The Truth About Sensitivity Readers And ‘Free Speech’

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The idea that a sensitivity reader is out there to ruin books is absurd.

Let’s talk about sensitivity.

Recently, The Washington Post reported on sensitivity readers as a new trend in publishing, particularly in the realm of children’s and young adult literature. Author Lionel Shriver, whom nobody has ever heard of except when she writes editorials about how oppressive it is when marginalized groups ask not to be oppressed, penned an editorial for The Guardian in response, claiming that we are “turning umbrage into an industry.” Cue the inevitable swarm of commenters decrying our “overly PC” culture.

But we don’t need to talk about sensitivity because everyone is just too darn trigger-warning-happy these days. We need to talk about it because everyone is willfully misunderstanding the value of sensitivity readers in righting some of the wrongs of the apartheid of children’s literature.

Sensitivity readers are not at all a new thing, but rather a new qualifier for something that already exists: beta readers. Sometimes writers swap manuscripts with fellow writers for a set of fresh eyes, and other times they hire people — people with MFAs in writing or MAs in literature, people who used to intern in publishing, people who are staff reviewers at trade magazines — to be that reader and provide a report on what’s working and what’s not. This is not new, this is not copping out, and this is not bowing to pressure — it’s what you do to make sure your manuscript doesn’t suck. A sensitivity reader is just a beta reader who is specifically asked to keep an eye on a marginalized character or plotline (one that the author has hopefully already researched extensively) because it’s an experience they share with the character.

The past three years or so (but also the past 52) have been filled with an explosion of mad-as-hell, can’t-take-it-anymore people of color who work in children’s literature as writers, critics, and scholars, and are no longer standing for the overwhelming whiteness (and hetero-ness, cis-ness, nondisabled-ness, Christian-ness, etc.) of children’s and young adult literature. Hashtags have hatched, nonprofits formed, and new literary awards created. Efforts have been made to open up new MFA scholarships, mentorships, writing contests, literary agent submissions, and panels at conferences.

There’s been an explosion of mad-as-hell, can’t-take-it-anymore people of color who work in children’s literature.

But still, the numbers have barely moved. At last count, only about 14% of children’s and young adult books published in the U.S. had non-white, non-animal/truck/etc. main characters. And where they have, they often consist of established writers from social majority groups writing outside of their experience, not #ownvoices stories.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone writing outside of their experience. That is, of course, what fiction is all about, and obviously without it we’d have nothing but historical and contemporary realistic fiction, with no science fiction or fantasy. But we also cannot deny the publishing industry’s systemic issues with diverse representation.

“Diverse authors” (people of color, queer people, disabled people, etc. — always assume that I am talking about all non-majority experiences when I use the terms “marginalized” or “diverse”) are often sent rejections from agents and editors that try to sound encouraging but tell the author that the editor “just can’t identify with the character.” Well, yes, when publishing is made up mostly by “non-diverse” people, they’re going to find themselves a bit outside when encountering a book about someone different from them. And yet when, for instance, a person of color is written about through a white gaze, it is somehow more palatable for a white editor and a perceived (though unreal) all or mostly white audience.

Well, to these editors I say: Too bad. Come to terms with the fact that people different from you have just as much humanity as you have.

Come to terms with the fact that people different from you have just as much humanity as you have.

In Shriver’s piece and in the comments, there is a bunch of whining about the PC police and inane “what if” scenarios suggesting that sensitivity readers are not intelligent enough to know the difference between a racist character or plotline and a racist book. That’s wildly insulting and just silly. Nobody, not in WaPo and not in the publishing industry, is suggesting that books cannot talk about racism, homophobia, or other tough issues. What we are suggesting is that authors should be cognizant of their own internalized, unconscious ideas about marginalized people that might be informing their writing without their realizing it.

For example, two recent books, one of which is now published and the other of which has been postponed by the publisher, were reviewed by Justina Ireland, whose Writing in the Margins site houses a sensitivity readers database. Both books call themselves fantasy, but they both rely on common and offensive tropes presenting brown and Native people as aggressive or hyper-spiritual. For the white imagination, dark-as-bad and savage-but-connected-to-the-earth are just a part of the literary tradition and don’t really mean anything. For those of us who actually are brown and/or Native, we see yet another story that reduces us to stereotypes constructed under the white gaze.

And before you tell me that everybody is capable of stereotyping everybody else and blah blah blah, let me finish. It’s not just that certain groups get stereotyped. It’s that those very same groups are routinely kept out of spaces and platforms that would allow them to tell them their own stories. And it’s that those very same groups are also living under very real oppressive structures that actively seek to deny their humanity every day, from “bathroom bills” to extrajudicial executions by police.

Fiction is very real, and especially in the case of children’s literature, it tells the next generation of kids how to view people. When any genre, from fantasy to realism, relies on harmful stereotypes to spin a story, we create people who can cause real harm.

When any genre relies on harmful stereotypes to spin a story, we create people who can cause real harm.

Here are the sorts of things a sensitivity reader looks for: an author misusing a Spanglish colloquialism, say, or describing African American people doing their hair but using terminology and textures rarely associated with traditionally “black” hair. Maybe a scene of a Passover seder in which everyone eats their dinner and then they start reading the Haggadah. Sure, there is no one universal experience, but such things will not ring true with most readers who have actually gone to a seder or with anybody who knows the difference between a hair kitchen and a kitchen kitchen.

There are also more serious issues, which are actually the more ineffable. You’ve heard the term microaggression? Microaggressions, or the lack thereof, are telling. When a marginalized character doesn’t ever experience the microaggressions generally associated with that particular marginalization in our society, you can tell this author has not walked in those shoes. Your transgender character needs to use a public bathroom and doesn’t stop to consider for one second which one to use? Unless your book takes place in Utopia, I don’t buy it. A Muslim character has not even a twinge of discomfort or alertness when someone else starts a conversation about 9/11? Really? A black person gets their braids done in under an hour? Nope.

Those are real things worth getting right because they are what makes the book fluid and readable. It is as distracting to see a marginalized character not experience the daily elements of marginalization (that is, the moments between the major racist or homophobic plot points, if that’s what your story is about) as it is to read a book that takes place during a 1950s where Reagan is president and women are wearing corsets. Sensitivity readers are there to help shape a manuscript into something authentic and accurate, not something politically correct, whatever that even means. And a sensitivity reader is a cultural expert, not a nobody off the street. If you would consult a war expert to write a book about the military, there is no reason you shouldn’t consult an actual Chinese person when writing about a Chinese character.

Sensitivity readers are there to help shape a manuscript into something authentic and accurate, not something politically correct, whatever that even means.

I once did a read on a manuscript about a character who finds out she was adopted. Did the author sincerely want the character to be sympathetic and authentic? I’m sure of it. Am I the arbiter of all adoption experiences? Absolutely not. Do I know more about what it’s like to be adopted than someone who is not adopted? You’re damn straight I do. And I provided a thoughtful, multiple-paged letter offering compliments, criticism, suggestions, and resources to improve the book. I’ll be curious to see what the ARCs and the final copy look like. I did my part, and now it’s up to the author and editor to take or leave my suggestions. I’m a contractor, not a gatekeeper. I don’t actually have any power to keep a book from coming out.

People who had never heard of a sensitivity reader until WaPo, and who don’t work in any facet of publishing or are tangential to it (that is, in academia, criticism, or librarianship), are mourning the death of creativity. But here’s the thing: If your creativity depends on misrepresenting someone and appropriating a story you don’t have even a tangential connection to, you’re not very creative. If you sincerely believe that you are more entitled to tell my story than I am (and note that I am not saying you’re not allowed at all to tell my story), you deserve whatever derision you receive when your work goes public. And if you can’t handle being informed, in a professional written editorial letter, that you may have inadvertently internalized harmful, tired stereotypes about marginalized people, it is you who has the thin skin, not the sensitivity reader. If you are an editor who says you care about diversity in literature, but you reject nearly everything you receive from marginalized writers because it doesn’t hit quite close enough to home, you are part of the problem, not an ally.

If your creativity depends on misrepresenting someone and appropriating a story you don’t have even a tangential connection to, you’re not very creative.

Step outside of your comfort zone. Learn something. Feel honored that somebody from a different walk of life is willing to share their story with you. Have the courtesy and decency to let them teach you something, and then put on your editor hat and work together with them.

Not surprisingly, the other current running through both the WaPo and Guardian pieces is: free speech, free speech, free speech. But contrary to what’s been said on both ends of the political spectrum these days, the First Amendment has nothing to do with the public’s reaction to your expression. Freedom of speech means that the government cannot arrest you for what you say. It is not freedom from criticism, nor is it guarantee of a platform. The cancellation and resulting Twitter brouhaha of Milo Yiannopoulos’ Simon & Schuster contract exhibits this. Some claim the publisher is bowing to liberal pressure, while others correctly point out that Yiannopoulos was never entitled to a contract in the first place. Being published is a privilege, and that privilege can be rescinded by the owner of the platform at any time. And even if that privilege is not revoked, it doesn’t mean the public is not allowed to drag you if you’ve done something offensive.

A sensitivity reader is not an insurance policy against that dragging. But the idea that a sensitivity reader is out there to ruin books is absurd. We are book people who want your manuscript to be worth sharing and championing. A hurtful book that misrepresents anyone benefits no one. A book that reinscribes stereotypes without saying or doing anything to unpack or turn them over is a poorly written book. Sensitivity readers, like everyone else involved in the making of a book, just want a book to be the best it can be.

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