Debut Author lessons: Sensitivity readers and why I pulled a project.

This entry is part 21 of 21 in the series Debut Author Lessons

There are some things you need to understand about yourself and about how community works, before you approach a reader and truly, before you even start the project in which you plan to represent a marginalized community. It’s good, and important, to want to represent people who are outside your experience, but it’s hard work.

  1. You have to be willing to kill the project. If you aren’t, then you’re just asking for a stamp of approval or someone to blame. It is neither easy, nor pleasant to kill a project. I’ve done it. I’m still upset about it, but that means only one person is upset. Being willing to kill the project doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it.  But… if you are going to prioritize your own feelings on a subject, as someone outside a community, over the feelings of people inside the community, then maybe that’s not something you should be writing in the first place.
  2. Culture is not a monolith. You need a variety of people from within that community. One person alone won’t do it. This is like asking me to be a sensitivity reader for white culture. If it’s set in the South, sure. But a book that is set in North Dakota? Not a chance. I’ve driven through the state.
  3. Internalized oppression is very real. People in positions of privilege tend to not understand how someone who is demographically part of a group, might have views that are consistent with the dominant group. Let me give you an example that is not emotionally loaded. England used to be a colony of the Roman Empire. There’s Latin on our money. Greco-Roman inspired architecture is still highly valued. Roman numerals are still taught in school. The classics. And you don’t notice any of it because it is such an ingrained part of society now. That’s the lingering touch of colonialism. That’s how firmly embedded internalized oppression can be that it can last for generations. So when you’re asking your sensitivity readers to look at your work, it’s important to choose people who are conversant with controversies in their community.
  4. Kindness is deadly. If you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to enjoy something, right? So friends who like you might give you a pass for something, that they’d call out someone else on. Try to get readers who don’t know you, in addition to ones who do.
  5. It is exhausting. If I’m asking someone to just beta-read, that’s one thing. But if I’m asking them to work with me to understand a culture that I don’t belong to, what I’m asking for is tutoring. I pay $3 per page when I hire someone. So if someone turns me down, that’s because $3 a page isn’t worth it the headache that I’m going to bring. That’s on me, not on them. I may not like it, but it’s still not their responsibility. ETA: I use a ton of beta-readers before I sell it. After it’s sold, part of my advance goes to hiring someone to do a deep-focus read.
  6. You are in a position of power. I know it doesn’t feel like that, but see line item 7 again. Everyone exists on multiple axes of power. On the race axis, I’m white and at the dominant end. On the gender axis, I’m on the feminine end, which is towards the subordinate end, but not as far along the axis as if I were a trans woman. As a writer, you shape the world. This is a position of power. For your reader to tell you that you’ve screwed up, is not easy, particularly if they occupy the subordinate end of multiple axes. A single voice that is telling you “no” probably represents a larger number of voices who just weren’t didn’t have the energy to spend reading in the first place.
  7. Own your mistakes. When you screw up, and you will, you have to own the mistake. It’s on you. It’s no one else’s fault for not catching it, or not having the energy to educate you. Apologize. Correct. Make amends.
  8. The controversy won’t hit just you. This was the one that was hardest for me to grasp. It’s easy to worry about “What if I get it wrong?!?!” and “What if people get angry at me!?!” What is harder goes back to bullet point #2. Culture is not a monolith. If you are writing about something that is outside your community and controversial, that controversy and the conversation surrounding it will hit all the people in that community. Worse than that, the things you got wrong are probably things that you inherited from a systemic system of oppression, which means that you are reinforcing that oppression in the public consciousness. And that doesn’t hit you. That hits only the community you’re writing about.
  9. It’s not fair. No. It’s not. That’s what systemic oppression is. The tiny little piece that you have to deal with, by putting in extra work, or money? Compare that to living in a marginalized community for your entire life. It’s not fair, but you aren’t the one being marginalized or oppressed.
  10. You have to be willing to kill the project. You’ve done all that. You’ve done everything “right” and then you still get someone who says that the project is a problem. I’ve had this happen. I had 20+ readers on a project and one of the last four, in the final pass, said that the project was problematic. I pulled it. I was not, by any measure, happy about this. I was angry and bitter and grieving. Truly, I still am. But I still pulled it, because ultimately it’s not my community and any damage that occurs is going to hurt more people than just me.

All of this is hard. It is work. It is tempting to look at that giant list and think that it’s not worth it to even try. If you take that lesson from this, you’ve learned the wrong thing. It is better to try, to fail, and to pull the project, than to continue on in ignorance. I learned a ton writing the project that I pulled and that, honestly, is worth it. I may be upset, but the time and money was not wasted. What you need to know about yourself is if you can handle it. Can you handle the work? Can you handle deciding not to publish something? And if you’re willing to do the research for spaceships, why not for people? If you’re willing to not publish something because there’s a structural flaw, why not for people?

It’s hard. It’s worth it. Regardless of the outcome. You’re a writer. Writers have power. Use your power for good.

Resources:

Commenting ground rules.

  • NO ONE TELL ME THAT I SHOULDN’T HAVE PULLED THE PROJECT.
  • I will not discuss the project, so don’t ask or speculate.
  • If you have resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.
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22 Responses

  1. Karla

    That’s a very sensitive approach and I like it!

    Definitely be ready to pull a project (advice so nice it should be said twice…) it’s important to do so if your work misses the mark and just can’t be fixed.

    As for the 1 out of 20 people that objects to the project… that’s a toughie.

    It’s tough to think that one person’s view is the one that you need to value so highly, when you ‘get 19/20 passes’. The problem could be a concern that goes to the heart of the project, or made by someone with particular insight into an issue the other commenters may not have. I suppose you need to really think about why that dissenting person’s view is important and what they, in particular, bring to the table. Perhaps even run it by the other 19 to have their thoughts – they might change their previous view.

    It would be so easy to say, well, 19 people thought is was fine and go ahead with the project. You can then end up being insulting/demeaning and contributing to problems when you ‘thought’ you did all of the right things. But you really did not listen properly to the very people you asked for help…

    Definitely food for thought.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Right, you have to weigh everything. And sometimes, you might decide to go ahead with the project. But at the end of the day, that’s the choice you’re making. Are you willing to publish something that is damaging? Even if it is only damaging to a small group?

  2. Atrus

    From your post it seems you tend to err on the side of caution, pulling a project even if only one person said it was problematic. But what if other persons from the same community said it was not just OK, but they they loved it, or found it empowering? What’s the cut-off point?

    I have a couple projects in mind where reaction from the portrayed community was wildly mixed, and I do wonder: is the “it saved my life” of one person worth the “it’s problematic” of another, and vice versa?

    (I can name the examples if you like; I was vague to avoid derailment)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      When you hand the story to someone in the first place, you’re doing so because you trust them. You have to have already made the decision to pull the book if it’s damaging, before you hand it to them.

      Believe me, I struggled with this, too. Still do, because, yeah, I had twenty people in the community telling me that they liked it. But… you know how you give a story to readers and sometimes they don’t get back to you with feedback? Usually, you just chalk that up to people being busy. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t like it. In my case, the reason I kept handing it to different readers looooong after the project was sold was that I knew that there was a problem, I just couldn’t identify it.

      But with sensitivity readers, if they don’t respond — the chances are high that they want to tell you “no” and are afraid of how you will take it, or don’t have the energy to educate you. So that single person who said “no” probably represents more than that.

      1. Nu

        “But with sensitivity readers, if they don’t respond — the chances are high that they want to tell you “no” and are afraid of how you will take it, or don’t have the energy to educate you.”

        Very true, as I’ve done that myself. Not only because I doubted that I could educate an author starting at less than zero, as far as knowledge, meaning that they were stereotyping and looking down on the community in question, without compassion– but also because you never know if an author will respond well. I don’t have the energy to field author rage in addition to offline life.

  3. Nicholas Conte

    I admire your courage for pulling a project it sounds like a rough choice. My question is when deciding on a sensitivity read how do you chose where along that spectrum to ask for help? If for example you use Transgender issues in your story- that’s a large and varied community. Do you just ask someone similar to your protagonist or do you look for the marginalized voices within that community to make sure you aren’t reinforcing something hurtful?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      You do both. A single reader isn’t going to be able to answer everything. For instance…

      You’re a man. Can you describe male culture to me? What’s it like to be a man? Specifically, how do you handle ballroom dancing, as a man? Also, my character is an astrophysicist. Can you explain what it’s like, as a man, to have to balance ballroom dance and astrophysics while still trying to cater to societal expectations of manhood? How often do you go to the gym? Can you explain cricket to me?

      You get what I mean, right? Some of that you can answer from your own lived experience. Some you can speculate on. And some… some you got nothing because it’s not part of your lived experience.

  4. SARA DAVIS

    “if you’re willing to do the research for spaceships, why not for people?” That is so true, if one recognizes reality – which is getting the spaceship wrong isn’t so big a deal.

    I mess up the spaceship, I can brush it off as “in that universe it works that way”. I can even join the banter about technicalities without anyone being all that put out. But as all of your points so eloquently illustrate – with humans and social injustice it’s not so.

    It was an incredibly strong thing to pull the project. I salute you for doing something I wonder if I could have done. When you have invested so much in something, it is so very easy to rationalize away something that feels sort of insubstantial because you don’t experience it.
    And so much of the social and systemic injustice that exists today is ingrained and subtle and so very easy to ignore.

  5. Jay Hartlove

    When Julia Child famously answered how she approaches cooking with, “Courage!” I think she meant not only the courage to try new things but also the courage to accept your limitations. If a writer is just not comfortable speaking for a group, then maybe that writer isn’t the right one to tell that story. Thank goodness active writers get lots of ideas. I applaud your courage.

    I covered this same ground when I decided Voudou had been misrepresented by American popular culture. I made the detective in my thriller series a black Voudoun woman psychiatrist. I needed an educated, scientifically minded POV character with extraordinary spiritual insight. I did my research, for years – I owed it to the topic. But there came a point where I asked myself this same question – what right do I have, a white, Episcopalian man, to stand in the shoes of this character so different from me, and was I risking misrepresenting and appropriating and doing disservice? Ultimately I decided my research gave me the right to try to improve the zeitgeist by showing what I could of how this vibrant faith serves its believers. If the room hadn’t been so dark to begin with, I might have had a harder time deciding I had the right to be the one holding the flashlight.

    I hope this helps. Being a caring, conscientious person is hard work. Keep up the great work.

  6. Todd Thorne

    I’ll toss in one other related point to be prepared for, one I’ve personally encountered. There can be much tension over what right an author outside of a disaffected group has to attempt to write sensitively regarding and ultimately profit off of said group. Besides the “You don’t belong and cannot speak for us.” factor, occasionally the perception can be that you somehow stole an opportunity away from a group member to tell that story, possibly in a more meaningful and accurate way, thereby earning the resulting acclaim and rewards for themselves.

    All of Mary’s points in this post are an attempt to mitigate the above reaction. But sometimes it won’t be enough, no matter what. And, when encountered, it won’t seem logical to you. It isn’t. Nothing about oppression or its aftermath ever makes sense. No more than the notion does that there are a finite number of stories to tell and you just used one up that should have been written by another.

    I’ll be the first to admit that more voices need to be published from disaffected groups. To help get there, more stories need to circulate about disaffected groups, creating curiosity, interest and demand. That’s the part we, as outsider authors, can play. You cannot change the plight or history of the group. But you can elevate them higher into mainstream attention, perhaps opening up precious opportunities for actual members to come forward, speak and be heard.

    It’s why you should try.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      The issue with displacing writers from a marginalized group is a very real problem. My points above are in no way intended to mitigate that, and frankly, can’t.

      There are ways to mitigate this, but the unfortunate problem with systemic marginalization is that the person at the dominant end of the spectrum will always have a leg up on the ladder. It is a mistake to think that their work will displace someone from within a group because “more meaningful and accurate.”

      It might be more palatable to the dominant group, which is not the same as accurate. For example… Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written to try to elevate the plight of the enslaved people in the American South. It received a great deal of attention and acclaim. It is not accurate.

      1. Todd Thorne

        You’d think I’d learn to down a cup of coffee before replying early in the morning. Apologies, Mary, for my lack of clarity. My comment about mitigation was strictly in regards to the “You don’t belong to the group and aren’t entitled to speak for it” reaction, one that sometimes can be knee-jerk. All of the measures and considerations you mentioned might help overcome such an instantaneous rejection when an outsider author reaches out regarding a project. After all, what the author is doing is asking for help representing the disaffected group appropriately, accurately and significantly in their piece.

        In some cases, it won’t be enough. For some people, the outsider author can never represent the group and shouldn’t attempt it. That’s their right to feel that way. A debut author should be prepared to encounter it.

        1. Lillith

          Yeah. I’m going to chime in as one of those marginalized people who thinks that those outside of the LGBT community or Black community don’t have the right to speak for those inside the group. It’s a desire‚ and an admirable one when done with great sensitivity towards said group. But not a right. Not when we as a society deny authors belonging to marginalized groups the right of writing their own stories in favor of ones meant to signal boost an issue.

          It’s not about the perception of stealing from the group‚ but about a writer checking their privilege when deciding whether to go forward with a story. Part of that is realizing someone inside the group may be able to lend the same accuracy as you‚ maybe more‚ and likely more nuance on top of that. Nuance that comes from living with something every day when we ourselves don’t. Then there’s realizing that sometimes‚ as much as you desire to tell the story and research you’ve done‚ you may not be the right one to tell a certain kind of story. That it just isn’t clicking with the intended audience or not coming together for you as a writer no matter how much you want it to. Writing and sharing that writing with others is about reaching your audience‚ about communication. Even fiction.

  7. Jerol Johnson

    Um, trying not to be a pendant but how did you drive through North Dakota and manage to miss all the Native American reservations. OK, maybe 1-94 would do that but still, that population is not insubstantial.

    On the whole I must say I love this piece. I’m trying to write this fantasy book where all the humans are generally shades of brown and I am constantly fretting that I’m going to screw this up.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      …I keep staring at this, trying to understand what you are correcting me about. I drove through on I-94, but even if I didn’t, I’m not clear on how pointing out the Native America population is related to my point about white cultures not being a monolith. The South also has Native American populations, but I don’t mention those either. So, can you clarify your point?

  8. Ella

    I’m in a situation where I *am* part of a community, and said community is still going to skewer me and the book if it’s ever published, simply because that’s what they do. LOL. They fight about everything.

  9. Lilia Visser

    Started reading the comments and decided to stop after the first, so that I can give MY honest opinion.

    I guess the most important thing about killing any project or changing it has to do with how you – as an author/writer/reader/seller /photographer – feels about it.

    I’m not talking only about being a writer but being someone that brings a message to the world, a group of people or even just for yourself. Do you feel the insight/critique has a merit? Why do you feel that? How does it resonate with you? Are you aware of what you have been doing/writing/showing? What do you want to achieve with what you’re doing? Do you have a goal? Do you need a goal? Do you want to have a goal? Are you achieving what you put yourself to do?

    And then the most important question: are you willing to live with the consequences of what you put/bring to the world?

    I guess if you can ask those questions to yourself and answer them truthfully you’re half way through.

  10. Craig Laurance Gidney

    What a brave, important and painful post.
    A couple of thoughts….

    1. As an author of color, sometimes I get things wrong in what is ostensibly my own community. As you say, Culture is not monolith, and marginalization doesn’t make you immune from making mistakes.

    2. “Killing” a project may sound harsh. But you can take what your learned from the “killed project” and apply it to future (and/or) current projects. I learn from my failures.

  11. Peter Ellis

    It is hard for any artist when they realize a work has a “fatal flaw”. My condolences for your loss.

  12. Reanne

    Honestly, reading this post just reinforces to me my practice of only writing people of ethnic/religious/cultural groups that I’m either a part of or have enough personal experience with to understand pretty thoroughly. I guess I’m just lazy and don’t like to research. Same reason I write things set in contemporary America or some fantasy world I make up. I’d love to write historical fantasy some day but I haven’t yet because, dang, research. Which is to say I admire your willingness to go through all that process in order to meet your own standards of accuracy, and your willingness to take a chance on getting it wrong according to those standards. That’s certainly a risk. One I, and a lot of other writers, aren’t willing to take, especially if it means dumping something that you’ve put months or years of your life into.

    The part where this becomes difficult, of course, is in writing men/women because an author can’t really get away from writing (whichever one the author isn’t) unless they write a very obviously all-male or all-female story. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but I’ve noticed that a lot of male authors don’t write women very well. Once, I was in a writing group with mostly retired-age people, and one man had written a novel which he was bringing sections of to the group. With one section, all 3/4/5 of the women (including me) thought a part was really problematic. And he basically defended the section and brushed off our concerns and left it how it was. (Part of his defense was that other women, like his wife, had not had a problem with it.) Which was his prerogative as the writer but really harmed my previously fairly high opinion of him.

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