The Literary Rants: Sensitivity Readers
Sensitivity reader is a term that seems appropriate for our time. A lot of people get offended quickly nowadays, so book publishers have been using what are called sensitivity readers to try to get rid of stuff in future books that might tick off readers.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a sensitivity reader is:
“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.”
In a way, this makes sense. Boycotts happen quickly, and very few books make substantial profits anymore. Why would a book publisher want to get stuck with an unintentionally offensive book (especially in a children’s or YA book) that could hurt sales for the rest of the company?
Even though authors can be empathetic and imaginative, everybody has astonishing gaps in their knowledge, and our perspectives are limited by our experiences. For example, I’m not the most worldly person in the world, so I try to stick to stuff that I’ve had personal experience with.
As an aspiring author (I might not be considered a real author yet), if I were writing about a subject that I didn’t know much about, I’d do research first. I wouldn’t want to put a publishing company in a position where it felt like it had to hire a sensitivity reader. I should be able to document my research and interviews to show that I have some background to back up what I write, even if it’s fiction.
If a publisher feels like it needs a sensitivity reader, either the author didn’t do his/her job or the publisher might be too sensitive to readers’ potential sensitivity. Fiction and literature are supposed to evoke emotions, and some people are going to be offended, no matter what.
At least one sensitivity reader seems to have a bad attitude about the job. According to the Chicago Tribune article, one sensitivity reader said:
“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery. Why am I going to give you all those little things that make my culture so interesting so that you can go use it when you don’t understand it?”
My advice to this person (if this quote is accurate) is to maybe not be a sensitivity reader. And the term “cultural thievery” seems a bit strong. For one thing, that sensitivity reader was paid, so it’s not quite thievery if you get paid. Plus, one complaint about society today is that too many people live in a metaphorical bubble and aren’t exposing themselves to new ideas and cultures. How can people appreciate diversity when it’s given such a negative term as “cultural thievery”?
If I were the author whose book was corrected by this particular sensitivity reader, I might have some doubts about the suggestions I received.
I avoided a potential sensitivity issue a few years ago when I wrote a blog serial about an ex-girlfriend of mine who wasn’t white (I’m a white male, by the way). I didn’t want it to be an issue in the story, so I simply never mentioned which demographic group(s) she belonged to.
I thought about clarifying her non-whiteness a couple times, but the ex-girlfriend did a few things that are seen as stereotypical and I didn’t want to be accused of stereotyping, but she also did things that are seen as the opposite of what (some) people might expect and I didn’t want readers telling me about how somebody of her demographic persuasion wouldn’t behave like that when I know she did because I saw it for myself. I left clues about her non-whiteness, but I never specified it.
Maybe that was a cop-out. And it’s about as tame as an example as I’ve dealt with as a writer because I usually write about my own thoughts and experiences. If I were writing about (as the Chicago Tribune says), “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues,” I’d definitely do some research myself or interview some people who know more than I do before I had it published. I wouldn’t want the publisher to have to do it for me and hire a sensitivity reader.
There you go. I hope nobody got offended with my thoughts about sensitivity readers. I’d feel bad if readers got offended because of my opinion about sensitivity readers. I don’t like to be insensitive.
What do you think? Whose responsibility is it to make sure readers aren’t offended?