The push for more diversity in publishing can sometimes be at odds with the “write what you know” dictum. Writers who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right, which is why authors looking to self-publish might consider engaging sensitivity readers.
Publishers are hiring “sensitivity readers” to review books and flag potentially offensive content. Authors like Veronica Roth and J. K. Rowling have been criticized by groups who were concerned over the authors’ portrayals of minorities. Keira Drake had the publication of The Continent delayed due to online reviewers declaring her book as “racist trash.” Those reviews caused the publisher to hire two sensitivity readers, and Drake spent six months rewriting the book, which is due out this month. These incidents have sparked a proactive approach by publishers to head off potential issues in the future.
One organization, Writing in the Margins, has assembled a database to make it easy for authors and publishers to contact sensitivity readers. As posted on the Writing in the Margins website, “Sensitivity readers can help you identify problematic language and internalized bias on the page when writing outside of your experiences. This is not a guarantee that others will not have issues with your work. But it is a way to attempt to catch and correct high level issues prior to submission or publication.” The database includes readers’ qualifications, areas of expertise, contact info, and fees. Prices seem to run about $250 for a full-length novel, though some are priced according to word count. The database is free to view, and it currently contains 199 readers.
Of course, in today’s hyper-reactionary climate, anything having to do with people getting upset over something makes other people upset, so this whole notion of sensitivity readers has sparked a heated debate.
It’s one thing for authors to seek out sensitivity readers of their own volition. After all, there is a huge (and justifiable) push for more diversity in publishing, and that can sometimes be at odds with the old dictum, “write what you know.” Authors who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right.
Children’s book author Kate Messner is quoted in a recent Chicago Tribune article. She often writes about poverty, abuse, and race, and she regularly hires sensitivity readers. Messner said, “I wouldn’t dream of sending those books out into the world without getting help to make sure I’m representing those issues in a way that’s realistic and sensitive.”
For that very reason, authors looking to self-publish may want to hire a sensitivity reader if they are writing about people and issues that are outside their own experience.
But the notion of publishers running all their books by sensitivity readers as a matter of company policy has some crying censorship. Many of the books that are today considered to be masterpieces shocked and disturbed readers when first published. Some, like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continue to spark discussion and healthy debate precisely because of their objectionable content. People are concerned that by preemptively removing such content they are neutering literature, producing meek books.
Kafka would probably not have been a fan. He once famously wrote:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
Then again, there’s a difference between books that are intentionally challenging and/or offensive and those which were written by authors who may have been unaware they were causing offense.
Sensitivity readers aren’t new, and they aren’t necessarily limited to publishing. Scholastic hired readers for just this purpose over 30 years ago for their “Baby-Sitters Club” series, which often dealt with sensitive issues. Sesame Street regularly employed psychologists to go over content to make sure they were addressing troubling issues in proper fashion. Hollywood has used test screeners for decades. In Hollywood’s case, test screenings are used primarily to predict how successful a movie will be, however, studios have changed things their test audiences didn’t like, for various reasons, including material audiences found questionable. Then again, what test screen audiences find objectionable doesn’t necessarily jibe with what the rest of the world thinks, and stories abound of movies being altered for the worse due to poor test scores.
Another issue is the notion that sensitivity readers are exacerbating the problems of cultural appropriation. “On the one hand,” writes Everdeen Mason in the Tribune article, “they help a writer create the experience of a marginalized group more authentically. On the other, they legitimize the mimicking of marginalized voices by non-marginalized writers. Why not just publish more books by black people, Latinos, Native Americans and others?”
Of course we want more books by diverse writers, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of accidentally writing offensive material. After all, shouldn’t a Latina writer also be able to include characters who are different from her?
All you authors looking to self-publish: the choice is yours. You can choose to hire a sensitivity reader or not. Should you hire one, you can even choose to disregard his or her advice. But if you’re seeking a more traditional publishing experience, be aware that your book may go through this extra step along the way.
What are your thoughts on all of this?