The rise of sensitivity readers in the world of publishing

Any author will tell you that their words go through a rigorous process before they emerge into a published volume. We read our manuscript several times and we cut, cut, cut before it’s passed to the editor who will also cut, make suggestions, tidy up and point out grammar errors and typos. Then we read it through again, make the necessary changes and pass it to a proof reader who will give it a final polish.

Some publishers are now running material through what is called sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers are a growing army and come to the industry with diverse backgrounds so that their unique knowledge, experience and awareness of potential issues can be applied to specific genre and story lines. They come with their own unique understanding of a particular social group or race and apply their understanding to the edit. They critique the work. For instance a black sensitivity reader might read a historical novel set in the Deep South of America during the time of slavery. They will be asking important questions as they read. Does the material ignore the harsh realities of slavery? Does it romantise slavery? Will it offend anybody? The idea is to look for potential sensitivity issues, to structure the material so that it’s considerate and respectful and authentic. There’s certainly any appetite now in the industry for readers with a different perspective to cast their eye over material before it enters the public arena. In this era of heavy litigation this has got to be a good thing. But what about the pitfalls?

This move towards sensitivity reading could deter authors from writing what they want to write. It’s about political correctness and censorship and ultimately could stifle creativity, imagination and impose the rule book on our work, which is not what we want. Fiction should reflect and challenge and be disturbing. Disturbing sells but at the same time we need to hold our pens lightly and be mindful of upsetting. I wouldn’t want to see an overly cautious publishing industry. This is political correctness on steroids and a band aid issue. In other words the reasons why sensitivity readers are needed is because certain marginalised groups are underrepresented in the book world. The way to be truly sensitive and to learn about black views, working class views, disabled views and so on is to pump Government and charity money into helping these groups write about their lives and their background. We writers can’t put on every hat we write about. We do as much research as we can and can’t always get things write. We all have a different way of looking at things. Life isn’t uniform and neither are opinions. My books all cover sensitive issues and all of them have given rise to criticism. That’s the nature of the beast. But I would much rather work closely with some of these underprivileged marginalised groups to help them write their story. That way the writing would be truly authentic. Better, after all to come direct from the horse’s mouth than pretend you can slip into somebody’s else’s shoes.

Loneliness in the teens

Loneliness is endemic in our society but there has always been a stigma associated with it. The damage to our health from feeling lonely over an extended period of time, we are told is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

None of us like to admit to feeling lonely because of how others will perceive us. It’s not cool to be lonely. People will automatically assume we have no friends, that we’re weird and unpopular or that we make no effort to help ourselves and that we should go out more and mix with others. You can have a big family and a wide circle of friends and plenty of hobbies and a full time job and still feel the crushing pain of loneliness. You also don’t have to be elderly to feel lonely. Loneliness cuts across the generations. Like MP Jo Cox the most lonely period of my life was when I was at university, 300 miles from home and my long standing friends and everything that was comfortable and familiar. It was the first time in my life that I’d been away from home and I desperately missed my mum, my dog and my boyfriend and the arrival of letters in the pigeon hole each day just seemed to heighten my sense of isolation. You can have lots of fun at university, get drunk and go to plenty of parties but still feel alone and alienated from those around you.

The Jo Cox Commission is starting a national conversation about the scale and impact of loneliness in the UK and so I thought I’d write a blog about what I’ve observed about the crushing feeling of loneliness. I want to discuss another group of people who feel lonely, a group that gets ignored – teenagers. In these times of marital and relationship breakdown people go on to have more children with a new partner. I had two children with my husband and then went on to have a third child with a new partner. For a number of years they played together, grew up as siblings, had lots of fun together and went on holiday with us. And then suddenly that family unit was gone. My older children work and lives miles away and I don’t see them much. The relationship with my new partner broke down and now it’s just me and my youngest. She’s now in her teens and in effect is an only child. The times they had as three children together are over and this is a bereavement. Children in this situation are coping with a loss and might be feeling lonely as an only child. It’s different, I think when you’ve always been an only child from the start and you remain so. It’s all you’ve known. But what about the children whose siblings fly the nest and into adulthood? And the ones whose fathers leave and maybe never see them again? They are left behind and this must be a desperately lonely time for them and I don’t think secondary schools are equipped to address the social phenomenon of loneliness among students. The institution of school, let’s face it is a lonely one too and much is placed on the ability to make friends and socialise but schools are big places these days with different lunch periods. Students don’t necessarily have the same lunch periods as their friends or classes and the catchment areas are often spread over a big distance making it hard to meet up with friends at the weekend.

As the Jo Cox Commission shines the spotlight on loneliness think about all of the groups in our society who haven’t been considered and think about what can be done to help their plight. The loss of close relationships in a teenager’s life and readjusting to life as an only child can come as a big shock.Trying to make sense of what has happened within their family while learning to live a new way of life can be a massive thing.

Here’s a link to the Jo Cox Commission :