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On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing

18 January 2017

From The Literary Hub:

In the past few years, authors concerned about the accuracy of their cultural representations have started using a new tool. Sensitivity reading, or beta reading, involves manuscript review where the author is writing about a marginalized group to which they doesn’t belong. A sensitivity reader might have a particular medical condition, sexual orientation, ethnic background, or any experience or identity that may be poorly understood by the majority culture.

Some might consider the use of sensitivity readers an eye-rolling exercise in identity liberalism that has become bruised a bit by recent political events. To others, sensitivity reading is a welcome means, though by no means a sufficient one, of working towards a more inclusive and less cliché-ridden publishing industry.

. . . .

Becky Albertalli’s experience with sensitivity readers provides a useful snapshot of this trend. When she was writing Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, published in 2013, she hadn’t heard the term “sensitivity reader.” But the book, which centers on a closeted teenager, passed through the hands of many gay men as part of the process of consultation. This was basically a form of sensitivity reading, although not formalized.

When it came time to write her next book, The Upside of Unrequited, sensitivity reading had become more familiar. We Need Diverse Books was launched in 2014, and major lists of available sensitivity readers were created in 2016. For this book, Albertalli wanted to be much more deliberate about the process.

The protagonist of The Upside of Unrequited, which will be published in April 2017, is a fat, anxious, cis, straight, Jewish teenage girl; this adjective soup is autobiographical for Albertalli.

. . . .

One example came in the very first scene of the book—which Albertalli wryly notes was a high-stakes situation. Here the narrator mentioned outright that she was straight. A bisexual sensitivity reader critiqued the overtness of this, saying, “That comes off as super ‘no homo’ to me.” Albertalli agreed. It was obvious by page two that this character was straight, and she realized that in aiming for political correctness, she had struck a false note. She reshaped the scene.

. . . .

Sangu Mandanna is an author and editor who has been doing formal sensitivity reads for over six months. She’s listed on the best-known database of sensitivity readers, compiled by Writing in the Margins.

Mandanna’s experience inhabiting these multiple roles shows that sensitivity reading makes for a unique set of demands on a reader/editor. “You’re not looking for plot holes or world-building inconsistencies, for example; you’re looking for places in the text where [characterization] or a narrative arc or even just a turn of phrase could be a problematic or downright harmful representation.”

These can be seemingly minor issues, but the very fact that they’re often overlooked points to the ease with which a majority culture can reproduce stereotypes. Mandanna gives as an example the frequent exoticizing of brown characters. “Take phrases like ‘glowing brown skin’ or ‘eyes like jewels’, which are phrases I see very often. These phrases are meant to be positive, but the author would never use them to describe their white characters.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub


35 Comments to “On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing”

  1. i think beta reader is a good term. And it’s been since forever to research the subject from science, to historical times to various groups like the gullah to gain readers to give feedback.

    I hope to learn, ever. And, sensitivity, to me, belongs on the weighing scale, pound for pound. For Charolais for instance, righteous dollar per ounce. Learning has scale for certain, but that’s in one’s heart I think beforehand, not ‘out there.’ Im not rolling my eyes. It’s just that the descriptors belong to a tribe other than my own.

  2. ‘a marginalized group to which they doesn’t [sic] belong’?

    Even if you write about a group you do belong to, someone in that group may decide you’re doing it wrong.

    I blogged yesterday about getting a letter from someone who told me to change my novel because that person (and others) don’t like the name I used in the book for our group.

    I’ve been in this group, not by choice, for almost three decades – and the name has changed a bunch of times, some of which are acknowledged in the book.

    • One of my books has two reviews next to one another on Amazon:

      “I loved the pacing, it was so fast”
      “Slow pacing, I got bored”

      It really is best to ignore public opinion UNLESS they’re all saying the same thing.

      • Even if they’re saying the same thing you’re better off ignoring them. Internet mob mentality is far too common in comments and reviews to ever truly escape.

      • I disagree with this on one point. I often look at reviews with an eye to mentions of grammar mistakes, misspellings, incorrect word choices and amateurish phrasing. If I see any reviews that mention these sorts of things and there’s no indication that those problems have been fixed, I won’t consider the book. If your book receives reviews that mention such issues, pursue them and get help, no matter how golden you think you might be.

      • I used to play for Scandinavian folk dancing as a fiddler. The couples would spin by for Rättvikspolska, and the first one would say, “Could ya slow it down?”, while the couple right behind them would make “speed it up” gestures.

        All you could do was just smile and keep fiddling.

  3. I have a simple rule when it comes to my writing and self-publishing: don’t like my book for any reason? Don’t read it, because you’re not my target audience. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I self-publish. I’ll change factually incorrect information or writing errors as determined by my beta readers, but have absolutely no interest in changing my word use or tone to appease people’s feelings. That brings only madness.

    • Yep. There are 8 billion people in this world. Nobody can please everybody. Going down that path is like jumping into an infinite rabbit hole.

  4. Oh, not this again.
    I don’t think they can ever be one cultural experience because people are individuals First and foremost, and experiences make an individual more than the colour of their skin or where they were born.
    A poor Gambian farmer Is probably not going to have the same outlook as an African-American surgeon, even though they both considered minority By some people.

  5. I give it about six months before these very same “sensitivity readers” complain that hiring special editors just for minority characters is an offensive way to otherize non-white people.

    • Exactly, and if you don’t write about non-white characters because you can’t afford a sensitivity reader, they’ll claim you’re excluding and marginalizing them by not writing them into any of your books.

      Big surprise, the only way to avoid getting “criticized” is to pay them.

    • This is what I was thinking. “You’re relegating us to tokens rather than . . .” whatever the then-current terminology will be.

  6. It’s baaack! bowd·ler·ize

    remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that it becomes weaker or less effective.
    “a bowdlerized version of the story”
    synonyms: expurgate, censor, blue-pencil, cut, edit; More

  7. A science fiction author was proudly blogging about paying her sensitivity reader $3 a page recently. And that she’d killed at least one project because she couldn’t change it to her sensitivity reader’s satisfaction. Won’t link to it, but she’s a Hugo winner, so this is hardly someone on the fringe.

    Perhaps someday books vetted by a hypothetical Guild of Sensitivity Readers will issue their own variant of an imprimatur and a nihil obstat? For a price, of course.

    • I remember that post, it’s here if anyone is interested
      What seems chilling to me is all the comments Congratulating her and telling her that she did the right thing, obviously it was her decision and hope she’s happy, but it does make me wonder.
      On the other hand, she did acknowledge that there was nothing logical about it so maybe there’s still hope.

      • Oh, man, is THAT repellent.

        I esp. loathed this bit. Guess there are no good outcomes since the first pre-diaspora East African tribe conquered another — it’s been all oppression and victims since then:

        “Internalized oppression is very real. People in positions of privilege tend to not understand how someone who is demographically part of a group, might have views that are consistent with the dominant group. Let me give you an example that is not emotionally loaded. England used to be a colony of the Roman Empire. There’s Latin on our money. Greco-Roman inspired architecture is still highly valued. Roman numerals are still taught in school. The classics. And you don’t notice any of it because it is such an ingrained part of society now. That’s the lingering touch of colonialism.”

        • FWIW, reconsidering Rome and Greece in the light of “Subaltern Studies” and post-colonial approaches is a hot thing now, as in it is very popular. I’m waiting for someone to apply similar standards to the ancient Persians and other non-European empires (at least those for which we have enough documents).

    • “Won’t link to it, but she’s a Hugo winner, so this is hardly someone on the fringe.”

      Is that a Hugo winner, or a ‘Hugo winner’? For most of the last decade or so, a ‘Hugo winner’ has been a pretty clear sign that they’re on the SJW fringe.

      There’s a reason I’d pretty much stopped reading SF for years until indie-publishing came along and revitalized it. The last two ‘Hugo winners’ I tried to read were such bilge that I couldn’t even get half-way through them.

  8. Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it. –Mark Twain

    Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God. — Mark Twain

    The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. — Mark Twain

    Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. — Mark Twain, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar”

    (I’ll stop now, before the scrolling down gets too bad.)

  9. Save me from the term “sensitivity reader”. I am definitely rolling my eyes. These are just beta readers with certain perspectives that might include anything from coming from a particular city, speaking a particular language, or having a particular identity that the author is not familiar with. Yes by all means get someone to read your book to let you know what you might have wrong, but please don’t call it sensitivity reading. It’s research.

    • Yes, it seems like a good idea to have beta readers personally familiar with your subject matter. But calling them “sensitivity readers” sounds kind of creepy and needlessly political.

  10. Beta readers are nothing new. Nor is selecting beta readers that have some experience you don’t have, whether that is technical, professional, or cultural. What is new to me is calling some of them “sensitivity readers” and the idea of a corps of the professionally sensitive. Lauding some individuals as being extra sensitive seems odd and not useful.

    My audience is not the especially sensitive. It’s the general public. If I were concerned about my presentation of an important female character, for example, I would try to include among my beta readers several women I know who I know have had different life experiences and have different views.

    As for the example in the OP of stating in the first scene the narrator is straight when it is obvious by page two, that’s identifiable as weak writing without needing to resort to sensitivity.

  11. I have a few stories where I’ve searched out what some would call a sensitivity reader. I didn’t think of it that way, but as someone who knew more about something than I did and was willing to help me.

    Sad thing is, when that kerfuffle about The Continent happened, the author stated she had sensitivity readers and people told her that didn’t matter because sometimes sensitivity readers won’t tell the author what they need to hear. Left me wondering why bother then?

  12. I recently read a book by a very successful author where the character flipped off the safety on a revolver. I was horrified, offended, and even triggered.

    Let’s hope the NRA starts a sensitivity service for authors.

  13. What about political orientation? Would a liberal author writing a conservative character feel obligated to seek the input of a conservative reader? Or vice versa, for that matter?

    • I would have to if I were trying not to deeply offend people. It’s not a philosophy I understand very well. Plus if the character’s motivations are true to life, the plot makes more sense.

      • If a writer’s books don’t offend anyone, they’re not trying hard enough.

        • Maybe confuse would have been a better word. If I’m going to offend someone I want it to be on purpose, not because I didn’t know enough to write a believable character.

          • Anything we write that isn’t completely innocuous will offend someone. Just writing ‘He’ or ‘She’, for example, will offend Whiney McSnowflake these days.

            It’s much better to just say ‘I don’t care’, and write what you want.

  14. i think beta reader is a good term. And it’s been since forever to research the subject from science, to historical times to various groups like the gullah to gain readers to give feedback.

    Yes by all means get someone to read your book to let you know what you might have wrong, but please don’t call it sensitivity reading. It’s research.

    Beta readers are nothing new. Nor is selecting beta readers that have some experience you don’t have, whether that is technical, professional, or cultural.

    I’m with USAF, Lydia, and Gordon Horne on this. The term “sensitivity reader” is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

  15. I don’t write for anyone but myself. Period. If you don’t like my stuff, then don’t read it. But I’m not changing it for you or anyone else. There’s a difference in doing research and writing to opinion. It’s the same reason I don’t do “writing workshops.” I don’t need validation and I don’t need “advice” from people less experienced. I surpassed my million words years ago.

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