Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sensitivity Reading for Mystery and Crime

By Danny Gardner

Becoming known for something is a surefire way to get bogged down when demand for that thing becomes the thing. The 90s brought me so many invitations from all sorts of estranged friends and relations. There I'd be, ready to rekindle a long bond over, say, Thanksgiving dinner, just to see a microphone on a stand in the corner. 'Oh, that's for me? How thoughtful. When this L-tryptophan kicks in, I'll keep myself awake by performing a free after-dinner set."  When I traded in the road for an IT career, it was the broken printer or the failed HDD over aperitifs. One friend would bring his laptop to the bar so I could check his code syntax. To be known for a thing is to be doomed by it, or at least offended to no end by the constant call "Is there a doctor in the house?"

In my case, it's "I have some racism/sexism/insensitive portrayals/really bad writing in my manuscript! Is there a black writer in the house??" Which is the reason I've just slotted my very last pro bono sensitivity read, or, as I like to put them, insurance against hashtagging. Marginalized people now have the time, money, and tools to communicate offense to something they previously had to let roll. That's the pendulum swinging back, like a you-know-what, and at a time when authors have to worry more and more about non-writing issues to sell books. Combine that with editors' calls for diversity in whatever form and more and more writers are combining volatile organic compounds with no lab training.

All forms and functions adapt over time and through circumstances both individual and global. Language is the first of the cultural indices to fluctuate when changes occur. It comes subtly, often as slippage in forms that were once acceptable. "When did we stop calling them Orientals?" That sort of thing. Journalists with decent jobs may be fortunate enough to have editorial leadership that adapts editorial standards and practices as fast as possible. The rest of us don't have time to pay attention to the changes in America's volatile cultural atmosphere. In relation to a book that takes you a year or more to complete and bring to the world, that's quite a bit of time you're voluntarily disconnected from an ever-developing environment. It's really hard to pull a book back from its print run because some syntax that could be construed as cultural appropriation or insensitivity wasn't sniffed out in the manuscript phase.

Mystery and Crime is the genre that is carrying American publishing over the next five years. Even in these uncertain times, more and more folks you'd consider dissimilar to you are buying and consuming your books, and have a grasp of the forms and functions of language that is up to the minute. Everyone reads sensitively now, even those trusty carnival barkers who rant against political correctness. Everyone notices, maybe because everyone is rubbed raw. Regardless, someone in your writing life has to keep up with the trends in cultural communication. Not to gin up fear, but we've all witnessed what happens when, say, something as innocent as conflating "people of color" with "colored" happens. That's not changing for a while. People who were previously voiceless now have enough time and energy and reach to discuss with you their issues with your work. Yep. It's like that.

Since 2016, I have completed sensitivity reads with full notes and consultations on five novels, a novella, and seven short stories. This is in addition to the ad hoc consultations that take place at least weekly, just to talk stuff out and clarify thinking during the writing process. I'm excited folks are asking me to examine the messages they send for unintended evils (I'm here for all the intended evils. I don't dare touch those.) I wish it didn't stem from a sense of fear of comeuppance for simple mistakes (and, frankly, moments where writers still try it,) but I'm happy to participate in anything that brings people together in the cause of better understanding.

Unfortunately, I just can't do this work for free anymore.

I'm less interested in being known as the race guy and more interested in ensuring cross-cultural understanding so everyone can remain the self they choose to be and still hold control of the messages they want someone unlike them to receive. It's a delicate balance that goes far beyond checking for bad words on a list. A lot of folks can do that for you. My particular strength is translating your intention against the language. Understanding what you meant to do, what ruckus you fully intended to set off, and helping you still do that without the assured destruction that comes from being reckless. On more than a few significant occasions, it's been akin to "Here, give me that chainsaw. Okay, now, try that same thing, but with this scalpel." Same cuts, better instrument. Same intention, better results. No compromises. More finesse. I'm not helping authors conceal bigotry. I'm helping them transcend it to deliver a more truthful message according to their own values. That is a considerable amount of work, for which I've happily accepted no coin.

I love being helpful. Being perceived as capable and generous requires more up-front investment but always pays off in the end. Thing is, I've helped myself into a bit of a quandary. I'm not hanging out a shingle, but while I'm very comfortable with being known and respected for my insights on race and class, to do it right, I have to treat it like work. Otherwise, the quality diminishes and people, including my peers, get hurt. If you need help, y'all know where to find me. If real work is required, we can rap about it. These are good times. Our genres are in a good place. I'll still help, as generally or specifically as I'm able. All the signs point to good times. I want us to share them, together, and not at career wakes, where there lies Joe Author, died from a hashtag to the forehead.

- dg


Anonymous said...

I'm so tempted to be one of those carnival barkers you mention, and I have to very deliberately appeal to my better angels to avoid it.

Everyone's terrified of accidentally becoming tommorow's Twitter outrage. And everyone's weary of the culture behind the daily outrages.

But I do genuinely want the feedback of people from any people groups I write about. It's like getting a cop or lawyer to read our procedural or legal thriller... just with identity.

Naomi Hirahara said...

Yup, don't do it for free. My minimum is usually $500, and I'm worth every penny. :-)