How sensitivity readers are changing publishing | #socialmedia

What is the one thing that makes a story unsalvageable? Bad dialogue, cardboard characters and glaring plot holes are all contenders. But most disastrous of all? Cliché.

When an author uses a stale old trope – rape as a plot device, the autistic character is a genius – the story loses some magic. And if we, the readers, have the sorts of backgrounds or identities that mean we know all too well what it’s like to be stereotyped in real life, seeing characters getting the same treatment in fiction is more than a turn-off – it can be genuinely depressing.

Enter sensitivity readers. This new role aims to give authors and publishers a chance to address problems of bias and representation in a work before a manuscript hits the printers.

Their importance has been underlined of late as the poet and teacher Kate Clanchy was criticised for racialised descriptions of children in her 2019 memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.

Sensitivity readers give authors a chance to address bias before books are published (Photo: Carlos G Lopez/Getty)

Meanwhile, JK Rowling’s latest Galbraith mystery, Troubled Blood (2020), proved divisive when she cast a cross-dresser as the serial killer. And HarperCollins had to axe a whole character in a new edition of David Walliams’ 2016 book The World’s Worst Children after the author was criticised for using “harmful stereotypes” in his portrayal of a boy of Chinese heritage.

Such controversies in part came to light thanks to critics airing their frustration online.

“Social media has absolutely transformed the way in which publishers work, because audiences can talk back at them in a way that they never could,” says Dr Anamik Saha, author of Rethinking “Diversity” in Publishing.

A typical sensitivity reading service includes a cover letter, which picks up on any structural or recurring issues, and a manuscript in which the reader highlights line by line any issues with language, dialogue and descriptions.

Most of those doing the job are freelancers, juggling it alongside writing or editing. US-based sensitivity reader Jenna Beacom has worked as an advocate for deaf culture for more than 25 years. She gets a kick out of seeing deaf characters drawn accurately.

Readers are not looking for errors, but examples of stereotyping or cliche (Photo: Maskot Bildbyr/Getty)

“What I love about sensitivity reading is that it gives me an opportunity to help head off problems before they are on page or screen. I have worked with so many authors who want to do the right thing and find ways to make their books better.”

Reading for racial stereotypes is also a common task. Zhui Ning Chang is a sensitivity reader based in London and Singapore who specialises in Chinese diaspora cultures, East and South-east Asian histories and cultures, and queer representation.

Chang’s not looking for “mistakes”, she says, so much as things that “tread the edge of a stereotype”. For example, when authors show no insight or interest in their Chinese characters’ names – “Mei” is ludicrously overused, she says.

“In the same way you don’t expect every white female protagonist to be named Elizabeth, it would be nice to see some diversity for Chinese characters too.”

Not everyone is convinced by sensitivity reading. Some deride it as a form of “cancel culture”. In a 2017 article, the author Lionel Shriver wrote: “The day my novels are sent to a sensitivity reader is the day I quit”.

“I think a lot of people when they first hear about sensitivity reading will say: ‘This is censorship’,” says Helen Gould, who specialises in sensitivity reading around race and racism, and also has expertise reading work that covers PTSD and trauma.

“But it’s actually the complete opposite,” she continues. “People want to write these stories and these characters and the sensitivity consultant is there to make sure that they can do so, while avoiding being harmful in their portrayals.”

Sensitivity reading helps authors avoid harmful portrayals (Photo: Getty)

Dr Saha agrees. “The successful book club is not one where we all reach a consensus,” he says. “It’s one where we can argue and joust with each other over whether we think particular stories and characterisations are good enough.”

Even so, it’s not a perfect process. One issue is that it tends to come in late in a book’s production – after the structural edit (when editors check the plot) and sometimes even after line and copy edits, where the author’s language is finessed.

This can be a problem, says Alisha (not her real name), who specialises in Middle Eastern culture and diaspora, and mixed ethnicity experience. She did one sensitivity read, but felt uncomfortable with how far along in the process she came in.

“It impacts the pressure on a sensitivity reader,” she explains, “because the book’s about to be typeset. At that stage, if there is something fundamentally wrong with it, I can’t be honest.”

Sensitivity reading is an advisory edit, and authors are never obliged to make any of the suggested changes. And even if authors take their advice, they won’t have time to change any structural aspects – just the words. For Alisha, the pressure’s not worth it.

“I’d struggle to do it again purely because the reward feels like it doesn’t balance with the fear I feel about doing the right job.”

Writer and editorial director at Pan Macmillan imprints Bluebird and One Boat, Mireille Harper, says no writer will be able to sensitively depict every lived experience (Photo: Supplied)

Moreover, no one I spoke to expects sensitivity readers to fix the book industry’s myriad problems of representation. Dr Saha’s report demonstrated publishing’s near failure to make any improvements in this area. In 2004, for example, 87 per cent of publishing was white; in 2019, it was 86 per cent. Most interviewees could think of more things on top of sensitivity reading that would improve publishing.

For example Alisha no longer offers sensitivity reading and instead spends her time mentoring writers, offering one spot in every four for free to a candidate from an underrepresented background.

Likewise Mireille Harper, editorial director at Pan Macmillan imprints Bluebird and One Boat, nods to internal guidelines for editors at Dorling Kindersley, for whom she writes history books, that offer advice on such subjects as how to reflect different sexualities in children’s books.

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Still, the role remains essential to many projects. “We’re not
yet at the point where writers are as culturally aware or as
sensitive as they could be,” says Harper.

“I don’t think anybody will arrive at a point where they are able to sensitively depict every lived experience.”

Ultimately, then, sensitivity readers are perhaps a temporary fix rather than a long-term solution. (M)otherhood author Dr Pragya Agarwal, who has previously acted as a consultant on bias for UK publishers, believes that like many people in publishing who come from marginalised identities, sensitivity readers are under undue pressure without the means to push back.

“Responsibility often falls on people who are marginalised to raise their voices and do the emotional work of pushing for change,” she says. “Many of these people are not in senior roles so don’t have the power to enforce long-term change.”

Even so, until representation improves, they are indispensable.

“Every child deserves to see themselves reflected in the books that they read, and we need books that tell different stories and include different perspectives in the world,” Dr Agarwal continues.

“But really, this is not the job of a sensitivity reader.”

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