Originally Published on Medium.com 12/10/2020
Unless you’re entrenched in the fiction writing world, early 2020 likely came and went without the American Dirt debacle making its way anywhere near your radar. Even a fair number of people who are passionate about writing missed the calamity set into motion by a series of tragic choices from publishers, publicists, marketers and yes, the author of the book, that all culminated in a reckoning of sorts within the publishing industry.
I say a reckoning of sorts because I’m not convinced the industry is really ready to change, but just as companies were quick to issue their “commitments” to being anti-racist in the midst of uprisings for Black Lives over the summer, so too did publishing giants and critics make some performative attempts to take responsibility for insensitive and insulting portrayals of the Mexican immigration experience as characterized in American Dirt. Without belaboring the glaring problems with the book and the way it was marketed and promoted (others who are better qualified have written at length about this) I use this as the starting point because it effectively launched the idea of “Authenticity Readers” into my consciousness.
At about the same time, I was still sending queries and proposals for my novel, Quiet Man, to publishers. Though I had done as much research as I could to capture the places and environments that I could not gain direct access to, namely slaughterhouses, I was concerned about my depiction of characters, especially a prominent character who is a Black man living in the south. Though I consider myself pretty conscious of issues of racism in American society, I am a white woman. Since I can observe racism and intellectualize what it is and why it happens, I have no lived experience to draw from to determine what exactly it looks and feels like to be the recipient of it.
In the midst of the American Dirt issues, conversations erupted, much needed conversations, about the importance of Own Voices writing and giving Black, Indigenous, People of Color and members of the LGBTQ and Trans communities greater platform, presence and visibility in the literary world.
I did some further research, including obtaining the book Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Though I highly recommend this book and the associated classes offered on this topic, I also wanted someone to pick apart my manuscript and tell me what I have missed. Quiet Man is meant to be an indictment of corporate greed and worker exploitation in the meat industry, it is meant to make people feel uncomfortable. But that discomfort is supposed to focus on our consumer choices, and not the result of my own ignorance.
But did I really need an authenticity reader? I asked myself. It was early into lockdown by now and being self-employed, I wasn’t sure if my work would stay consistent. This was also before unemployment benefits were extended to the self-employed and with many unknowns hovering on the horizon, I had to decide whether to make the investment of several hundred dollars or to just shrug it off and hope for the best.
But the last thing I wanted was for the book I had worked on for four years to do unintended harm to communities who saw misrepresented, unintentionally stereotyped, or caricatured portrayals in the characters. For this reason, I decided to move forward. A peer recommended My Two Cents editing and through this service I was connected to an Authenticity Reader, what some may call a Sensitivity Reader. I submitted my manuscript and then waited the ensuing weeks to receive feedback.
I had no idea what to expect. Would the reader respond that I had gotten everything wrong? That I should just give up? My work is intentionally set amidst a polarized community and features some pretty despicable characters intended to portray the racism and ignorance of some white people. Would the reader insist that I eliminate such characters because they say, do, and believe awful things? Would I receive a returned manuscript covered in big red X’s and criticism?
It turns out, none of these things were the case. But my fears reflected much of what people who need Authenticity Readers actually misunderstand about what an Authenticity Reader is and what they do.
What an Authenticity Reader Is
Just as a Developmental Editor will delve into your manuscript and give you feedback about their sense of what does and doesn’t work for the flow of the story, the Authenticity Reader makes sure that characters’ attitudes and experiences ring true.
This is controversial, as some people- usually white people resistant to the idea of using Authenticity Readers- point out, not all Black people will have the same reactions, experiences and so forth. This is definitely true, as it is true for any community. As a person with an acquired TBI, my experience of disability is not the same as someone who was born with a disability, nor is it the experience of a person whose disability is more visible. Yet having a TBI has made me more conscious of barriers in general.
While ideally, you would pick an Authenticity Reader who matches a character’s experience as closely as possible, the bottom line is no cultural, racial, gender, or other demographic group is monolithic. Yet the role of the Authenticity Reader is to look for red flags and to give feedback about ways in which you, the author, and not someone in the group you are describing, may unintentionally be describing your character’s experience from YOUR lens of what you think that person would do, especially if doing so portrays a group in harmful ways.
For example, I’ve read some great books by male authors who seamlessly portray female characters. Yet if I read a description of a woman who gets out of the shower, stands before a mirror, and admires her nipples, right away this tells me the author is living out his fantasy of what he thinks women do when they get out of the shower. Unless he has already made a convincing case that this character would stare at her breasts in the mirror and admire herself, it just stands out as a ridiculous male fantasy and not an authentic female character.
What an Authenticity Reader is NOT
Which leads me to an important point. Authenticity readers aren’t here to censor you. In fact, they can’t censor you. They have no power to prevent you from writing whatever you want, any more than a Developmental Editor can force you to make changes you don’t want to make. They offer insight, feedback and suggestions.
They are not out to sanitize your narrative or strip away the quirks and kinks from your characters that make said characters unique. They are professionals, and are looking for depictions that characters are acting in ways that will read as true. They are not out to make your characters nicer, kinder or more gentle. They aren’t out to crush your creativity.
Just as you may seek the feedback of a doctor if you are writing a novel about a character who works in a hospital, so too should you seek the guidance of an Authenticity Reader to help you write believable characters. The goal is not to conform to some standard of political correctness, but to represent the humanity of your character without unintentionally disparaging a community in the process.
What Could You Get Wrong?
Who knows what oversights can be made when you just don’t know what you don’t know? For perspective, though, here are a few of the pointers I gained from the feedback of the person who reviewed my manuscript. And I will add, ALL of the feedback was incredibly helpful. But a few things stand out.
In one scene, the character, who is a professional Black man living in North Carolina, reflects back on subtle ways that white people have indicated that they did not expect him to be intelligent. In my original writing, I used phrases that I have heard lowkey racist white people who are too polite to be openly racist in public, nevertheless say in reference to Black people. Yet the feedback I received is that the reader had never experienced white people making such a comment to his face, but that he was well aware such comments were made when white people thought he was out of earshot. Thus the detail of writing the reflection as comments heard out of earshot rather than in direct confrontation made the scene more authentic.
Of course as a white person, I had superimposed my experience of this phrase onto a scene in a way that would not have been accurate, because I had heard white people say it in front of me. Something lowkey racist white people do when they think they’ll find an ally in another white person, but not something they will likely do in front of a Black person.
In another scene, the same character uses the phrase “same old song and dance.” A phrase I’ve heard a million times and which reminds me of the song by Aerosmith. The feedback I received was that for him, this phrase connotes associations with Minstrel Shows and thus has some baggage that could work in the scene to make a point about institutionalized racism, yet he wanted to bring my attention to this in case it was not my intention to make this subtle link.
Again, a phrase like many others I have come to realize, has benign meanings for me as a white person and takes on a different context when read from the lens of someone else.
Though these may seem like small details, language has complex layers and in my view, a novel works best when it can be seen like a slice of layer cake, revealing numerous levels to those who want to look deeper, or just having a luscious layer of frosting on the top if that’s as far as you want to go. Correcting these and other details ensures that what is read into my story was intentional and not an unintentional and potentially distracting or harmful characterization.
Does this mean I am in the clear and no one will find my book offensive? No. Again, I don’t know what I don’t know and cultures are not monolithic. But it does mean I’ve done my due diligence to create characters who read authentically and who don’t perpetuate stereotypes ingrained into my subconscious as a white person in a racist society.
If you are including characters from diverse backgrounds in your work- and I hope you are- it is our responsibility to do so with sensitivity to how identities and communities are portrayed. Authenticity Readers can help you to check your own assumptions and biases and help you to create characters who don’t have to be “good” or “virtuous” but simply realistic, rather than continuations of harmful tropes.