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.

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