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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. 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.

Chicago Tribune

image by kennymatic

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Mackay Bell February 18, 2017 um 6:18 pm

Obviously, beta readers and content editors can be helpful to authors. If they have personal experience in the subject matter, they can be all the more helpful. But one can’t always assume that whatever input they have will make it “better.” That’s up to the author to decide.

The problem with this new “sensitivity” thing is that seems to be a one way street. How sensitive was it for you to broadly portray those objecting to the idea as “reactionaries” who “express agony” about it?
It’s easy and trendy to condemn male writers for writing “unrealistic” women characters, particularly if they are “sexist.” (Sexist according to Camille Paglia or Julia Long? Or Gloria Steinheim who thought that the only reason young women were supporting Bernie Sanders was to hang out with the boys.) But is anyone going to police romance novels written by women to make sure they present accurate males? I’ve certainly read plenty where I thought, “no man would think this.” But perhaps that is part of the fantasy, a male character who thinks more about feelings and emotions than most men are likely too. Likewise, there are certainly some men who (often under a female alias) write colorful romantic female characters who are less like real women and more like some women might imagine a strong woman might be. If a writer is going to be attacked for portraying a woman as a sexual fantasy is another going to be attacked for portraying one as too confident and independent? Realism is not always the goal of writing.

I find the films of Kathryn Bigelow very interesting because, I believe through her “female gaze,” she often infuses them with homoerotic tension which a male director (even a gay one) would probably avoid or handle differently. She brings a different sensibility to male characters. I don’t think it’s more realistic, but its different. I don’t think that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter thinks like a typical young boy (at least from my perspective) but that doesn’t take anything away from the story for me. And Fifty Shades of Grey’s male lead is a very strange fantasy of a very damaged weird male. But obviously some readers love it.

While it might seem sensible for a white male writer to have input from a Japanese woman if that’s what their novel is about, is an African American woman going to be forced to get input from a conservative white guy if she’s writing something attacking racism in the Alt-Right? Should environmentalists get input from businessmen about industrial waste? Why do I suspect that sensitivity readers will be asked to weight in on some hot button cultural issues and not others?

I think there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of this trend, particularly because they seemed to need to invent a new term “sensitivity reader” for it. (How about just encouraging writers to get more input and to do research?) I don’t think it’s unreasonable for some people to feel its part of the slippery slope of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” which are basically a form of censorship pushing narrow political agendas. Censorship of any kind, even self-censorship, almost always expands and limits what subjects writers are allowed to tackle.

There is good writing and bad writing. Seems like the focus should be on that.

Darryl February 18, 2017 um 9:52 pm

Mackay, you put things far more eloquently and diplomatically than I would have, and I endorse your comments. There is only one thing which I wish to elaborate on. This type of innovation will stand or fall in the marketplace. If "sensitivity readers" in fact add real value to a book by providing constructive and relevant feedback from a different perspective, they will last. This is the way Nate is assuming they will operate. Because, as You, Nate and I seem to agree, this will produce better books. Though in this case I think the term "sensitivity reader" is a misnomer for a role which involves commenting on a book from a different perspective. However, if in fact they operate to enforce political correctness and ensure writing that will not offend any conceivable person or groups (except perhaps white male heterosexuals) then they will I think be a short lived experiment.

In the real world I suspect we will see both. The former will result in better books. The latter will result in bland inoffensive books devoid of real examination of any controversial themes or topics.

Mackay Bell February 19, 2017 um 1:32 am

"This type of innovation will stand or fall in the marketplace."

The problem is that the big 5 publishing companies do everything they can to shield themselves from market realities. Most of their profits come from their backlists and a few proven writers. They are so huge they can spend huge amounts of money promoting pet projects, like literary fiction from the latest critical darling that clearly has little market potential.

I certainly have no concern over an individual writer using "sensitivity readers." Or a small publishing company that is concerned with their image. But I suspect what will happen is large conglomerates will decided to inflict political correctness on everything they publish using profits from old Robert Heinlein titles. Not that there isn’t a certain irony in that, but I would rather see the money used to directly promote women sci-fi writers or writers of color, rather than hiring more middle management to tell writers what to do. Why not focus on raising writers advances and picking writers that actually know how to write? I never felt Hemingway really understood how women thought, but he wrote beautifully about what Hemingway believed women thought. There’s some value in that too.

Darryl February 19, 2017 um 2:35 am

Totally agree. I was almost going to include a similar point. Though I do expect that the market will still determine the matter. If the large conglomerates do take this approach, and I too suspect they might, I think it will simply hasten their decline. I can’t imagine wanting to read such sanitised books. I think I’ll let Stephen King make my point for me in this short excerpt from The Running Man:

"He had brought Richards three books he had never heard of: two golden oldies titled God Is an Englishman and Not as a Stranger and a huge tome written three years ago called The Pleasure of Serving. Richards peeked into that one first and wrinkled his nose. Poor boy makes good in General Atomics. Rises from engine wiper to gear tradesman. Takes night courses (on what? Richards wondered, Monopoly money?). Falls in love with beautiful girl (apparently syphilis hadn’t rotted her nose off yet) at a block orgy. Promoted to junior technico following dazzling aptitude scores. Three-year marriage contract follows, and-
Richards threw the book across the room. God Is an Englishman was a little better. He poured himself a bourbon on the rocks and settled into the story."

Tal February 19, 2017 um 1:39 am

I’ll take my fiction in the author’s original voice, you can keep your realism, thanks. The whole sensitivity reader farce is just more Orwellian overreach by the alt-left to purge all things offensive. The market should take care of it eventually as the majority of readers aren’t interested in their escapist fiction being tone policed or given a stamp of approval by the outrage brigade.

Moriah February 19, 2017 um 9:15 am

Eh, well, if publishers hadn’t already been serving up inoffensive, bland, milquetoast books trying to be inoffensive and safe, self-publishing wouldn’t have exploded, would it?

Speaking of romance generally, the 1970s were far less puritanical about its storylines (or at all) than it is now, for all readers crow about kick-ass heroines (yeah, no—go read some bodice rippers for some seriously adventurous and cunning women). The 1980s and 1990s had some super-innovative and fearless storylines and characters.mAnd then … the 2000s happened. Milquetoast characters and tired, inoffensive plots. What offense there is now you have to look for with a magnifying glass.

There’s a reason YA caught on with adult women and there’s a reason 50 Shades went nuts. I doubt it would’ve gotten that much traction in the 70s because it’s kind of par for the course in that time period.

Will Entrekin February 19, 2017 um 12:29 pm

Talk about a great idea utterly ruined by a terrible descriptor. "Sensitivity readers"? I think I would have gone with something about margins, because that’s what it seems like it’s doing — trying to be cognizant of characters who belong to groups who have been marginalized in the past as depicted by authors who aren’t members of those groups. "Inclusive Consultant"? I don’t agree with the man’s political stances, but I think people would benefit from reading Frank Luntz’s Words That Work.

To Mackay’s question "is an African American woman going to be forced to get input from a conservative white guy if she’s writing something attacking racism in the Alt-Right? Should environmentalists get input from businessmen about industrial waste?" I’d respond that the environmental issue is more one of policy than culture, so probably not. With regard to the recent resurgence of Nationalism, just the fact that it’s ever called "Alt-Right" is arguably demonstrative that it hasn’t been marginalized, and in fact, just the opposite; members of the fringe movement, and especially its leaders (I’m thinking mainly of Spencer, but there have been others) have been the subject of sometimes fawning profiles that emphasize their looks and power to mobilize their followers over their anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-feminism, etc.

Mackay Bell February 19, 2017 um 2:29 pm

My argument would be that the environmentalist wouldn’t have to get notes about fair treatment of industrial waste politics because they are on the "correct" side of the issue. But I can easily see a writer being censored by a corporate sensitivity reader if they wrote about a corrupt scientist rigging global warming data to get environmental grant money. Harper Collins censored Nick Cole for using a vaguely pro-life premise in a sci-fi story. Once entrenched in a corporate setting I doubt "sensitivity readers" would limit themselves to "culture." (And much of culture is mixed with politics anyway.) The Hays Code in Hollywood originally started to censor sex and violence, and not to offend religions, but quickly broadened to making sure blacks didn’t dance with whites, police were always portrayed postively, social institutions were never portrayed as corrupt, toilets were never shown flushing, etc., etc.

I don’t know much about Spencer other than it seemed to be widely accepted that it was okay to punch him in the face (under the popular it’s okay to punch a Fascist meme). It seems the main stream press has been very negative about him, rarely going past describing him as a neo-Nazi. What fawning profiles are you referring too?

Will Entrekin February 19, 2017 um 4:56 pm

I was referring specifically to this one:

But there was also one in the LA Times.

You can read more here:

I think Nazi-ism is a real threat to a great many people. This new re-branding as "Alt-Right" doesn’t mitigate the message of hatred, genocide, and White supremacy. It’s truly terrifying, and so far as I’ve seen most of the people who aren’t worried about it or who dismiss/normalize it are white men who aren’t really threatened by it.

Mackay Bell February 19, 2017 um 11:16 pm

I didn’t find either piece "fawning." Mother Jones makes it extremely clear he’s a racist and uses the word Nazi half a dozen times.

That the Daily Dot attacks the Mother Jones piece (and a LA Times Tweet?) for not being vicious enough adds to my concern that the problem is not just political correctness to avoid offending people, but political correctness requiring black and white ideological conformity and outrage on demand.

If you think the concerns about political correctness are only coming from white men I suggest you check out Sonnie Johnson and Diamond and Silk.

Will Entrekin February 20, 2017 um 12:42 am

"An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a "fashy" (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic."

Like I said, fawning.

"Political correctness" is a conservative invention. I’m not advocating for black and white anything. Just noting that Nazi-ism is a problem, and further noting that though hate crimes have declined since a huge spike near the election, they’re still a problem.


Regarding your final sentence, I’m not sure you’re reading very well. I never mentioned "political correctness," which is largely an invention of conservatives who want it to be okay that they’re racist/misogynist/xenophobic etc. Sonnie Johnson and Diamond & Silk are part of the problem. (If you’re citing, or even reading, Breitbart, you’re part of the problem.)

Tal February 20, 2017 um 11:18 am

Will Entrekin wrote: "Sonnie Johnson and Diamond & Silk are part of the problem. (If you’re citing, or even reading, Breitbart, you’re part of the problem.)"

What is "the problem" you are referring to here?

Tal February 19, 2017 um 5:19 pm

LOL, the only people who should read "Words That Work" are the masses of uninformed Fox viewers so they can see how easily they are manipulated with rhetoric.

This isn’t a "great idea utterly ruined by a terrible descriptor" it’s just an utterly terrible idea. I’m also not in the minority with that opinion, just check out the hundreds of comments on the Slate article from two weeks ago on the same subject.

tired February 20, 2017 um 10:20 am

"Sensitivity readers" are not literary critics, they’re bullies with an agenda. Say no to censorship.

Speaking of misuse of words, no one is triggered by an article on the Passive Voice. Being triggered is a strong, emotional reaction and display of intolerance. Like in a lecture brutal holocaust pictures are shown, that might trigger some students in the audience who will not take and should not be expected to take it. Triggered is not synonymous with "mildly annoyed." That is a problem with both sides of the triggered culture debate. They don’t understand where the word originates from and when it is appropriately used.

The entire article has an implicit attitude of apathy for the importance of language. When you don’t know the importance of words a writer chooses and their significance then you wouldn’t see a problem with "sensitivity reader" hacks raping a sentence a writer might have spent half an hour revising.

It should be their work whether you are offended or not. There is a slippery slope or logical progression from minor censorship like that to book banning. If you think about it, it is the same justification. It benefits the community some would say. By blocking or revising this the more sensitive elements or the moral upright will not be stained. And so it goes.

Tal February 20, 2017 um 11:14 am

Yes as someone who has read Nate’s blog for just over a year I was disappointed with his use of hyperbole to mis-characterize the responses to the PV blog.

Nate Hoffelder February 20, 2017 um 11:52 am

“Sensitivity readers” are not literary critics, they’re bullies with an agenda. Say no to censorship.

So when publishers hire sensitivity readers as contract employees they are really hiring bullies? Really?

Tal February 20, 2017 um 2:20 pm

Nate Hoffelder wrote:"So when publishers hire sensitivity readers as contract employees they are really hiring bullies? Really?"

Absolutely. Bullying requires two things to exist, an imbalance of power (that of the publisher and the "sensitivity" readers they hire to act as an agent on their behalf over the author) and the bullying act itself, in this case the forced sanitization or purging of anything found to be "insensitive" or offensive in the author’s writing. I found it a more than a little disturbing at how you tried to normalize this as just part of the editing process and even suggested ways to "sell it" …

Bullying isn’t just physical, in fact I’d argue most bullying that occurs today is social and if you look at this situation from a macro, or institutional level, you can’t help but see it. No one would refute that the high school senior who shakes down the freshman for his lunch money is a bully right? So why is it that any group of (insert self-defined marginalized class) people can gang up on an author or publisher and insist they get content approval else face the fallout as they slander/libel and otherwise drag you up and down social media (causing actual "harm" under the law and not just "hurt feelings" or "triggered emotions"), continually gets a pass for such aggressive, bullying behavior?

The free market allows for social and moral activism by consumers in their choice of reading material, they can read it or not. They can buy it or not. When select groups band together to try and prevent those books from even making it to the free market, or to make sure it "conforms" to their world view before allowing it to be published you have truly entered Orwellian territory and if you can’t see that, then you are definitely part of the problem. The "problem" I am referring to is the complete and total repudiation of the First Amendment and tolerance for diversity of ideas, except of course when it comes to ones you happen to agree with. 😉

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2018 um 6:35 pm

yes, because hiring someone as your employee/contractor means they get to bully you

Darryl February 20, 2017 um 7:11 pm

Here in Australia years ago the host of one of our talk show hosts called Muhammad Ali "boy" djuring an interview, to which he of course reacted. It was a simple misunderstanding which was quickly sorted out and both the host and the boxer behaved graciously. The host intended no disrespect to Ali and the use of the word in this context in Australia did not carry the same loaded meaning as in the United States. A sensitivity checker may play a useful role in preventing this type of misunderstanding. Ali is probably one of the last people I would intend to insult, particularly face to face, and I’m sure the host would have appreciated the opportunity to avoid doing so.

Unfortunately, I fear institutionalised Sensitivity Chcikers will go far beyond this role, sanitising lest any person or group be offended and stifling different points of view.

Vikarti Anatra February 25, 2017 um 9:05 pm

"Sesnsitiy reader" may help but it should be author’s decision (author and not management) to use their input. Sometimes it makes sense (mistakes happen), sometimes not. Sometimes author perfectly understood that some details could be seen as wrong by somebody and ok with it.
This could VERY easily move into censorship.

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2018 um 4:03 pm


Episode 10: News Roundtable – February 2017 – Publishing Without Supervision Podcast February 27, 2017 um 3:09 am

[…] On Hiring ‘Sensitivity Readers’ to Flag Potentially Offensive Content […]

Another Reader March 12, 2018 um 7:37 pm

If an author is racist or sexist or homophobic, and it shows in their writing, why should they get to have the visible signs of it scrubbed out until they no longer show? It doesn’t change the underlying mindset that created the work. The author should have the guts to take responsibility for what they put out there. They might learn something from the reaction. Or they might shut their ears to feedback and carry on, but you can’t force people to stop being racist/etc. Publishers are always trying to avoid risk and all they’re doing by hiring sensitivity readers is CYA. It doesn’t help anyone in the fight for equality or understanding between different groups of people. Multiple sensitivity readers didn’t stop the book American Heart from causing an outcry, if I recall correctly.

Nate Hoffelder March 13, 2018 um 8:45 am

And what if that racism was something the author was taught as a kid and doesn’t beleive anymore? It can show up as assumptions in their writing, and I’m sure they would want to edit it out.

Rebecca Allen March 13, 2018 um 6:35 pm

This. I’ve written some fiction (never made any effort to have it trad published) and had friends read it and mark it up, and then put it away and come back 6 months, a year, several years later. I _always_ find problems that reflected my earlier self’s perspective, and some were easy to correct and others were completely embedded in the structure of the story. There are all kinds of things I don’t believe now that I used to believe and things I do believe now that I didn’t know about or disagreed with before. Having a reader who could point these things out, raise my consciousness, help me decide whether that was something I really wanted in there would be hugely helpful to me _as a person_. I bet it would also make for better writing.

Nate Hoffelder March 13, 2018 um 8:08 pm

I have even had this experience with my blog posts. Readers have nitpicked subtle points I didn’t intend to write, and I was happy to remove the offending phrase.

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