dead wrong. It’s because the biggest name hispanic authors are all politically conservative, and that doesn’t fit their narrative agenda. The applause for “diversity” only applies to those who play up their identity grievances with the right politics.
The only way to put a stop to this is to mock the concept of sensitivity readers. Mock the concept of cultural appropriation. If you think about it — all cultures appropriate, that’s how culture works. You take what is good for your society from the zeitgeist around you and extrapolate on it. That’s what fiction is. Instead of fretting, openly and unabashedly culturally appropriate and be insensitive in your work.
Don’t care what anyone thinks except for your readers. They’re all that matter. Chances are, if you’re having fun and telling a compelling story, they’ll like it too and won’t give two craps about whether you’re culturally appropriating.