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Bring On The Sensitivity Readers

Authors’ works are improved when they actually understand their subject matter, and incorporating feedback produces better art…

Close your eyes and travel back, for a moment, to the first time you ever felt seen by a story. The very instance a quirk of yours, an encounter you lived, or an emotion that once consumed you, mattered enough to land on a page. Was it a book, a novella, a short story? How did you find it? How old were you? How did it make you feel?

I was twelve when I checked out Let the Circle Be Unbroken from the Harlesden Public Library. So long ago that I can’t tell you much about the circumstances of the pick. It was not a book assigned in class. I doubt that my curiosity was piqued by the Great Depression or America, a time and place in which I’d never set foot. So I imagine it was the short black girl on the cover who drew me in, conferring with her family on a dusty house porch, her hair split in two braids just the way my classmates and I wore ours. I devoured her tale. At last, people who looked like me got a whole book to themselves! As soon I finished, I returned for its prequel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Though if we did the math the protagonist Cassie Logan could have been my grandmother, I was she and she was me, and this book was written for me. For the first time, I felt visible; a forethought rather than an afterthought. At twelve, that meant a lot.

In the following years, there would be many other books starring white characters I would come to love. The feeling of being seen, though, would not return until my discovery of the novel Americanah over a dozen years later. The authenticity of Cassie in Let the Circle Be Unbroken and Ifemelu in Americanah is almost certainly a product of the fact that their authors, Mildred D. Taylor and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie respectively, are black women. In their mannerisms and dialogues and anxieties and joys, these characters embodied many real black teens and women who’d come in and out of my life before them and since. Their depth unconstrained by the imagination of a white writer.

Of course, I’m not so naïve to think no member of a minority group can be guilty of painting stereotypes while writing minorities. Shoddy writing has a way of crossing demographics. But when members of non-dominant groups—be it by virtue of their ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender, mental health, socioeconomic status, or other products of life’s lottery—craft their own narratives, the results can be all the more powerful. It doesn’t happen nearly enough, though. For all the lip service the publishing industry pays towards improving diversity in its ranks and on its shelves, the landscape remains deafeningly white.

So diverse books cannot exclusively be the responsibility of minority writers. And to the extent that non-minority writers continue to publish for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, minorities shouldn’t be invisible in their work. The alternative is a segregated and homogenous literary world. It’s essential for these writers to engage with characters whose backgrounds fall outside their life experience, just as we would expect of them in the real world. And the fairer their portrayal of others, the better off we all are. Thankfully, the publishing industry agrees. This has led to the rise of what the industry calls “sensitivity readers.”

On Christmas Eve, the New York Times ran an article titled: In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship? It was a curious headline, and not just because of its obnoxious length. Nothing in the piece really supported the idea that sensitivity readers had resulted in “censorship.”

The piece opens with the delayed publication of The Continent, a young adult novel that earned a disapproving, viral reaction from online reviewers who accused the book of bigotry. Following this outrage, the publisher hired two sensitivity readers to “[vet] the narrative for harmful stereotypes and suggest[] changes.” This is what sensitivity readers do. Publishers and authors recruit them as specialized editors to “provide feedback on issues like race, religion, gender, sexuality, chronic illness, and physical disabilities.” Although this practice is common across genres, it’s increasingly used with children’s books and young adult novels. A revised version of The Continent is due out in the spring.

The authors interviewed by the Times largely frame their experience with sensitivity readers as a net positive. Jodi Picoult sought out and incorporated critiques from sensitivity readers before publishing Small Great Things to “contextualize racism from the perspective of an African-American.” To improve her novel Ghosts of Green Glass House, Kate Milford weaved in suggestions from readers who had been adopted internationally by American parents. And “to make sure the characters were accurate, and the injustices done to these characters were represented accurately” in the book Ahimsa, Supriya Kelkar and her publisher got feedback from a reader of Dalit origin.

Sensitivity readers are good for business. After all, visceral online reviews and bad press threaten the publishing industry’s return on their investment. Less cynically though, many authors seem genuinely invested in writing full and plausible characters. In a way, sensitivity reading is not a novel concept. The publishing industry has long borrowed—formally and informally—the expertise of individuals with skills, traits, or experience outside of the writer’s comfort zone. The renowned writer Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, once explained that she had her neuroscientist husband review the accuracy of the science in her drafts of The Man Without a Shadow.

Yet, says the NYT, “some see a downside.” Specifically the conservative National Review and an essay from the New York Review of Books have criticized the practice. According to these critics, sensitivity readers “could lead to sanitized books that tiptoe around difficult topics … heightened scrutiny discourages authors from writing about cultures other than their own, resulting in more homogenized literature,” and “if ‘sensitivity readers’ are given the freedom to hijack authors’ visions, we’re going to lose some beloved works of art that we could have otherwise enjoyed.”

Could it be that political-correctness was already depriving the world of potentially great literary art? There was the case of children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, removed from the shelves after happy-washing the lives of enslaved bakers. Then When We Was Fierce, its publication deferred after readers (regular readers—not sensitivity readers) complained that it projected harmful stereotypes of inner-city kids. The Black Witch: on the martyr list for drawing hundreds of scathing online reviews bemoaning its racism. And finally: American Heart, peculiar for the intense ire it received for misrepresenting Muslims, even after being vetted by multiple Muslim sensitivity readers and initially earning a glowing Kirkus Review written by a Muslim person. The review would eventually be revised down following the online criticism. As you may have noticed, the fate of these books had little to do with sensitivity readers.

from “A Birthday Cake For George Washington”

A day after the Times piece was published, the Twitter-prolific Oates took the bait dangled by the article’s title. Dhonielle Clayton, a black writer and sensitivity reader interviewed for the Times piece, had tweeted at the New York Times that she had some additional valuable thoughts on the state of the narratives that get “censored.” She pointed out that if anyone is being “censored,” it is the writers of color whose work is ignored by the industry, not the established writers whose books undergo a round of sensitivity reading. Oates was not having it. She responded: “No one should censor writers – just don’t read what offends you. Start your own publishing houses & magazines as many (of us) have done.” For her (and likely thousands of Times readers) the situation was clear: sensitivity reading is censorship.

Oates could not be more wrong. At most, these incidents demonstrate the power of consumer will and negative press. But they don’t even graze censorship. Hiring sensitivity readers is obviously voluntary. No one is putting these publishing houses in a chokehold and forcing them to recruit readers to strengthen the plot or character of their novels. Sensitivity readers don’t typically own rights to the story they review. Should the final draft fail to include their suggestions, they can’t veto its publication. What makes it to print remains squarely in the discretion of the author and their publisher. (In fact, my gut tells me these sensitivity readers are not even full-fledged employees of the publishing press they’re working to help.) How then could anyone seriously accuse them of censorship?

The most obvious culprit is a fundamental misunderstanding of the mechanics of censorship. Schools and their boards ban stories. Libraries and their municipalities ban stories. Publishing houses and journal mastheads ban stories. Censorship is always perpetrated by institutions with power, armed with the authority to control the access to and distribution of stories. Opponents of sensitivity readings believe that the classics would not have been replaced by better novels. But to think this, you would have to drastically underestimate the writers of color who were contemporaries to the authors of these so-called classics. You also would have to accept that the place all writers occupied in the literary market was an accurate reflection of their competence, unaffected by formal segregation and more familiar racism. Ironically, the censorship decriers rarely seem interested in that part of the story.

On the other hand, feedback that is voluntarily requested and incorporated strictly at the discretion of the author and their publishing agent or press, is not censorship. Plenty of writers and presses will remain uninterested in redressing the writer’s blind spots and avoiding the insensitive portrayal of the underrepresented people in fiction. There will never be a shortage of those stories.

This should also be a given: writers are not owed positive, uncritical reviews by sensitivity readers, or anyone else. I will go as far as saying that any writer should be suspicious of the editor who returns their draft with hardly any improvements. Nor are writers entitled to the adulation of their audience, and particularly their unintended audience. Culture can even evolve between the time the writer has an idea and when that idea gets published. Writing that would have been praised three decades ago may (should) face more scrutiny today in great hash-tagged droves. So goes the world if we’re lucky.

To share writing or art of any other kind in public is a gamble. The reception of any creative work falls outside the writer’s control—writers have to accept this along with the possibility of praise and success. What they can control is the extent to which they ultimately cater to the market. Writers and publishers less concerned about the business pressures of publishing a book with bad reviews can publish away. Others may self-publish through any number of platforms, or not publish at all rather than take the gamble. In all cases, it is not the readers—hired or lay—who do the censorship. However traumatizing it is to be at the receiving end of a hashtag mob, that, too, falls short of censorship.

Opponents of sensitivity readings also like to peddle the idea that “sanitized” versions of classics would fail to address difficult topics. Oates, for example, derisively re-imagines a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that “eliminates all cuss words [and] race to tell uplifting if unremarkable tale of two friends rafting on river.” Of course, this mostly reflects her personal lack of imagination. Though Oates clearly saw the value of a neuroscientist’s review of a story with a medical plot, she is unwilling to fathom how sensitivity readers with a keener understanding of racial dynamics and slave narratives could have strengthened the plot of Twain’s story, along with the complexity of the characters and their dialogue. Oates and those who share her narrow imagination overestimate the vision of the artist. This not only shows a repulsive overconfidence in the ability of writers to portray underrepresented groups, it subtly defends the worst aspects of the status quo in publishing. It also ignores how successfully many writers of color have managed to depict complex narratives on topics like the Jim Crow era, including Taylor’s Let the Circle Be Unbroken, without caricaturing minorities or skirting difficult subjects.

If these so-called classic books had undergone review for sensitivity, the argument goes, they might have been published but the quality would have been lower. This assumption is troubling for a few reasons. No one really believes that a writer’s vision is at its apex by the first draft—otherwise all editors would be censors. So there must be another reason. Could it be that, to some people, the racist/classist/misogynist/etc. part of the work is a measure of quality? And that underrepresented groups are not expected to be among the audience for this unsanitized literature that so casually exploits their image? We’ve all heard this narrative elsewhere. Our gradual cultural shift towards curating offensiveness out of our vocabulary has led to defensiveness against creeping political correctness. But just because a practice or use of certain language went unchallenged for decades does not automatically make it “good.” However difficult it may be to accept for fans of a work, the unsanitized parts of a novel were and are often a product of a fallible author and their ignorance. It’s absurd to treat it as a measure of quality rather a shortcoming.

More than that, advising readers to avoid what offends them misjudges the insidious power of misrepresentation in the media—just how early it begins, how pervasive it is, and how easily toxic concepts can slither into our subconscious without triggering our sensitivity valves. Literature doesn’t reach its audience in a vacuum. Harms can be cumulative. And when it comes to absorbing harmful narratives about other people, and about ourselves, youngest readers are the most vulnerable.

Books can empower children, help them appreciate themselves, expand their imagination and their vision of their potential lives, and affect their power and self-worth. On the flip side, it can distort their understanding of real-life people in a manner that will follow them into adulthood. Why is it that before reading Taylor, I assumed being a little white girl was overall better than being a little black girl? Adults aren’t immune to this. Without exposure to the realistic and full portrayals of minorities in their books, adult readers may fail to realize that they are getting a skewed or incomplete picture.

The work of sensitivity readers like Dhonielle Clayton is a great service to young readers as much as it is to the publishing industry. Instead of focusing on whether their feedback is censorship, opponents of sensitivity readings should revisit the motives behind their defensive stance. Why is it “editing” to make white characters more plausible and human, but “censorship” to make black characters more plausible and human? Why is it good practice to get input from a neuroscientist when writing about neuroscientists, but an offense against literature to get feedback from a Muslim when writing about Muslims?

Then maybe we could move on to other, much more interesting questions when it comes to sensitivity readings. For example—why are more minority writers not being published in the first place? Why are these sensitivity readers on the outskirts of the publishing industry rather than salaried staff with editorial titles? If their labor is so distinguishable from staff editors that they should not have the same title, then why are the editors so homogenous that they need separate sensitivity contractors?

As for censorship, I am a lot more concerned about those minority writers who will not have the means to “start your own publishing houses & magazines.” I care that too many will never find a home to publish the beautiful stories that would have captured authenticity without needing a sensitivity reader. Speaking of which, the next time you are tempted to purchase a novel by Oates, may I suggest you instead pick up The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton?

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