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The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers are typically sought by authors writing about some marginalized group—a culture to which they don’t personally belong, or a community about which they don’t feel they have complete expertise, and about which they want to be warned of any overlooked biases or stereotypes.

· 10 min read
The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

The idea of a sensitivity reader, the newest profession birthed in our politically correct times, instinctively does not sit well with writers. Because writing is not about protecting people’s feelings—it’s about provoking them. And nobody pursues a career in the arts because they like being told what they can and can’t say with their work.

So I, like many writers, watched the influence of these “editors” grow with significant consternation. In theory, sensitivity readers simply review looking for anything that might offend the arbitrary sensitivities or transgress the invisible fault lines of the moment. In practice, I saw what looked like hordes of censors with the power to block the publication of Young Adult novels. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being sufficiently sensitive to diversity concerns.

I shook my head and then, for some reason, I thought, “Well, I’d like to try that.”

Earlier this year, between the final passes on my book Stillness is the Key, I told my publisher that I wanted to hire a sensitivity reader to review my writing. They were somewhat surprised by this request, as they had already accepted the manuscript for publication. Nevertheless, they consented. I was interested in doing this for several reasons. Curiosity, admittedly, was one. But it was certainly also possible that buried somewhere in the 65,000 words I was scheduled to ship out in a first printing of 175,000, there was some unintentional faux pas or thoughtless or sloppy characterization. Was I willing to bet my career that there wasn’t?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a writer came from Robert Greene, the author of the 48 Laws of Power. He explained that a good author must work hard to find material that can relate and speak to a diverse audience. As an author who is often wrongly demonized for his blunt writing about power and human nature, he was obviously not advising me to placate critics. His argument was commercial and stylistic. His belief was that in a good book, there should be female examples and male examples, stories of straight and gay love. You should draw from the East and the West, from rich and poor, young and old, black and white. That is, if you want any of these groups to become a paying and satisfied customer at some point…and if you don’t want your books to become boring and repetitive.

It’s advice I have long tried to follow. At the very worst, I thought, a sensitivity reader could help me follow it better.

Sensitivity readers are typically sought by authors writing about some marginalized group—a culture to which they don’t personally belong, or a community about which they don’t feel they have complete expertise, and about which they want to be warned of any overlooked biases or stereotypes. So, sensitivity readers are increasingly common in fiction, where authors are more regularly writing from the perspective of their characters and not from a position of authority. These readers can be friends or friends of friends, as they often were when the “need” for this service began to grow in earnest. But a quick Google search reveals that “sensitivity reader” has emerged as a legitimate profession, with hundreds of people now advertising their services.

I made contact with one such person on Twitter and we quickly got down to price. For a one month turn around, he charged $500—50 percent up front. For every week faster I wanted the book back, it would be an extra $100. We met in the middle: Two and a half weeks. $650.

But there were two conditions. He asked that I not use his name publicly (or in the acknowledgments) and warned me that it is impossible for a sensitivity reader to represent every marginalized group or potential reader. “Any notes I suggest,” he said “come from personal experience, and how I read it. It doesn’t speak for the community as a whole.” Fair enough. A manuscript was sent to him the next day.

A few years ago, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Originally, I had been planning to write a column about the little shell that each character wore in their ear—the device that connected them to entertainment and communication on demand. My high school memory was vague enough that I thought I might be able to draw a connection to the now omnipresent Apple earpods.

What struck me as I read the book was that I had completely missed the point of what it was about. I thought Bradbury was warning against governmental tyranny and censorship—about what happens when the powers that be try to control what the people can read. Actually, his book is about what happens when the people try to censor themselves—when we become overly protective of everybody else’s feelings.

“It didn’t come from the government down,” Captain Beatty tells Montag in the book. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!” Instead, the censorship came from trying to make sure no one cultural group was offended by another, an early attempt to avoid what we call “identity politics” today. It’s in the conclusion of Beatty’s speech that Bradbury makes the thrust of the book’s argument (and ironically does so in a way that a sensitivity reader would almost certainly flag today):

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right?…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, to the incinerator.”

It’s this dangerous precedent, I suppose, that even the idea of a sensitivity reader edges towards. A good book, after all, is supposed to upset and stir emotion. They’re not supposed to make us happy, they’re supposed to make us think. Never mind ruffled feathers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have started the Civil War. There is no important or worthwhile book that is not in some way insensitive to somebody, somewhere. As Susan Orlean writes in her book about libraries, to create a book is an inherently aggressive delusion—between the pages of any two covers are the words of someone “who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” That someone needed to listen for their own good. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin not because she wanted to start a war but because she believed that Americans needed to hear about the humanity of the slaves in their midst and the inhumanity of the system of slavery that kept them in bondage.

James Tilton, a straight white male author, enlisted the services of several readers for a queer love story he was writing. “Sensitivity readers are hands down the best thing to ever happen to my manuscript,” Tilton has said. “All of my sensitivity readers have provided me with honest, courteous, and confidential revision notes…By engaging these sensitivity readers early in the revision process, I was able to make important and substantial changes to my manuscript before sending it to a publishing house.”

If sensitivity readers were simply about helping a writer improve or consider ways that their message was not getting through, that might be one thing. In practice, these readers—who are by no means credentialed or even accomplished editors or writers in the industry—have begun to serve as a kind of gatekeeper about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be published. Amélie Wen Zhao withdrew her highly anticipated debut novel Blood Heir. Keira Drake’s The Continent was pulled just eight weeks before its release date.

Writers who submit their books to sensitivity readers are complicit in the collapse of their freedom of expression. They are not hiring sensitivity readers because their primary concern is other people’s feelings, but because they don’t want to be the next victim of mob justice. Or because they are trying, consciously or otherwise, to advertise their progressive bona fides to their perceived audience. But there is another reason writers do this—one I didn’t fully understand until my sensitivity reader made a request of me that shined a light on it.

He asked that if my book did find itself subjected to criticism, that I should not try to use him as a shield. I asked what he meant and was told that he issues this as a disclaimer on all books he works on. “It has happened before,” he said “that someone uses a sensitivity reader, takes their notes, has someone, usually a reader, from the same demo[graphic group] as the sensitivity reader, call them out on something, and the author then says, ‘Well my reader said it was fine!’” It’s the old, “But my [insert minority] friends let me use that word” argument.

Quillette’s Quarantine Book Club: Readers Offer Their Suggestions, Part I
Sydney. London. Toronto.

The other (and perhaps only?) real reason a writer might hire a sensitivity reader is to get permission to write their story. To be able to claim that they had received the green light from the Committee For The People’s Books. This is beyond cowardly and pathetic, and more offensive to the creation of art than any art that has ever offended. Writers who do this and still get criticized deserve all the misdirected anger that is aimed at them.

“There is more than one way to burn a book,” Bradbury wrote in a 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451. “And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.” The sensitivity readers who get to decide which books are and are not okay to publish, and which words can be said and in what context are burning books—along with the fearful authors and publishers who empower them in their eagerness to avoid trouble. There is no other way to say it.

It happened that my sensitivity reader was a bit delayed. Nearly a month in, the manuscript hadn’t come back yet. What could this mean, I thought? What kind of preposterous microaggressions and political incorrectness am I about to be accused of? It turned out he had simply been held up on another project. The notes, I must say, were not obtrusive or pedantic. Perhaps a novel would have been a little different, he wrote, where we are seeing the world through a character’s eyes. In the case of a work of nonfiction, what really mattered was whether the book was inclusive and whether there were any glaring omissions.

He said that I was at times “status-quo centric” and said that while my examples were diverse, I did not speak directly to the idea of “dual marginalization” (being both black and queer, a woman and an immigrant, etc), two points which were fair though I think difficult to address. I had prepared myself for a torrent of specific criticisms that didn’t arrive. So, I asked, what were you looking for that you would have flagged had you seen? What kind of insensitivity do you find yourself calling out to authors most often. His answer:

Bad LGBT rep
One-dimensional Black Rep
Slander against young people just because they are young
Assumptions about minorities that are archaic, or badly sourced, or aren’t nuanced enough to unpack why said slander is bad.
Faulty Science (I’m a science major so I can usually stop low-level BS).
One sided mentions of historical situations, such as slavery, that do not tell the whole story (ie, I’ve read a lot of books that say the civil war was only about slaves, which isn’t fully true, things like that).

If any of that had appeared in the book, I can’t say it’d have upset me to remove it. But then again, that wasn’t the kind of book I was writing. If I’d written The Reader (about a Nazi statutory rapist) or The Chocolate War (or anything with that kind of language, violence, and sexual content), on the other hand, I might feel differently. Because I’m not sure they would make it through.

It says something about the process that sensitivity readers have the most power in the genres where writers should have the most freedom. Fiction is make believe. It’s the creation of new worlds. Yet it’s here that sensitivity readers come in to tell them what they can and cannot say and whether they’ve said it politely enough. But in non-fiction, as in my case, where thoughtfulness and scholarship do matter, you can skate by with just a few notes.

In the end, I came away from the experienced less outraged than I feared I would. For the free speech advocates outraged by the practice, it’s worth considering how much editing already happens along similar lines just by differently titled editors. In traditional publishing, your editor, their managing editor, the copyeditor, the marketing and the production teams are already reading books with some of the concerns of sensitivity readers—and many more—already in mind. So too are author’s spouses and friends, agents, and peers. Nobody wants an author to publish something that is needlessly offensive or embarrassingly out of touch.

The difference is that these people are usually qualified professionals. Their editorial credibility does not extend from their identity as a marginalized person, but in their ability to make a book better. Their sensitivity is for the reader—all readers—and for the book itself. Is it as good as it can be? Is the author’s point being made?

And that’s the only thing writing should ever be edited for.

Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is an American author and media strategist. Known for his works on stoicism and marketing, he's a prominent figure in modern philosophical thought and practical self-improvement.

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