Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We live in divisive times. As boundaries between ethnicities, nationalities, social classes, sexualities, and genders are chipped away, the old norms of personal, national, sexual, ethnic, and economic identification and organization must be reevaluated. This is, unsurprisingly, a messy, dramatic, sometimes unpleasant, but ultimately necessary process, and the results impact everything – including publishing.
In 2018, Amélie Wen Zhao decided to cancel the publication of her debut YA novel, Blood Heir, which had been due to be published with Delacorte, because early reviewers denounced the novel as ‘blatantly racist.’
Zhao isn’t the first writer to have delayed or cancelled publication in the face of Twitter condemnation. In 2016, Keira Drake’s The Continent was described as ‘racist garbage’ and had its publication delayed for two years while Drake rewrote it; Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch found its Goodreads page flooded with negative reviews due to its apparently bigoted content; and, in February of this year, Kosoko Jackson canceled publication of A Place for Wolves. Tamera Cook, the especially furious Goodreads reviewer who kicked the whole controversy off, described A Place for Wolves as:
[a] book about American ‘boys cuddling’ […] set during a genocide, where the moral of the story is ‘Hey, nothing is black and white, and a lot of those victims did awful things too, and maybe they sometimes had it coming. – Temera Cook, Goodreads review
Ouch. Now, maybe you’re a YA writer set to face off against these stern-faced gatekeepers. Maybe you’ve incorporated historical elements or have tried to tackle some prickly subjects relating to race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. How do you ensure you’ve walked the line? How do you avoid verbal crucifixion?
The first step is to take a deep breath and quash any sense of affronted self-righteousness you may feel in response to this modern phenomenon. I’m trying very hard to avoid getting political here, but suffice to say that launching into noble monologues about free speech or Voltaire or 1984 or ‘political correctness gone mad’ isn’t going to change the situation. Whether this type of reader reaction is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, it’s a fact of modern publishing, and that means it’s time to be practical.
And, in this case, being practical might mean looking into hiring a sensitivity reader to go through your manuscript. But what is a sensitivity reader? What do they do? Isn’t this all new-age nonsense? Let’s find out.
What are sensitivity readers?
A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript with the express purpose of identifying and questioning plot elements, characters, language, and tropes that come across as inauthentic, lazy, stereotypical, or downright offensive. Typically, sensitivity readers are brought in by authors who are trying to write about a culture to which they don’t personally belong – for example, a white American woman might hire an African-American sensitivity reader to check her novel about a black man growing up in Harlem, or a Chinese man might hire a middle-aged British lesbian to check his story about growing up queer during the UK miners’ strike.
Sensitivity readers can be friends, colleagues, internet strangers, or professionals. Perhaps you have a gay friend willing to look over your story about the Stonewall riots, or perhaps your publisher has an in-house sensitivity reader whose job it is to run a fine-toothed comb through your text. Either way, they’re not out to censor your writing, and they’re not looking for excuses to scream, “Ah hah! Describing a Native American’s eyes as ‘almond-shaped?’ I knew you were basically Hitler!” before hurrying off to spread righteous indignation on Twitter.
Indeed, ‘sensitivity reader’ is a rather unfortunate title that may contribute to the outrage sometimes provoked when this role comes up; it suggests that readers are all delicate, sensitive flowers too fragile to have their preconceptions about the world questioned, but that’s not what’s going on at all. It’s not readers that sensitivity readers protect; it’s writers and, more importantly for those who’re putting down the cash, publishing houses. Publishers don’t want to worry about bad PR, and sensitivity readers can help minimize risk (if only by acting as shields post-controversy – “Hey, we hired a sensitivity reader, we tried!”)
A better term would be ‘authenticity reader’ or ‘cultural expert,’ because, ninety percent of the time, a sensitivity reader’s job isn’t to root out fascist dogwhistling – it’s to make your book better by ensuring your writing comes across as authentic, genuine, and humane. As a reader, which would you prefer to encounter in a YA book:
A lazy, hackneyed, clichéd African-American teen written by someone who, you’re forced to conclude, sourced everything they know about black American culture from nineties sitcoms and NWA
A well-rounded and realistic character whose defining features and characteristics are rooted in the lived experiences of actual African Americans?
It’s a no-brainer. Sensitivity readers aren’t about protecting fragile millennials; they’re about making books better.
Their power is limited
It’s easy to read about professional sensitivity readers and fire-breathing Twitter/Goodreads armies and conclude that free speech is dead and that Orwell’s 1984 is yet again coming true. One gleeful commenter on the New York Times article about Zhou’s Blood Heir found his stride particularly eloquently:
That humming noise you hear is Ray Bradbury – author of Fahrenheit 451 – spinning in his grave. We used to be afraid of government censorship. No longer. We have met the censors, and they are us.– badubois, The New York Times comments
That’s right folks, Stalin’s back, and he’s coming for our books!
Except that, actually, sensitivity readers aren’t stern arbiters stood with halberds crossed between stuttering, wide-eyed authors and literary stardom. They actually have no say in whether a book will be published or not, no power over the author, and nothing to threaten/bribe anyone with. They can’t choose to accept or reject manuscripts, the changes they propose can be stripped away by editors, and their advice is likely to be flatly ignored by commissioning editors and C-suite staff if sales predictions forecast wild success.
Sensitivity readers are just advisers – professionals that the writer can utilize or not, listen to or ignore, thank or insult. They’re not about to drag you to the gulag if you don’t make your warrior prince gender-fluid.
I’ve mentioned already that a sensitivity reader’s job is rooted more in ensuring authenticity than it is in shielding sensitive readers; when all is said and done, they’re editors, not censors. Now, I may be an editor, but don’t let that put you off believing me when I say that the more you get can an editor to look at your book, the better.
Here’s what YA author Anna Hecker had to say about her experience with her sensitivity readers:
Ms. Alter from the New York Times might be surprised to learn that, rather than censoring my book, my sensitivity readers made it objectively better. By pointing out places where I’d unwittingly succumbed to stereotypes, they helped me create richer, more nuanced characters.– Anna Hecker, Writer’s Digest
Just like traditional editors, sensitivity readers trim back cliché, question stereotypes, flesh out two-dimensional characters, enrich settings, and provide fresh and detached perspectives. They’re trying to help, and by all accounts, they’re pretty good at it. As author James M. Tilton observes, many authors who doubt the value of sensitivity readers would jump at this type of service in any other area of research.
In just about every other way, writers as a group are notoriously obsessed with accuracy. We’re the folks who go down hours-long digital rabbit holes to iron out the most mundane details. And yet too many of us have a lower set of standards when it comes to our marginalized characters. It’s as if some authors care more about getting poisons right than representing black characters… All of my sensitivity readers have provided me with honest, courteous, and confidential revision notes. Many of these readers are authors themselves, and others are professional editors who had ideas as to how I could improve not only my representation but also my plot, pacing, and characterization. By engaging these sensitivity readers early in the revision process, I was able to make important and substantial changes to my manuscript before sending it to a publishing house. If I’d waited until later in the process, looking simply for a last-minute thumbs-up, I would have missed out on the opportunity to improve both my representation and my manuscript as a whole.– James M. Tilton, ‘Sensitivity Readers! What Are They Good For? (A Lot.)’, Publishers Weekly
Yes, they’ll question your more controversial content – but that’s all they’ll do. Question. The most a sensitivity reader can do is make you reflect on why you’ve made a given choice in your writing. In doing so, they may prompt you to discover a better choice or they may just give you a preview of what you’ll hear in the court of public opinion. Either way, you stand to gain.
Fear not the sensitivity reader
Sensitivity readers are nothing to worry about and, regardless of your politics or your views on the matter, they should be recognized for what they are: another useful (and optional!) tool in the writer’s toolbox.
They’re uniquely equipped to pick up on flaws that may have passed your traditional editor by, and they can improve the authenticity of your story, world, and characters while broadening your potential readership and minimizing the number of people you inadvertently sideline or offend. In publishing, that’s as close to a win-win situation as you can get.
Have you used a sensitivity reader? What do you think of them? Let me know (sensitively) in the comments, and for more great advice on this subject, check out Why Authors Need To Take Care When Writing The Other Gender and What To Consider When Writing Mental Illness.