I recently saw an article about Sensitivity Readers and what they mean for the publishing ecosystem. According to Writing in the Margins, "A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page. The goal of a sensitivity reader isn’t to edit a manuscript clarity and logic, although that may be an additional service offered. A sensitivity reader reviews a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language." Essentially they are word aggression police. They will help your characters be less offensive to a broad readership. They will also help uncover stereotypes and marginalizations that may exist in your narrative. They are here to help us poor writers who just don't know any better.
I know we live in an eggshell world comprised of social justice zealots and trigger warnings but isn't writing supposed to be an escape from that world? My characters use harmful slurs, my characters think in stereotypes. They're flawed and ugly. Bitter and broken. My bad guys rape and murder and whisper things that make me extremely uncomfortable to write. Even my YA writing is squick-worthy.
But wouldn't I reach a larger crowd if I kept the overall voice of the narrative just a little less offensive?
Do I care? If my book has any merit, it'll reach the people who need to read it. So what if someone's offended. In fact, wouldn't it be worse if no one was offended? I write about theocracies that degrade and humiliate women. Please be offended! This is horrible. I write about people who molest and harm children. I write characters who are assassins who value money above human life. I write people who struggle to be decent and fail, fail, fail. So they're going to think, say, and feel horrible things. So go on. Feel something. Be angry. Be angry at the story, at the writing, at the writer, at the barbed-wire world all around us hidden under everyone's niceties and social gloss. Be angry because somewhere in the world there's a woman who has to wear an anti-rape tube inside her vagina for when, not if, she gets violated. Be angry because the best we could do for presidential candidates was Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum.
I'm not saying don't wince at the N word. I'm not saying go out and be rude. I'm not saying use "faggot" when you want to call something "stupid." I hate that. It's very offensive to me. Which is why I continue to use it in my writing. It's why some of my characters marginalize women. It's why some of my characters think foreigners are evil. It's why some of my foreigners really are.
If we tame our narrative to the standards of social justice, then we're cheating ourselves. And, worse than that, we're cheating our characters. In the example from the article a character thought to himself that it would be easier for girls to come out as lesbian than for boys to come out as gay because everyone seems to like lesbians. This apparently was very offensive. Sure, in the real world, it is offensive because it's bullshit that one should be more accepted than the other. But in the book, why should the author have to change her fucking character's personal thoughts just to downplay an incorrect social assumption?
Perhaps a character says something offensive that you the writer hadn't intended to be offensive. Well, unless it's a legitimate typo on the author's part, I'd say your character just told you something about himself, and you should listen and expand on that. The straight choir director calls the Altos the "Flaming Lips" as a joke. You as the writer are innocently trying to reference the musical group, but your reader understands some form of latent homophobia. Play. That. Shit. Up. Your straight little choir director just became a lot more flawed, a lot more interesting, and a much better character. Not a better person, mind you, but definitely a better character.
During my MFA, Sterling Watson shared one of his many mantras, "Make it worse. Make it hot." If you've got a racist character, then let him be racist. Make it as horrible for your character as it is for your reader. Make your reader feel something. The sensitivity reader would have us objectively portraying difficulties between characters without allowing the inner voice to dip into the crude sludge that shapes the human condition. I would use the sensitivity reader for one thing: seek thee out all of my offensive bullshit so that I may pour gasoline on it and watch people lose their fucking minds.
"I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I'm afraid it will not be controversial." ~ Flannery O'Conner