Ruminations Part 3 – Sensitivity Readers, Part 1

The ambiguously unidentifiable individual of non-specific ethnic persuasion drove up in a vehicle demonstrative of no specific class or financial status. Exiting their vehicle, they partook in an activity anyone of any belief system would partake in.
In a vertically challenged metaphoric way, they were boring as hell.
However, their PCness exuded from their ambiguously tinted and textured dermatic stoma like a semi-viscous fluid from an unclosed trauma site.
(it didn’t matter that nobody understood what the story)
But the book about this uninteresting individual sold like relatively warmed flour-baking soda-moisture mixtures to the politically correct sensitivity crowd who read it several times with glass objects which increased the text’s relative size for better ocular interpretation and still managed to find it offensive on so many levels it was considered a building of exceptional vertical dimension.

The same day I learned my eyes are completely healed, I asked a writing group to help me understand “Sensitivity Readers.”

The “Sensitivity Reader” concept challenges me for many reasons. First, unless some “sensitive” aspect of a character is necessary to the plot, it doesn’t belong in the story. Second, I’ve yet to be given a definition of sensitive that’s not so full of holes it couldn’t be used to drain wet spaghetti. When I ask for a definition I get a response along the lines of “You know, sensitive.”

Unless some “sensitive” aspect of a character is necessary to the plot, it’s a distraction. Get rid of it. Edit it out.

Somebody told me they wrote a story with a gay couple in the lead. They grew concerned their depiction of the gay couple would offend some gay readers and removed the gay aspects from the story.

Wow. Your lead characters are gay and you removed that aspect from the story? I couldn’t imagine the rewriting involved because, hey, if your main characters are gay, that must be a significant element of the story (at least the way I write stories).

I asked, “How much did you have to rewrite the story to remove that element?”

“Not much.”

Not much? How does one create lead characters who are unique in some way (anything from wondrously gifted to unwondrously ungifted) yet be able to remove that uniqueness without radically altering the story?

I mean, why give them that uniqueness in the first place?

“I wanted to write a story with gay characters.”


Did you just want some characters with a random uniqueness in the story? Then put them in a stage direction and/or minor role where their uniqueness becomes an identifiable character trait allowing the reader to quickly identify them should they ever appear again (ie, they’re two-dimensional characters). Don’t put them in the lead role.

Did you want to explore the nature of a uniqueness via character? Well, if you could completely remove that uniqueness and not radically alter your story, you failed because people explore what’s important to them. Being able to remove some uniqueness with little editing indicates the uniqueness wasn’t an important story element (definitely not character defining). At least not important enough to explore via the characters.

A sensitivity reader didn’t like the manuscript? Okay, they didn’t like it because…? Was the objection “This is an inaccurate portrait of a gay couple” or what it “I’m uncomfortable with your portrayal of a gay couple.”?

There are lots more questions and that last one is crucial. There’s a universe of difference between inaccuracy and discomfort.

Inaccuracies need to be fixed. They indicate the author didn’t do their research.

Discomfort? No need to fix the work. It’s fine as is.

Discomfortable Inaccuracies
I completely understand the need for a “sensitivity” reader to review a manuscript for inaccuracies. I use them all the time for exactly that purpose. I don’t call them “sensitivity” readers, though. I call it research. Harlan Ellison (according to myth and legend) called other authors such as Asimov when he had a question on the science in his writing.

I don’t think he ever called Asimov a “science sensitivity reader,” though. I’m pretty sure, if he had, Asimov would have burst out laughing.

Inaccuracies throw readers out of stories. They make readers stop reading and go, “What?” Inaccuracies demonstrate the ineptness of a writer because that writer didn’t do their homework and said homework deals with character, plot, setting, basically so much more than just “science.”

The builder who does not know the material he is forced to work with courts disaster. – Lajos Egri writing about character, theme, and conflict


And from what I’ve seen of the current writing landscape, there are lots of people who write without any knowledge of their subject matter. Must be why fantasy is more prevalent than science fiction these days and what science fiction there is focuses on soft science rather than hard science (want to read a gem of a hard science fiction story? Consider Dr. Tamara Clelford’s Death in the Anechoic Chamber in Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 7 or Dr. Geoffrey Landis’ A Walk in the Sun) because hard science fiction is much more rigorous in demanding accuracy than the other forms. Go ahead and create your magic for your fantasy worlds, explore uncharted consciousness in your soft science fiction, but violate the slightest laws of nature in your hard SF and you put your life at risk with readers and fans!

Inaccurate Discomforts
“Discomfort” is a fascinating thing.

First, I believe it’s an author’s duty to make their readers think, feel, squirm, emote, sense, … in a phrase, “give them pause” and sometimes that means “become uncomfortable.”

Rotten bastard, aren’t I?

Several readers contacted me regarding The Little Knitty Dragon in Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 6 to let me know they cried when reading it.


Several readers contacted me regarding MorningSong in Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 3 to let me know how moved they were by the story.


Readers comment and email me about how much they felt for The Augmented Man’s protagonist, Nick Trailer. Ditto the characters and stories in Tales Told ‘Round Celestial Campfires, ditto …


I’m lovin’ it!

One fellow in one long-ago workshop berated me. “How dare you make me think! Science fiction is escapist literature. Don’t you know that?”

As a matter of fact, no. Gratefully, I missed the memo.

But as my editor has said many times, “The two things you’ll always find in Joseph’s stories are a deep understanding of human psychology and love.”

Yeah. I’m good with that.

So “sensitivity” comes down to doing your research, doing it well, and immersing yourself so much in your subject matter people mistake you for an expert (such has happened to me several times, especially with The Augmented Man and the complete rewrite of Empty Sky (I have a standing offer with Empty Sky; buy a copy, leave a review, and I’ll send you an autographed copy when the rewrite is published)).

So please don’t bleed your sensitivity all over my work. Chances are you haven’t done your research.

As much as I have.

‘Nuff said?