So I was scanning through my news feed on my phone this morning, and I stumbled across an article on Slate called “Is My Novel Offensive?“. Now, this being Slate, my first reaction was to mutter sarcastically something along the lines of “isn’t everything?” But I clicked through to read it.
Apparently, in addition to beta readers and copy editors and everything else, there’s now a push for authors to employ “sensitivity readers” to avoid the sort of micro-aggressions that are turning college campuses into some of the least free-speech-friendly places in the country.
This can only end well.
Once I got done face-palming and managed to accept that yes, this was really happening, and I probably should have expected it sooner or later, it occurred to me I probably ought to say something about why this is a bad idea.
Most obviously, it strikes me as the sort of thing the beta readers you already have should catch. To use an example from the Slate piece, the idea that frats are perceived differently in historically black colleges strikes me as basic fact-checking.
This is part of why I prefer to write in created worlds. The rules of the world are mine to determine, and I can pull as much or as little from the real world as I want – so long as it is consistent with what has gone before in that work.
On a deeper level, I can’t help but see the push for sensitivity readers as yet more encouragement for self-censorship, and self-censorship is creative suicide. If I, as an American of northern European descent whose family emigrated in the 1600s and who grew up in rural Idaho, was only allowed to write about people like me, neither the Qaehl Cycle nor The Adventures of Einarr Stigandersen would have ever come into being.
You see, the world of the Qaehl was inspired by a single class I took in college on the art history of India. I was fascinated. The art, the sculpture, the music, the mythology, the melting pot of societies (don’t believe me? If you can get your hands on it, John Keay’s India – A History is a fascinating read. Or the Bollywood movie Jodhaa Akbar makes for an entertaining introduction.) – gave my inner creative self lots of room to play. By 2008, when I was brainstorming the first iteration of this first book, I was beginning to tire of fantasies after the mold of Tolkien, where the settings had been becoming more and more generically European and the subject matter had been getting progressively darker.
Yes, this is where I confess that I can’t read Game of Thrones. I got halfway through the second book and decided it was just too much. Meanwhile, I’m impatiently waiting for book 3 of the Stormlight Archives, so it’s not a matter of length.
What about Einarr? That world came about when I decided I wanted to do a pirate story, but at a lower tech level than you usually see, and I wanted art to be magic. (Quite literally. I may post more about that later, depending on how my Patreon goes.) If I wanted to do pirates, and I wanted to get away from the rum-running scoundrels of the Caribbean or the Letters of Marque of the renaissance, Vikings gave me the most room to play (because come on, Norse myth is badass).
But, you’re about to object, those are your people!
No, they’re really not. Wherever my ancestors came from (mostly the British Isles, but there’s a fair bit of Germanic and Scandinavian in there, too) I’m an American, and what little experience I have on the water mostly comes from paddling around in our family’s canoe when I was a kid. Furthermore, I’m a girl, and a tomboy-ish one at that. Based on that, what gives me the “right” to write about a 20-something dispossessed Viking prince? I’m separated from his likely mindset by culture, gender, and hundreds of years. But Einarr could never have been “Einara.” (Although that is a cool name that I may have to use elsewhere.)
Caveat: none of this is to excuse anyone trying to write from their research. Research is what allows your world to be internally consistent. I just can’t imagine that encouraging yet more paranoia about offending people will have a good effect on the stories we try to tell. Or that “teachable moments” are an unmitigated good in fiction. If I wanted to be preached at, I’d go to church. You can’t control how other people react to your work, which means that your best bet is to tell a story, and make it entertaining, and let your views come through naturally – without forcing them. Let people decide for themselves. You get better results that way.
Speaking of, if you haven’t checked it out yet, I’ve got the first chapter up of Einarr Stigandersen and the Jotünhall posted. Chapter 2 goes up tomorrow. I’m getting ready to launch a Patreon page, so if you like what you read I hope you’ll consider funding more. I’m not going to pound that drum too loudly in this space, but there’s not much point in doing it if I don’t tell anyone it’s coming. Now I need to get a couple administrative things out of the way so I can get back to the fiction.