On Hiring 'Sensitivity Readers' to Flag Potentially Offensive Content
The Chicago Tribune published an article earlier this week which, ironically enough, might have benefited from exactly the assistance described in the article.
Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.
These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as "dealing with terminal illness," "racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families" or "transgender issues."
Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.
Last year, for instance, J.K. Rowling was strongly criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in the 2016 story "History of Magic in North America." Young-adult author Keira Drake was forced to revise her fantasy novel "The Continent" after an online uproar over its portrayal of people of color and Native backgrounds. …
For authors looking for sensitivity readers beyond their fan base there is the Writing in the Margins database, a resource of about 125 readers created by Justina Ireland, author of the YA books "Vengeance Bound" and "Promise of Shadows." Ireland started the directory last year after hearing other authors at a writing retreat discuss the difficulties in finding people of different backgrounds to read a manuscript and give feedback about such, well, sensitive matters.
I found this piece on The Passive Voice blog, where reactionaries had taken to the comment section to express the agony they experienced when reading that some publishers are now more considerate of readers' feelings because those publishers were interested in not pissing off potential customers.
Yes, those reactionaries weren’t being forced to do anything, but they were still in too much pain to remain silent. Several complained about the "permanently offended club" who are "triggered" by the smallest thing while completely missing the point that they themselves were "permanently offended" by the ideas in the article and had been "triggered" when the article suggested that one should respect one’s market.
Me, I read the article and thought it could have made the point while at the same time neutering the complaints. All that would take would be to remove mentions of "offending" readers and instead focus on mistakes like the one Baen Books made with David Weber’s Fire Season.
Tor.com pointed out how the book reflects a male viewpoint rather than the female viewpoint of the main character.
And ye gods and little fishes, guys, I hate to say it? But some of the descriptive writing here is really quite a) out of character for teenagers, and b) noticeably sexist.
Kate Elliott recently wrote an excellent article, “The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes.” So much of how Stephanie relates to her own body, and to the bodies of her female peers, is mediated through such a clearly objectifying lens (and one which appears to equate, at least on a subconscious level, teenage sexuality with moral hazard) that it’s hard not to see an adult male gaze at work.
We were teenage girls once, and it’s not so long ago that we can’t remember—quite clearly—how it felt. (And I got enough female socialisation in all-girls-school that I’ve some idea how a wide variety of girls bemoan their bodies – LB.) (Likewise, in an all-women college – JK.) Very little of Stephanie’s thoughts about breasts, and body types, and her peers’ bodies, feels authentic.
That flaw could have been caught by a sensitivity reader. Fixing it would only require minor editing, and would have resulted in a better book.
And that, as much as anything, is why sensitivity readers can be valued contributors. They could spell the difference between a book being hailed as authentic as opposed to being the literary equivalent of yellow face.
image by kennymatic