Katy Waldman describes how authors are using “sensitivity readers” to give input on manuscripts:
These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.
Their advice can be subtle:
Is the book about the girl struggling with her weight too much about a girl, well, struggling with her weight? Does a character’s reference to his “shrink” denigrate therapy?
Naturally, issues to do with race, sex, and gender loom large, but recommended edits cover all possible sources of aggravated self-consciousness, including religion, “mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.”
Of course, authors have always sought advice on their handling of tricky topics. Waldman makes clear, however, that publishers are now using professional sensitivity readers to tweak the political messages embedded in their products:
Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) By the time Whitman started at Lee & Low in 2010, she told me, seeking input from reviewers with firsthand knowledge of minority traditions and experiences had already become standard practice at the company.
An inevitable development, I suppose. But why not go further? Maybe one day these sensitivity readers can be fully professionalized, with licensing requirements and certified training courses and agencies to contract out their services.
Then, when an author is criticized for her handling of race (as will surely still happen), she can say in her defense, “But my publisher already hired a sensitivity reader! It wasn’t my artistic decision. Don’t blame me!”
And when attention turns to the publisher, the publisher can issue a statement saying, “We want our readers to know that we do our best to ensure every manuscript rises to the highest standards of cultural sensitivity. For that reason we use Intersectionalia Inc., considered to be an industry leader in sensitivity assurance, to check every work we publish for sensitivity-related material.”
And when outrage shifts to the agency employing sensitivity readers, Intersectionalia Inc. can say, “Our clients are deeply important to us, and this is why we take pride in rigorously screening all our sensitivity readers to ensure they properly express the ethical commitments of our company. Inevitably, at times, a reader will fall short of our high standards, and when this happens we take appropriate steps to the remedy the error.”
At which they will go ahead fire the offending sensitivity reader, and everyone will be happy.
Except, of course, for the sensitivity reader herself, who has now proven to be something other than a perfectly dependable representative of her ethnic and sexual group, something less than a foolproof authority on audience expectations, something more interesting than a QA hireling for purveyors of mass entertainment–that is to say, an ordinary person full of idiosyncratic and unreliable opinions–and thus totally expendable from the perspective of a corporate entity.
In all seriousness, what American publishing needs isn’t more books expressing sensitivity toward members of minority groups. It’s more books expressing insensitivity, written by members of minority groups. The opportunity to be insensitive–prickly, obtrusive, noisy, sometimes offensive, unpredictable, and ultimately unclassifiable–is implicitly the opportunity to be a person, not merely a model queer woman or a typical Muslim American or some other reductive thing.
The need to assert that freedom to be oneself–rough edges, abrasive attitudes, unpopular opinions and all–is what leads people write novels in the first place.