Are Words Sticks and Stones After All?

 

(Mostly stones, few sticks. Sorry.)

 

I’m going to take a big, fat liberty here, so bear with me, okay?

There’s a powerful Annie Dillard quote that has to do with churches that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

While I happen to agree with the above, that’s beside the point for my purpose. Re-read the paragraph, and put the word “writers” in place of “Christians” and “churches.” I’ll wait…

Pretty interesting, yes? Did you ever think of the power that your words and stories might have?

Your words can influence, inspire, anger, irritate, uplift, depress, frighten, amuse, or engender admiration or scorn. Fictional stories have helped change laws and influenced social progress. There are many novels that have even inspired horrific crimes. When we read things in print—particularly if they look official, free of typos, etc.—we take them more seriously than if they’re just hearsay.

We can’t predict what effects our written words will have on the people who read them. That leads to the question: What responsibility do we have for the effects our words have on our readers?

I doubt that any two writers would answer this question the same way because there is no cut and dried answer. Words are ideas, and ideas are infinite and peculiar to every writer/reader/thinker. A scene or a bit of dialogue that seems innocuous to one reader might lead another to take to social media in protest.

As a writer, I see my job as telling the story the very best way I know how. I may want to appeal to a certain audience, but I feel my first responsibility is to the story. I start with a kind of Platonic ideal of the story I see in my head, and do everything I can to be faithful to that ideal as I write. Everything else is secondary.

But once a story is shared—even in a workshop/classroom setting—or published, it becomes something different. It’s no longer just ours. It takes up space in other people’s heads and they will react to it. We have no control over those reactions, but do we have a responsibility to predict them and change our work to accommodate them?

I’m personally familiar with a workshop situation in which a writer submitted a story that contained an abduction and rape. Several people in the workshop didn’t want to participate in the critique of the story because it triggered distressing emotional reactions in them. There were hurt and angry feelings on both sides. There’s also no clear answer here as to how the situation should be resolved. Does the writer have the right to tell the story as she envisions it? Do the other participants have the right to not be hurt or offended?

Announcing that there are potential trigger issues in a piece of work is getting more common on blogs and in academic settings. I haven’t yet seen it in the commercial writing world. Between cover art and jacket blurbs, publishers do a pretty good job of telegraphing what sort of material is contained inside. Occasionally they get it wrong and readers are misled, and the writer pays by suffering angry negative reviews based on unexpected content. There are many voices on the issue on the use of trigger warnings. Here is one pro voice and one con.

More and more publishers (and writers) are becoming proactive in another area of reader reaction anticipation: the hiring and use of sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers specialize in checking manuscripts for misrepresentation of minorities and marginalized populations. If you’re writing about a population to which you don’t belong, you should anticipate sensitivity scrutiny of your work. Recently Writer Unboxed had a piece on sensitivity readers. It also references a widely shared Chicago Tribune article.

Writers now have access to audiences that most of us could hardly have dreamed of a decade ago. Readers, too, now have larger voices. The world appears to be demanding more from writers: to not simply be entertaining, but thoughtful and, some would say, authentic. But where should that authenticity come from? How concerned should we be with reader reaction issues as we write, and how do those issues affect creativity and storytelling?

I realize I’ve posed a lot of questions here. Let me ask you a few more: (you needn’t answer them all!)

How do you make sure your characters accurately reflect their cultural, societal, or ethnic backgrounds when they’re different from your own?

What is the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?

Have you ever changed your work or held back because you worried about criticism or questions of authenticity?

 

 

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

20 thoughts on “Are Words Sticks and Stones After All?

  1. What a wonderful piece. I think your observation is spot on. Thing is, if we write with an audience of one in mind, what are we going to leave behind that could make the work provocative and timely? Fiction is the place to explore and expand our horizons, both as writers and readers. There’s a delicate balance between sense and sensibility, yes?

    • Thanks, JT. “Explore and expand.” That’s so critical. If we spend too much time anticipating (as writers) and worrying about being injured (as readers), we won’t do either.

  2. I’d never heard of sensitivity readers. Must go check them out. Long ago, I resigned myself to the fact that no writer will ever please everyone. My most recent example is being called to task by a reader because one of my characters didn’t like guns and refused to have anything to do with them. This rated a TSTL comment from the reader.

    • What a crazy story, Terry. It’s a perfect example, though, of someone taking your fictional world to heart. You broke through and threatened a deeply held position. You’re like the Great and Powerful Oz!

  3. You raise good and relevant questions, Laura. For me, the whole thing boils down to what you say here: As a writer, I see my job as telling the story the very best way I know how. I may want to appeal to a certain audience, but I feel my first responsibility is to the story.

    As for “sensitivity readers,” we used to call that research. As writers, we should of course strive to be as truthful as possible about characters outside our own experience. At the same time, we need to remember that characters are infinitely variable. Not all members of a group experience come out rubber stamped. This is one of the glorious things about life … and fiction.

    • Research, yes. Exactly that, JSB. If we do our homework beforehand, we put our best foot forward. We need to be truthful, yet not artificially didactic. I was going to comment that we must inhabit the gray area between infinite variability and proscription–but that area is not gray at all. It is some glorious, indescribable color all its own.

  4. I am concerned that this is becoming writing fiction by committee. While it is certainly incumbent upon an author to portray any character as accurately as possible when the intent is to convey a person or group different from one’s own experience, I find the thought of having to get the “approval” or a “sensitivity reader” absurd. The bottom line is this is fiction. If I am offensive or fail to capture my characters, you can vote at the checkout stand. I can pay attention…or not. I will not, however, start writing my books with a constant harangue from random strangers about what I should and shouldn’t do.

    • I wanted to add… I pay a lot of attention to trusted readers and critique partners! I’ve even invested hard-earned cash in the advice of people I consider experts in this field, so I’m in no way against a reality check or two. More secure and advanced writers will probably shake their heads, and maybe give an eye roll or two, at the thought of running their material by a “sensitivity reader.” My fear is new writers will neuter their voice out of one more “rule” being thrown at them.

      • Thanks for weighing in, Paula. Reality checks are definitely good things. I agree that new writers are very vulnerable when it comes to accommodating any number of unwritten rules they perceive. Taking risks is critical, and fallout helps us grow as writers and as humans.

  5. “Sensitivity readers”? Does this mean if I, as a male, write a book with a female character in it, I must subject it to a “sensitivity reader” to make sure I got the female stuff right? Because if I didn’t, what would happen? Female readers would freak out? Would the “sensitivity reader” have the right to say, “This is not how a woman would express this opinion”?

    And who gives the “sensitivity reader” the right to assume the mantle of representing all those in his/her “marginalized” groups? What if I shopped around and found another “sensitivity reader” who thought the first “sensitivity reader” was full of BS? You see where all this could head.

    There is way, way too much hand-wringing going on these days, resulting in the heavy hand of political correctness descending on us all, with its implicit order that we must follow the every whim and desire of the one to whom the hand is attached. I’ve always been opposed to censorship (and that’s what all this “sensitivity reader” stuff is about) in every form. If individual writers choose to censor themselves, that’s their right, but it’s not mine to tell them when and how to do it. The reader is the ultimate censor, and should be the ONLY censor. If the reader doesn’t like something in a book, he/she can throw it against the wall and badmouth it to his/her friends. That’s how it works.

    • That is how it has traditionally worked, Don. You bring up more interesting questions.
      One of the articles stresses that readers’ opinions may differ, so using one reader may not get the job done. Where they get their authority? That’s an excellent question.
      I think publishers are looking at this from a couple perspectives–both having to do with the bottom line: bringing in new readers from marginalized groups, and avoiding negative publicity. One wishes that their hearts were in the first reason, but given that they’re in the business to make money, one suspects it’s mostly about number two.

      • I guess what I was saying, Laura, was that employing “sensitivity readers” to make sure a book didn’t “offend” anyone necessarily ushers the element of politics — as determined by the “sensitivity reader” only — into the writing/publishing world. Writing should never be a political effort, unless the writer wants it that way. It should never be imposed upon any writer.

        The “sensitivity reader’s” political opinions will by definition influence his/her decisions on whether the writer has sufficiently passed muster when attempting to write dialogue or character situations.

        Does someone under 30 have the right to write dialogue for a character over 60? May an Italian-American safely write an Irish-American character? Will a Mexican-American be allowed to write about Cubans (vastly different cultures)? Or do we need “sensitivity readers” in each of these cases to ensure no “microaggressions” against these “marginalized” groups have been committed.

        These are just a few areas where this whole thing could head if it’s allowed to begin. It’s censorship, plain and simple, and I will defend any writer against it, no matter how offensive I find his/her writing.

  6. Yes, a lot of questions, Miss Laura. In a classroom setting, hurt feelings are a waste of time for either side of an issue. What’s valuable is that a writer actually gets to see an audience react to a story or scene. That’s useful information whether it’s applause or negative comments. This is part of learning–each writer must learn their boundaries as a reader and writer. They must learn the power of reader expectation. I don’t believe in trigger warnings. Life can be greatly unpleasant. Learning about it in fiction can shorten the learning curve in real life.

    • This is all beautifully said, Carolyn. I know you have a lot of experience with new and student writers.

      “This is part of learning–each writer must learn their boundaries as a reader and writer. They must learn the power of reader expectation.” Perfect.

  7. Ah, so much to elaborate on.

    If someone can’t fathom the basic distinction between a work of fiction and a manifesto, I’m afraid he has declared himself intellectually unequipped to entre the debate. This should be noted with regard to the rather disturbing recent trend to treat novels, TV series and videogames as the embodiment of the author’s real life points of view on religion, politics, race, sexuality, etc. The seam between the literary and the doctrinal has evaporated in some people’s minds who, nonetheless, want to be taken seriously. And so they have, with a straight face, no less, complained about the way one of the two genders has been depicted in novels, how certain races seem to be underrepresented in videogames, how certain cultures, countries, body types, sexual orientations, etc, didn’t get the benevolent treatment in this or that work of fiction.

    Two give two recent examples from the realm of videogames:
    – Horizon [a videogame which has critical acclaim] [has been] criticized by Native American writer for “brave”, “savage”, other terms

    ( http://neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?s=23752af1819a4927d66fdb0f4a12ba97&p=231448881%23post231448881 )

    – Bolivia complains to France about country’s portrayal in Ghost Recon: Wildlands [a videogame]

    ( http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1349315 )

    My own personal feeling is this: If someone were to reach me and complain about real-life implications of my novels, that I should include this or that, change that or this, in order to appease the good conscience of the PC/SWJ brigade , I would – but in the kindest of ways – show them the middle finger and tell them to sod off.

    I’d quote Richard Dawkins:
    Grow up.

  8. Earlier this week, I looked at a manuscript for the first time in seven months. I started writing it in October of 2015 and it was finished in June of 2016. I took a month off then, edited it, pitched it (but not aggressively), then stored it in the back of my hard drive after a few rejections.

    It sat there, untouched, unread. And I realize now why I wasn’t that aggressive about it.

    What I wrote was vitriol. It burned my eyes just reading it. There was so much pain. I feel extreme guilt for subjecting a poor, unsuspecting lit agent to its acidic contents.

    And though I am editing it now (fresh eyes and new polish), and toning down some of the more graphic aspects that really do not contribute to the storyline at all, I will not apologize for any of it.

    • Sounds like you may be being a little hard on yourself and your work, E. Dulaney. The perspective of seven months is significant. You have absolutely nothing to apologize for.

  9. The whole concept of a “sensitivity reader” give me hives. For any individual to claim to speak for an entire group is beyond presumptuous.

    The copy editor for FINAL TARGET (June 27, 2017) was a freelancer named Rosemary, and it was abundantly clear from the nature of her edits that she was hyper sensitive to gender issues. In response to this passage in my book: “Jonathan led with his flashlight, praying silently that he wouldn’t scream like a little girl if he dislodged a colony of bats,” Rosemary wrote a screaming screed in the margin, railing at how I was promoting gender bias and about how little boys are as apt to scream as are girls when they are frightened. Gender bias. Good God. I guess she missed the whole part about the director of the FBI being a woman, and . . . well, yeah. I answered her inquiry with a simple stet.

    Fiction is not a place for sensitivity training, and it’s not a safe space. It’s not supposed to be a safe space. Commercial fiction in particular has but one goal, and that is to give the reader a good ride. The rest is just thinking too hard.

    • John, thanks for sharing your experience with the freelancer. A simple “stet” is often the best choice. I’m always a bit taken aback when a copy editor editorializes in unanticipated ways.

      Indeed, fiction is not a safe space.

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