Sensitivity reading aims to bring authenticity to literature, but what does it mean, and is it really necessary? Are these practices narrowing or broadening our view of the world?
Sensitivity reading is a review, or suggested edit, of a book (or other written narrative) to minimize misrepresentation of marginalized groups. Also known as diversity reading or authenticity reading, sensitive reading is usually undertaken by a reader who may belong to one of the groups being written about.
Sensitivity reading may involve looking at the characters in a book, how they are portrayed within the story, the language used, and references to entire groups or cultures, for example. This may help an author to avoid certain pitfalls, such as stereotyping, biases, inaccuracies, or potentially offensive content. For instance, if an author has written about a transgender, disabled, or American Indigenous character, then a transgender, disabled, or American Indigenous sensitivity reader might be employed to read and comment on the text. Another example could be if a heterosexual author has written a character from the LGBTQIA+ community, then a member of that community could proof the work to ensure there are no harmful tropes, which may upset readers or spread of misinformation.
The result of a sensitivity read is often editorial feedback and can vary in length according to requirements. Sensitivity reading is different from copy-editing, as it solely focuses on representation, but occasionally a sensitivity reader will point out other errors. They typically do not change a manuscript, but instead provide edits and suggestions.
The Aims of Sensitive Reading
Diverse representation is important to avoid discrimination and marginalizing groups of people, be that by gender, race, ability or other aspect. An author may not have a full understanding of the experiences of certain characters or groups of people they are writing about. Even with the best of intentions, an author may make mistakes without realizing it, which is where a sensitivity reader can assist.
For example, a sensitivity reader analyzing a Black character may point out something like a character’s hair care routine not being accurate. Or, if a book is set in a country where the author has not spent a long period of time, a sensitivity reader might note where the author has given innacurate information about the location of places, the local language, or other key details. In the end, the practice of sensitivity reading helps writers to listen to and understand those voices outside of their own experience.
Another aim of sensitivity reading is to ensure more balanced representation. For example, fantasy literature has often been dominated by male authors writing about male characters. Sensitivity reading can point out gender dominance in a work, and encourage better representation.
Is Sensitivity Reading Censorship?
The purported aim of sensitivity reading is not to reign in imagination or freedom of expression, but rather to avoid things like stereotyping and problematic language. The feedback is designed to improve the authenticity of the work in question, with the reader acting as a support or guide, rather than an editor.
However, not everyone thinks that sensitivity reading should be the standard. For example, an article in The Spectator suggests that sensitivity readers are “victims for hire” who people pay to “cancel-proof” their books. In 2017, novelist Lionel Shriver claimed the practice can have a “chilling effect on creativity”. Some go so far as to call sensitivity readers the new “gatekeepers“. The opponents of sensitivity reading seem worried that fear of speaking about experiences outside of our own will stymie creativity.
On the other hand, many authors have also voiced appreciation for the input of sensitivity readers. Author Juno Dawson says, “Since 2011, all my book editors have been white. Why wouldn’t I want another perspective on the characters I invent?”. Author Debbie Emmitt also defends such reading, saying, “They’re not the book police, cracking down on every single instance of racism, homophobia or sexism. Depending on how these aspects are incorporated into your story, they may have a place there”.
In general, a good sensitivity reading will not involve censorship, but will help point out unintended misinformation or stereotypes. While sensitivity readings may be a requirement at some publishing houses, it’s usually up to an author themselves whether they want to use a reader’s services.
Sensitivity Reading in Publishing
The practice of sensitivity reading is used in different media, but seems to have originated with fiction writing. As society becomes ever more aware of the importance of diversity and representation, the practice has grown, so that now many major publishers employ sensitive readers, and applaud this tool within the writing world. At the same time, some authors find sensitivity reading to be an undue burden, claiming that it is a symptom of “cancel culture” and will make it harder for writers to produce good work.
Some argue that if works of classic literature like Othello or To Kill a Mockingbird were subject to sensitivity reading, they could have been changed for the worse. On the other hand, controversies over misrepresentation may mean a book won’t reach its desired audience in the first place. For example, Jeanine Cummins’ book American Dirt came under fire for its portrayal of the Mexican immigrant experience by a white author, a portrayal rife with inaccuracies.
Sensitivity Reading Groups and Guides
If you’d like to learn more about sensitivity reading and dig into the process, there are a number of groups and guides associated with the practice. You can find lists of readers online on sites like Editors of Color and Writing Diversely. If you want to know more about sensitivity reading, you can research the Conscious Style Guide (or sign up for their newsletter) and the Diversity Style Guide.
There are also books associated with sensitivity reading, such as So, You Want to Be a Sensitivity Reader? by Patrice Williams Marks, available on Amazon**. Another handy guide is the booklet “Sensitivity Reads: A guide for editorial professionals” by Lourdes Venard and Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, which discusses sensitivity reading for fiction and nonfiction.
Organisations such as The Editorial Society will also sometimes offer courses and webinars to editing professionals wishing to know more about sensitivity reading and conscious writing/editing.
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