Sensitivity Readers Are A New Front Line In Helping Authors With Their Craft

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    Sensitivity Readers Are A New Front Line In Helping Authors With Their Craft

    What’s a well-meaning contemporary author seeking to portray a diverse world in her fiction to do? Several recent articles suggest a surprising answer: Hire a sensitivity reader to edit the manuscript.

    In an excellent reported piece for Slate last week, Katy Waldman sketches out the uses and potential drawbacks of the practice. Sensitivity readers function as primary readers of a work in progress ― but while a traditional editor would read with a view for overall quality, a sensitivity reader focuses on the accuracy and potential offensiveness of a specific minority group’s portrayal. To ensure a Korean-American family is being depicted sensitively and authentically, an author might hire a Korean-American reader; to vet the characterization of a protagonist who uses a wheelchair, an author might hire a reader with the same disability.

    Authors who’ve employed sensitive readers spoke to Waldman and Washington Post writer Everdeen Mason, offering uniformly cautious-sounding reasons for their use. “I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage,” said Susan Dennard, who commissioned a reader for a young adult novel about a transgender character. Waldman spoke to a YA author who was spooked by backlash to her first novel, which some readers criticized as playing into stereotypes of gay and lesbian teens; she hired a number of sensitivity readers for her next book to avoid a similar outcome.

    The level of controversy manifested over clichéd and offensive characters in fiction has seemingly skyrocketed with the growing access readers and authors have to each other. Whereas, once upon a time, a variety of staid white men with typewriters might have published reviews of a new novel, today authors can easily find unfiltered feedback from a universe of fans ― on GoodReads, on Amazon, on Twitter and on the ever-proliferating blogosphere. Even professional book-reviewing has grown more diverse, with the rise of the internet.

    In recent years, the increasing public scrutiny on the whiteness, straightness and heteronormativity of the publishing world has both demonstrated to many writers that there’s a thirst for more diverse characters among readers and also heightened backlash toward authors who stumble in their portrayals of underrepresented groups. Though authors can typically count on a good editor to smooth gnarled prose or to push them to strengthen the overall story, when it comes to convincingly portraying a minority experience in print, they’re often on their own.

    Authors are always limited by their experience and capacity for research, of course. Writing well and convincingly about a life vastly different from one’s own is a particular challenge. In the past, though, authors who fell short were aided in mediocrity by the vast majority of editors and reviewers coming from a similarly homogenous class as the authors themselves.

    Write a painfully stereotypical Native American character? Chances are your editor would be white ― and almost definitely not Native ― and wouldn’t notice anything amiss about the depiction. Upon publication, predominantly white reviewers would easily miss any flaws or offensive notes in the book. While Native readers might grumble, they’d stand little chance of getting through to the author and publisher on a meaningful scale.

    Of course, whenever white creators are critiqued for politically incorrect or offensive work, defensiveness kicks in. National Review columnist Katherine Timpf huffed that sensitivity readers were “an assault on art” who would reduce fiction to depictions of “nice sensitivity training.” Slate and Washington Post commenters were skeptical as well, largely dismissing the practice as political-correctness run amok. Critics point to the risk of diluting the visions of creative geniuses with nitpicking edits, leaving us with sanitized, dull tales of well-behaved people.

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