Sense and Sensitivity

How Not to Write a Book

The sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they might not understand or respect.

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A few thoughts on the art of scribbling:

Maybe you have heard that writing is a lonely job. This can be true if you’re lucky. This means that it is easier to live with someone who still doesn’t quite believe writing is a real job than someone who reveres the written word—your written word—and wants to talk about it over dinner. There are writers—mostly poets, I think—who bring this on themselves, who are incapable of letting go of their words even long enough to eat, and read from their day’s work until the steam from the boiled meat and potatoes fogs up their reading glasses.

There is something about women I know who revere the written word that makes them want to boil food. I think it is because in their hearts they do not believe cooking is also an art. No, I don’t know if it works the other way around, when the wife is the poet. I did know a guy named Jim Harrison, a man’s man who died recently and was not only a wonderful writer but also a wonderful cook. As far as I know, though, his nature never gave itself over to domestic life.

This is not to say that nobody should talk about writing. Word of mouth, as the publishers say when they don’t want to pay for a half-page ad in the Sunday book section, is the fundamental selling tool of book-selling. This assumes of course that people talk about books, which most of them don’t.

Also good for sales is if your book gets lucky enough to win one of the big awards, and speaking of that, the most depressing literary day you are ever likely to have is your anniversary, the day of the following year when the new winners of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer are announced, and you sit in your little office, staring at the article beginning on the bottom of page one—page one, at least, if the newspaper you read happened to win a Pulitzer or two for its own that year—speaking through gritted teeth to the only being in the world sensitive enough to understand, your beloved Labrador retriever/basset hound amalgamation, Lester. “They gave it away, Les. They just… fucking… gave it to somebody else.” For Lester, who has always been handled gently, it is a very confusing morning. As far as he knows, this is the first thing he’s ever done wrong.

So one afternoon you’re on the way home from the post office, waiting for NPR’s Terry Gross to come on with her nightly report on the arts, Fresh Air. This is a couple of weeks ago. Terry Gross does talk about books, and over the last 20-odd years she has done more good for writers—and readers—than anybody else you can think of. She and NPR are the argument against the 30-second attention span.

It develops that you are a few minutes early tuning in today, and before Fresh Air starts, NPR airs a little story about a Seattle writer named Will Taylor, whose first book, Maggie and Abby’s Never Ending Pillow Fort, is due for publication by HarperCollins next year.

Pillow Fort tweaks your interest because before Taylor sent it off to the publisher, he sent the manuscript to a woman in New York named Bethany Morrow, who edited it for sensitivity. How the story got to NPR is anybody’s guess, and Morrow there presents her services as pure logic. She says that if you are writing a novel about a 17th-century botanist, you would presumably research the subject.

There is however a necessary point that Morrow has not addressed, which is why would you be writing about a 17th-century botanist in the first place. You just woke up that morning and felt like taking a crack at it? That is not how it happens. Something catches you, some character or event that you sense you might already understand and claim for your own, and that connection, that personal connection, is where the novel comes from. It is also where the work is, and the art, if there is any. Sometimes that connection is all you really have for years.

Which is why after you have done what you can do, it is up to the reader to engage your story or not, and if the reader gives up on it because it doesn’t meet his political or social expectations, well, that guy does not count. You are not writing to repeat something your reader already knows.

In any case, Morrow sent Taylor several pages of criticism, which the author says he gratefully accepted and employed. He now says he can’t imagine not using a sensitivity editor on all his books to come.

Beyond that, it’s hard to know what went on. The example cited on NPR was a black character named Myesha who rolled her head and, in Mr. Taylor’s words, “had an attitude.” Morrow argued that because Myesha was the only black character in the story, she had to embody more positive traits. This is completely the opposite, wrong way to find a character.

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Beyond that, I can’t say much. Nobody will talk about what Pillow Fort is. Taylor wrote quite a long, cordial email refusing to talk about it.

Morrow—an author herself who’s written elsewhere in gauzy terms about what it is she does as a “sensitivity reader” with rates starting at $250 because “there can be problematic content in the work… if you’re writing about Black American history and/or identity, and any of these intersections (or these topics on their own): womanness, motherhood, family dynamics (including sisterhood and sibling dynamics in larger families), higher education (specifically PWIs), expatriation, international travel, interracial relationships, accelerated education programs (specifically GATE and International Baccalaureate), invisible disability, performance cultures (ex: marching band, drill team, dance, etc)”—wrote a shorter, pretty cordial email refusing to talk about her work for Taylor.

Over at HarperCollins, a publicist, who is presumably paid to talk about books, did not reply to three days of requests, and then finally offered a one-sentence explanation of what the book was. On the other hand, one of the first things you learn about the book business is publicists are not self-starters, and you need a cattle prod to get them off their asses.

It is slightly less surprising that Morrow didn’t want to talk. She may glimpse that she’s fighting unintentional stereotypes with deliberate stereotypes—this from All Things Considered:

“What I want to see happen is for people to take responsibility for their privilege and that if you actively want to be part of the solution, you are going to have to forfeit your privilege. There is no way around it. You can’t keep it and also make an acceptable situation for everyone else.”

I have to wonder what privilege Morrow wants writers to forfeit. Getting up at five in the morning, every morning, so you can write 500 words before you go to work? Gambling all those mornings—years of mornings—against the long odds that you’re good enough to publish, much less can make a living at it? Self doubt? Reviews? Reviewers? Whole afternoons with tight-mouthed little grammarians who want to argue about punctuation—who do not understand the simple sentence, Fuck semi-colons?

Speaking of privilege, the sensitivity editors apparently believe they are entitled to some say in a process they might not understand or respect. The presumptive thing is not writing a character from a different race, it is inventing a whole character at all.

Taylor, though, says Morrow is “awesome,” and that he wants his books to be safe places, and if what we’re talking about is only books for tots, there’s no real argument. If Taylor—and the sensitivity editors—intend to aim higher, then he needs to understand that a greeting card is not a story.