When I first heard about Sensitivity Readers, I rolled my eyes. Almost immediately afterward, I stopped and gave the position some thought, deciding that maybe it might be beneficial. Then I researched the job and now I’m not too sure what I feel.
WHAT IS IT!?
Sensitivity Readers are self-described cultural experts in areas of marginalized communities, who, for a fee, will read a manuscript for racist, sexist, and offensive content and provide feedback to publishers/authors. Yeah, it’s a mouthful.
Now, before you make any judgments, let’s break this down.
*Note: from what I can tell, Sensitivity Readers are only being used in fiction writing. With that in mind, the following list only focuses on how a Sensitivity Reader could impact a fictional story.
1. Better Representation
Accurate representation matters! Media is one of the most powerful tools a person has at their disposal, and as Marie Wilson famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” So it only makes sense that fictional characters be accurate. Nothing makes me quit a story faster than when the only LGBTQIA character is a cookie-cutter stereotype.
From my understanding of what a Sensitivity Reader does, they’re there to reduce the number of offensive characters in popular literature. Which in turn will lead to more realistic characters, which will hopefully beget more honest stories. And better representation will decrease stereotypes and increase world empathy. Yeah, I’m hopelessly optimistic.
2. Better Research
Everyone knows that research is a vital part of writing a book. When writers don’t research, their stories always feel inauthentic. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of stories I’ve read that are set in Salem, MA but have no concept of locations. I’m sorry, but City Hall isn’t anywhere near the public library or Pickering Wharf. Google Map that shit.
Authors often hire consultants to teach them about historical time periods, cities, terminology – so why not hire someone to consult on cultural norms in marginalized communities? It’s impossible for an author to know everything about every group of people, and it’s irresponsible to say writers shouldn’t write characters outside their cultural community, so why not hire someone to double check your work? I don’t think Sensitivity Readers will be “thought police” (eye roll) but instead, will act as consultants on humanity.
The most questionable part of the Sensitivity Reader job description is how it’s self-appointed. Anyone can say they’re an expert in something – it doesn’t make it true. Example: I can say I’m an authority on chicken throwing when, in reality, I’ve never held a living chicken.
This problem breaks down into two worries: one is the lack of formal training. I have actual, real-world training in editing. I know how to separate myself from a piece so that I can examine it for grammatical, contextual, and syntaxial issues. Editing isn’t just making sure everything is correct; it’s making sure the story is possible. If someone doesn’t have experience separating their feelings from editing, they could make comments/suggestions that hurt the story more than help it.
The second worry ties back to the first pro: will the hired Sensitivity Reader make changes for a more accurate representation or will they make changes based on limited personal experiences? If someone asked me to be a Sensitivity Reader for a story that focuses on an Asian-American girl going to college in Michigan, I’d have no fucking clue what to suggest. I have not been Asian, female, or living in Michigan for even a second of my life. Even people in marginalized groups have nuanced experiences – a person of color living in Miami experiences racism differently than someone living in Seattle, or how people with Asperger’s can’t tell how someone with Autism would react in a situation.
There are similarities, but there are also key differences, and I worry that self-appointed experts won’t really know and understand those differences.
2. Literary Restrictions
First, Sensitivity Readers are not censorship. If you don’t want a Sensitivity Reader reviewing your work, don’t send it to a publishing company employing them. Publish online or send it to a different company – there are other options and methods to get your story out into the world.
That said, great literature is painful – it tackles uncomfortable questions and makes readers re-examine their lives. While I don’t foresee Sensitivity Readers blocking marginalized groups’ experiences from being published, I can see how easy this system could turn authentic stories into watered-downed versions. Consider how, in the late 80s/early 90s, there was an influx of Strong Female Characters that lost some of their feminine personality in order to be badass. Compare She-Ra, who is basically just a female He-Man, to Storm, who is badass but still had storylines centered in female experiences. I worry that Sensitivity Readers will breed new stereotypes instead of combating existing ones.
I see potential in having a Sensitivity Reader review a story. Ignoring problematic media doesn’t solve the issue. But I can also see how a Sensitivity Reader can negatively impact a story.
Leave your thoughts in the comments. Do you think Sensitivity Readers will help the publishing industry or hurt it? Would you want a Sensitivity Reader to go over your manuscript?