Have you ever heard of sensitivity readers? I hadn’t until a few months ago when I was stumbling around on the internet and came across a few articles discussing their relevancy. Sensitivity readers are what they sound like: people who are paid to read a novel and flag content that is offensive or inaccurately portrays a culture or minority group. In other words, if you’ve ever had a friend look over your work for anything remotely controversial or risky, you’ve used a sensitivity reader.
For most novels, this is just an extra step in the editing process. Sensitivity readers can be hired by editors, publishers, or even writers themselves to read the work and provide feedback and suggestions for edits. By having one more set of eyes look for specific problems, writers can be more assured that their writing isn’t alienating any of their audience when they try to tackle more diverse content. As a writer, it’s a risky move to write from a perspective different than your own. But for those of us who welcome the challenge, sensitivity readers play an important role.
While legitimizing this step in the editing process benefits both the writer and their readers, it can be challenging for the vetters to get behind. In February, sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton spoke with The Independent about the reservations she has with her position. On the one hand, given the general lack of diversity in the publishing field, Clayton is more than willing to critique the authenticity of characters, their actions, and the language used in general. On the other hand, Clayton feels she is contributing to the larger problem: cultural appropriation.
“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,” Clayton says. “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?”
So, while the motivation behind hiring sensitivity readers comes from a good place, the problem seems to lie in the fact that they are needed at all. Yes, it’s great that these stories are being told and with a conscious effort to make them as genuine and real as possible. But it’d be even better if the stories started out this way. If there were more marginalized writers writing from their own experiences instead of non-marginalized writers borrowing others’ and screening them for accuracy, sensitivity readers wouldn’t be needed.
Now, I’m not trying to run sensitivity readers out of a job before they even get their footing in the publishing world. Ultimately, their job is about doing right by the group being represented in the work, making sure nothing offensive is published, and that the information written is accurate to the peoples’ experiences. That this gets done and a better book can be published is everyone’s goal in the end. And until diverse content can continuously come from diverse writers, sensitivity readers are going to stay an important part of the editing process.