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Sensitive Readers – Insensitive Writers?

26 Jun

The Bookbaby site recently discussed authors using ‘sensitivity readers’ and the comments from authors were largely negative (and, I must say I’m in accord with the feeling that stories shouldn’t pander to the easily offended). But, one interesting point struck me – that the term ‘sensitivity readers’ was being used for both actual ‘sensitivity readers’ and what we might call ‘accuracy readers’, and that most people were fine with the latter, but not the former.

For clarification, a ‘sensitivity reader’ exists to check for issues in the story (whether words, stereotypes or situations) that could cause offence. Of course, this can prove useful (if you’re writing what is intended to be a positive portrayal of black people, you don’t want to find you’ve propagated offensive stereotypes or used terms that will offend) and may be necessary for certain markets (books aimed at the schools market need to be appropriate to their intended readership). But, too much caution can stifle good writing (after all, the best writing will challenge and risk offense), and an over-reliance by editors on ‘sensitivity readers’ may cause them to reject books that tackle difficult subjects for that very reason.

What I’m calling an ‘accuracy reader’, on the other hand, is someone who checks for factual errors. Although, in the context of ‘sensitivity’ I’m discussing, this may mean asking a transperson to check that everything related to your transwoman protagonist is accurate, this is no different to asking an expert for assistance in ensuring the accuracy of your work. Of course, there may be an overlap between ‘sensitivity’ and accuracy (“yes, that word is used correctly, but it is very offensive and not suitable for a children’s story”), but the aim is primarily to get the story right, not mollycoddle.

While I wouldn’t advocate setting out to offend for the sake of being offensive (or attempting to gain publicity through outrage), I have little time for editors who would neuter a story in case it offends someone. There will always be a need for stories that take risks, ask difficult questions and present awkward truths and we shouldn’t fear them. But, we should strive for accuracy.

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In Need of a Supplement

30 Mar

You may have noticed that the March issue of The Supplement hasn’t appeared on this site or through the post. Unfortunately, due to real life pretty much derailing all my plans for March, I didn’t have the time to work on producing any reviews or to type up any of the snail mail submissions (not that I have many). With only a couple of electronic submissions on file, I didn’t have enough to put together even a decent lightweight issue.

If things work out, the issue should appear in April rather than being skipped altogether, but this leads me to a big problem with the next issue – unless I get some submissions soon, I will be providing most of the content myself, and that depends upon my having the time to work on it.

I’m really hoping you will be inspired to send me articles and reviews for forthcoming issues, but, if not, it’s likely that The Supplement will fold at the end of this year with any of my reviews to come being posted on here. So, if you don’t want that to happen, I really need you to submit. Thank you.

Reality is Unrealistic

23 Sep

TV Tropes has an extensive selection of examples of the ways in which reality is unrealistic. That is, things that are true but which tend to strike readers or viewers as false. The same thing also afflicts editors, as I experienced twice recently.

My first experience was a passing reference, in a steampunk story set during the Prussian siege of Paris, to the loss of water pressure and the character’s need to wash at the sink. This struck the editor as liable to break a reader’s suspension of disbelief as “this is how everyone washed then.” Of course, this was in a story featuring electric artillery, massive land-battleships and a pneumatic postal system (not to mention the undead). Yet, while a reader could be expected to swallow such scientific advances, piped water was a step too far. Piped mail, but not piped water.

In real life, the French army introduced showers in barracks in the 1870s and the water supply of Paris was being overhauled, while gas was being piped into homes. So, the presence of a shower in an apartment in this alternate Paris was hardly a significant departure from the reality of the time, and one far less than the other elements in the story. Yet, it was one thing that stood out as something of a deal-breaker!

The second highlighted an apparent difference between the UK and the USA. The colours yellow and purple were relevant to a story I wrote, so I had an apparent Christmas present wrapped in yellow-and-lavender paper. In itself, it wasn’t a major plot point, but it did allow one character to observe those colours are associated with Easter rather Christmas, which served as a lead-in to a thematic element later in the story. All pretty inconsequential and throw-away, you might think.

Not at all! It seems that, unlike in Britain, where the story is set, the colours are indelibly linked with Easter, with stores being decorated in them (here, you’re likely to see greens and yellows). Thus, the American editor felt as if the story had blundered into some bizarro world, wondering why the fact was presented as if it were a piece of obscure Christian-only knowledge. Ironically, in the UK, I don’t know if you could even find Christians who are aware of the colour association (my limited researches have yet to show where the colour scheme actually derives from). Certainly, nobody I’ve canvassed knew the link. (I do have to wonder how many Americans would necessarily make the association at Christmastime.)

But, despite being entirely accurate to the British milieu in which it was set, the story lost credibility over what was essentially a minor element for the simple fact that the associations were different in the US.

So, if you need some entertainment, visit the TV Tropes pages and chuckle at the examples, but if you’re a writer, remember that, no matter how accurate you are, you will find someone who thinks you’ve made a mistake. And, if you are a reader, maybe double-check before leaping to criticise a writer for an error – they might actually be right, after all…

Goodbye, Doctor Who…

17 Jul

So, the new Doctor is a woman. Apparently, she’s very good, so it may be that the BBC genuinely chose the person they thought was best, but, given a couple of decades of raising the prospect, it can’t help but wonder if it’s been done to chase headlines or burnish their inclusivity halo (unless it’s just cost-cutting, given the claims they underpay their female stars).

Of course, there have been howls of outrage of the ‘they’ve changed it, now it sucks’ sort, so my personal disgust at the decisions may seem like more of the same, but it’s not. (If it helps, as far I’m concerned, it reached the ‘they’ve changed it, now it sucks’ point a few seasons back and my views on this decisions are more fundamental. I won’t be watching the new series, but I’ve seen only a few episodes across the last three or four, so it’s hardly a great protest.)

Between the huffing of those who hate change and those crowing about a feminist victory, a couple of key points seem to have been overlooked as the BBC betrays a generation of boys and girls. (My apologies to any regular readers who will have seen all this before.)

Why the boys have been let down should be obvious to anyone who can see past issues of continuity and gender revolution: the Doctor represents a rarity amongst the role-models presented to young boys. He is serious (but not stuffy), clever, asexual and non-violent, yet still exciting and brave, a character that taught boys they didn’t have to grow-up to be a thug, a fool or a sex addict. It’s ironic that, as people supposedly become more accepting and inclusive, that boys should have their horizons circumscribed.

Why the girls have been let down might be less obvious given the cries that this represents a feminist victory. You could call it that, but only if your idea of a victory is a pathetic one built upon a foundation of over fifty years of men playing the part. Given that the BBC stands accused of underpaying its female stars, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that they don’t believe a genuinely-female creation can be a success. If they wanted a female equivalent to the Doctor, they could have created a series based on, for example, Romana – no awkward baggage, no irate fans, no depriving boys of a role-model (Sarah Jane proved a success, in this regard – better even than the revived Doctor Who). Even better, create an entirely-new ‘verse without any male-lead hangovers. I’d actually like to see that. But, I don’t hold out much hope of the BBC or anyone else providing it. And, unless the novelty of a female Doctor can be translated into a much-better series, the declining viewing figures may well kill off the series altogether and we won’t have a female Doctor, either.

The Problem with Inclusive Publishers

8 Jun

These days, more and more publishers are touting their inclusive credentials, stressing that they’re open to a diverse set of contributors. The argument is that, in the past, women, non-white and other minority writers didn’t feel welcome. Primarily, this seems to be an American and large press debate – the British small presses have long been welcoming to a diverse cast of authors and poets – but it is certainly the trend of the moment and, in many ways, a welcome one.

Some publishers, such as Black Girl Magic (issues are available on Amazon) do an excellent job, promoting characters that aren’t often seen in the mainstream and welcoming all sorts of writers. But, others, unintentionally, aren’t so welcoming. The main problem is that, naturally, wanting to welcome a diverse set of writers, they enquire rather intrusively into the lives of would-be contributors. Whereas Black Girl Magic, an excellent example of how to be welcoming, makes answering such questions optional, some make it compulsory. Yes, you could lie or put ‘not applicable’, but it does come across a bit strong. Not everyone wants to share personal details (actually, I’ve been more willing to do so with Black Girl Magic because I didn’t feel badgered). Then, there are those that disbar people who aren’t one of the groups they’re promoting from submitting – not only do I find this off-putting when I qualify to submit, but it’s problematic if you don’t neatly fit in a niche (of course, you can query, but that’s a problem if you’re not keen to discuss yourself with strangers).

Then, there are those that require (that’s require, not request) an author photograph. I suppose you could supply a fake or a non-portrait photo, but it’s not welcoming to people who might have an issue with their image being available online. And, of course, there are those publishers, mainly American, that ask for your ‘legal name’. In Britain, there isn’t actually such a thing, although many people doubtless assume there is and banks and such institutions often act as if there is (it’s actually a complicated topic). Of course, it’s a problem if you have a contract to sign (not that they’re usually worth the data saving them to your hard drive), but it does raise problems for people whose identity isn’t clean cut – the sort of people you might wish to include amongst your writers…

The irony is that, while I’ve found the majority of self-proclaimed inclusive publishers have at least one of these issues, many that make no such claims are actually far more welcoming. But, then, I think the vast majority of editors are only interested in high-quality writing and not who wrote it. I just hope that not too many people are being put off submitting their work by either unintentionally unwelcoming inclusive editors or repeated tales of how other editors aren’t so inclusive. Most are. Try them.

Free ezines!

28 Oct

Everybody likes something for nothing, and sometimes the free stuff is actually worth something, like these three…

Download Sirens Call ezine – download pdfs of this horror fiction and poetry ezine for free. A new issue has just been released for Hallowe’en.

Tigershark ezine website – request your pdfs of this themed fiction and poetry ezine by emailing tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk . A new issue will be available for request on Hallowe’en, stocked with horror.

Read Bad Apple webzine and read the young adult fiction online.

In addition, remember that you can request recent issues of The Supplement and Awen in pdf by emailing atlanteanpublishing@hotmail.com and can read back issues of Awen Online online (the webzine is currently on hiatus).

Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.