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The Literary Rants: Sensitivity Readers

February 27, 2017
(image via wikimedia)

Authors never know who is going to read their books. (image via wikimedia)

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?

  1. “Cultural thievery.” Wow. Strong words. On the one hand, I do agree that writers ought to be held responsible for the impact of their words. Ample research is a must, particularly when writing about something that’s not completely based on experience. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s possible for a writer to cover all the bases by himself/herself. That’s where editors and sensitivity readers come in. And yet despite the stringent clean up process that goes on before a work is published, there’s still a lot of people who can and will still find something to be offended about. I say, write, review, edit multiple times, hire a sensitivity reader if needed. After that, there’s nothing else to do. The minute your work is out there, it’s no longer yours alone anyways. Sorry for the long opinion.

  2. Look around and stop worrying. As long as you know a bit about what you write, there shouldn’t be need for sensitivity readers. There are fake news, fake politicians, public statements and political actions of extreme bias and insensitive to the degree of injustice and harm. So I don’t think, anyone going to the trouble to create a book can do great harm. Unless the author wants to…

  3. wow this blog is very interesting!!! please check out my blog too

  4. sometimes I think people are just too flipping sensitive these days and to all the wrong things. They are so quick to ascribe reason behind actions and words that suit their need to be victimized. I don’t like books where the mother and daughter have a lovey dovey relationship. So I don’t read them. I don’t go making a fuss to the publishing company that the author did this just to upset me. It wasn’t about me and I can see that. People seem to have lost the ability to see what is and is not personal.

    • These thoughts mirror many of my own. A number of published authors do research in the writing process before publication. If the reading material is offensive, it would only make sense that people do like they do on facebook or with most other things they do not like… Don’t buy it. Don’t read it.

  5. The thing about bubbles is that they are comfortable and bursting them ruins reality. It takes an open mind to want to learn about other cultures which not everyone is willing to do. Although some are encouraged to have an open mind more than others.

  6. therandomblogofirreverentthoughts permalink

    Hi, nice article. Here’s the problem: society and technology has enabled a bunch of well intended idealists or groups with issues (we all have issues, its just that some groups get a lot more publicity, because, well they do, because there is a movement). Anyone with an option to spout off at anything mildly challenging can do so and have an audience. Some people have nothing better to do. I do believe that there are issues that should be given attention, just saying that the level of sensitivity for some is set on ‘ridiculous’.

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