Updated: Apr 1, 2022
Few issues in the world of publishing are more controversial right now than that of sensitivity readers. On the off chance you are not familiar with what a sensitivity reader (SR) does, this is a person hired by a writer, editor, or publisher to review a manuscript to make certain there is no language, character portrayals, and situations that are offensive to any group or population.
Dhonielle Clayton is the chief operating officer of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit founded in 2014 to support writers from marginalized groups and to advocate for more diversity in publishing. The way she sees it, the job of a sensitivity reader is first and foremost to improve the literary quality of a book by steering the author away from one-dimensional portraits and clichés.
Think of an SR as a type of fact checker. Instead of fact checking numbers, quotes, foreign language words, geographic descriptions, and so on, SRs are fact checking race, religion, gender, culture, disease, or mental illness. On the surface, this sounds good for everyone, right? No author wants to offend a reader or worse, yet, an entire category of readers. Then why is the use of sensitivity readers such a sore spot for so many writers and an ongoing stumbling block for publishing houses?
Writers vs. Editors
I conducted my own survey of sorts about people’s perception of the use of SRs and it’s as unscientific as a survey can be. I asked the members of a particular closed group of writers on social media their opinion of the use of SRs and I asked the same question of the members of a closed group of editors on social media. (See, I told you it was unscientific.)
Overwhelmingly, the writers (many of whom have little or no professional writing experience) were vehemently opposed to the use of SRs. Since it was the first time some of them had ever even heard of an SR, they were appalled at the thought of their work being “censored.” Again, noting that many who responded to my question are young and/or unpublished, their attitude was “no one’s gonna tell me what I can and can’t write.”
Ah, I love the smell of naiveté in the morning.
Conversely, those in the professional editors’ group were unanimously supportive of the use of SRs. I attribute this to two factors. First, these folks all understood the validity of using SRs and some had already worked on projects that employed them. Second, as editors, they are dedicated to the highest quality of writing possible, especially if they are identified with it in a professional capacity.
Is This Really Censorship?
The reaction of so many of the newbie writers in that Facebook group is indicative of the larger public relations problem sensitivity readers have.
The work they do has become synonymous with censorship in its most unsophisticated form—a knee-jerk reaction to any word, expression, or characterization that is insulting to the one person who is reading as a representative of an entire group or type of people.
In December 2017, the New York Times ran an article titled “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?” The author, Alex Alter, highlighted a few of the most egregious examples of publishers scuttling books following concerns expressed by sensitivity readers, making it appear as though SRs have a stranglehold on publishers.
Censorship, which takes many forms, means the suppression or prohibition of something. So, let’s be clear, sensitivity readers have no power to censor.
No SR has the ability to say, “You are not allowed to describe a bi-sexual woman this way, so change it.” Or “A man of this race would never say this, so delete it.” Ultimately, the choice to leave the prose as is, delete it, or edit it is left to authors, editors, and publishers.
But Dhonielle Clayton and others in the publishing world have rightly pinpointed the real problem at the heart of this argument—the lack of diversity among authors and works chosen by publishers. As Clayton points out, “Publishing has a diversity problem.” According to Madison Schultz in her article “What Is a Sensitivity Reader, and Why Do You Need One?”
…31 percent of children’s books published in 2017 were about non-White characters, but only 7 percent of the children’s books published in 2017 were written by Black, Latinx, or Native American authors.
Publishers know that the general public, especially where the children’s market is concerned, is clamoring for books that feature diverse characters and storylines. But those same publishers either can’t find diverse authors or are reluctant to offer publishing deals to diverse authors.
This is not to say that a writer should never write outside his or her areas of personal experience. No one is saying that, including SRs. But trained sensitivity readers—and yes, there are academic programs for sensitivity reading—help authors create believable, deep characters and genuine storylines that make for better books. While SRs are a step in the right direction, finding, promoting, and supporting diverse authors should be a priority of the traditional publishing houses.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.