Sensitivity and straw hats

After donning a controversial sombrero at Brisbane Writers Festival, Lionel Shriver is at it again, misrepresenting literary sensitivity consultants as the free speech police. Shriver seems to be responding to this recent, well-researched article about the issue.


If your creative writing draws on elements from cultures or subcultures with which you do not identify, then you are writing across identity. This can produce dynamic, perceptive, and powerful stories. It can also be a sad and cynical trade in old, tired stereotypes.

But these stereotypes are not so worn-out as to be harmless. Tired tropes still pack a punch for those who don’t have ready access to the life-affirming privilege and eye-opening wonder of seeing themselves represented in books and stories. Worn-out cliches and ignorant inaccuracies still ‘kick down’ if told by a relatively empowered author to and/or about a relatively disempowered reader.

That’s why projects like Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins are so important. A unique offering in the literary space, Writing in the Margins offers visibility, accountability, and accessibility for writers wanting and needing cultural expertise to flesh out their narratives. It hosts a directory of suitably qualified sensitivity readers along with guidelines for best practice. Importantly, it also offers editorial mentorships to support writers from marginalised or historically oppressed groups to shape and own narratives.

Shriver’s argument includes reference to a well-known feature of sensitivity consultations – that one reader cannot speak for a whole community of identity. Shriver argues, on the one hand, that sensitivity readers are bogus, since they are all just individuals offering personal advice. Yet she also fears, on the other, that they form a monolithic police presence against her licence to write whatever she wants about whomever she pleases. Then she brings both those hands together to co-opt empowerment language and applaud her own artistic freedom: “As a woman, I’d be uneasy about being given the power to determine what is insulting to women in general.”

But this strawman argument cannot support its own weight.

Sensitivity readers provide an informed, expert viewpoint on matters of fact (e.g. cultural history and language), and/or insights based on individual lived experience. It is a complex area, to be sure, where simplistic and bombastic arguments function only to hijack the debate.

And there are meaningful, important issues to be debated.

For writers who have fought against systemic and structural discrimination to find their voice and tell their story, sensitivity consultation may be an anathema, and fair enough, too – why invite someone’s meddling opinion into the mix of such hard-won truths?

But for writers who occupy positions of relative privilege, and who wish to write stories that reflect their diverse and multicultural communities, sensitivity readership can be a vital tool in avoiding harmful stereotypes and embarrassing mistakes.

Despite the complexity, I am a big believer in literary sensitivity consultations. That’s why I am volunteering my time, working with a colleague, to put together a Sensitivity Reader directory and related suite of mentorships for Australia.

In today’s tumultuous social and political climate, diverse and sensitive stories have never been more important. Readers want and need stories that capture and explore the complexity of contemporary life. Through inclusive and sensitive storytelling, we can better understand and appreciate ourselves and each other.

For further reading, see the articles/posts by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong Wong in response to Shriver’s BWF keynote.

2 thoughts on “Sensitivity and straw hats

    1. Thanks, Angela! I’m looking forward to reading your research, and having a chat about this important emerging issue on your blog soon.

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