Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.
These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”
“The industry recognizes this is a real concern,” said Cheryl Klein, a children’s and young adult book editor and author of “The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults.” Klein, who works at the publisher Lee & Low, said that she has seen the casual use of specialized readers for many years but that the process has become more standardized and more of a priority, especially in books for young readers.
Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.
This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her “Truthwitch” series.
For authors looking for sensitivity readers beyond their fan base there is the Writing in the Margins database, a resource of about 125 readers created by Justina Ireland, author of the YA books “Vengeance Bound” and “Promise of Shadows.” Ireland started the directory last year after hearing other authors at a writing retreat discuss the difficulties in finding people of different backgrounds to read a manuscript and give feedback about such, well, sensitive matters.
One reader for hire in Ireland’s database is Dhonielle Clayton, a librarian and writer based in New York. Clayton reviews two manuscripts per month, going line by line to look at diction, dialogue and plot. Clayton says she analyzes the authenticity of the characters and scenes, then points writers to where they can do more research to improve their work.
Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. “Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,” she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers “encounter harmful versions” and stereotypes of people like them.
Fees for a sensitivity readers generally start at $250 per manuscript.
Still, some sensitivity readers feel they are in part contributing to the problem. Clayton said she’s unsettled by the idea that she’s being paid for her expertise, but also is helping white authors write black characters for books from which they reap profit and praise.
“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,” Clayton said. “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?”
But sensitivity readers introduce a new twist in the debate. On the one hand they help a writer create the experience of a marginalized group more authentically. On the other, they legitimize the mimicking of marginalized voices by non-marginalized writers.
Why not just publish more books by black people, Latinos, Native Americans and others? some ask.
Despite the efforts of groups like We Need Diverse Books, “it’s more likely that a publishing house will publish a book about an African-American girl by a white woman versus one written by a black woman like me,” Clayton says.
“So until publishing is equitable and people are still writing cross-culturally,” Clayton points out, “sensitivity reading is going to be another layer of what’s necessary in order to make sure that representation is good.”