Publishing experts gathered for a CBC Diversity panel titled “A Second Opinion: Utilizing Sensitivity Readers” on February 16 in the Scholastic Auditorium. The speakers were author Kate Milford (Greenglass House); Jordan Brown, executive editor, HarperCollins; and Jennifer Baker, editor and sensitivity reader. Justina Ireland, author and owner of Writing in the Margins, an organization devoted to promoting and mentoring writers from traditionally marginalized groups (and which also connects authors with sensitivity readers), moderated.
Ireland kicked off the conversation with a metaphor from her time serving in the U.S. Army in Kosovo, a “beautiful country” that was unfortunately riddled with landmines. Ireland compared navigating one such landmine using a stick to writing a narrative that speaks from outside an author’s own lived experience. In both cases, sometimes having a little guidance from an expert is necessary to help “see what [the author] didn’t or couldn’t see.” That’s where sensitivity readers come in.
The panelists shared their personal experiences either consulting with sensitivity readers or, in Baker’s case, serving as one. For Milford, utilizing sensitivity readers has been eye-opening. She learned early on that anytime she thinks she is aware of a problematic issue in her writing, a sensitivity reader will invariably find more issues that she knew nothing about. A sensitivity reader can teach an author “what I do not know that I don’t know,” she said. Milford believes that the key to effectively using sensitivity readers is to be “open to as much feedback as possible” and to not go into the experience with a rigid set of expectations or questions in mind.
Brown elaborated on the need for sensitivity readers to detect prejudicial or inauthentic content. He also emphasized the nuanced nature of the work that sensitivity readers do. For example, a character depiction or incident in a book may not come across as biased or otherwise inaccurate in and of itself. Yet a reader of a particular background may pick up on subtle—or not-so-subtle—signs that this representation is part of a larger, stereotypical pattern at work within the broader narrative. “A key aspect of privilege is that you don’t see the patterns,” Brown said.
As a sensitivity reader, Baker spoke about some of the patterns of bias and misrepresentation that she often sees when reading manuscripts. These include narratives that feature black characters only speaking in Ebonics; instances of “white saviorism”; master-slave romances; depictions of “black-on-black crime”; black communities that offer “no joy”; and “black boys using basketball to get out of the hood.” Her experience as a sensitivity reader has made her realize that there exists “[a key black narrative] in the minds of these writers” that is often stereotypical and which they are unaware that they hold. In order to be a successful sensitivity reader, she noted, also requires being cognizant of one’s own privilege and limitations. She is often consulted to read slave narratives. But while she can bring her own “empathy and recognition” to those projects, she is not “a scholar in slave narrative.”
Best Practices for Sensitivity Reading
Brown is placing an increasingly high priority on the use of sensitivity readers for the books he edits, seeing their input as one of the most critical components of preparing a manuscript for publication—as important as, say, reading for grammar. Milford agreed that a “sensitivity reader isn’t just there to sign off” on a book, but rather to serve as a conduit for “a much better book and a much better experience for readers.”
Ireland agreed that sensitivity reading should be as much a priority as editing a book’s technical components. Ideally, astute sensitivity readers are able to observe “where the story is in conversation with what’s come before,” she said. Having been a sensitivity reader herself, she understands first-hand how challenging it can be. For a reader who often comes across racial stereotypes, the experience is often demoralizing and exhausting. In reading biased representations of her own ethnic group, she was confronted over and over again with the impression that “society doesn’t see [her] as completely human.”
Baker weighed in on some basic strategies for sensitivity reading. As with hiring a person for any job, it is important to respect a sensitivity reader’s time and effort by offering fair compensation. A fair going rate is considered to be $250, but “it’s not an all you can eat buffet,” she said. Asking a sensitivity reader to offer additional feedback above and beyond what they have already supplied should come with additional pay. Baker also emphasized the limitations of using sensitivity readers. Authors first and foremost carry the obligation to write as authentically as they know how. With some especially offensive manuscripts she has encountered, Baker has wondered: “how did it get this far?”
In closing, the panelists offered suggestions for authors who want to best utilize sensitivity readers. As a fellow author who has used sensitivity readers, Milford offered words of solidarity: “We are on your side.” Yet, she added, “it falls to the author to do a lot of work.” For Brown, it’s the responsibility not only of authors, but of editors and others in the publishing world to “educate [themselves] as much as possible.” Because one sensitivity reader can’t be expected to speak to a universal experience of a particular ethnic or cultural group, he believes that authors can benefit from having multiple readers for a manuscript. “A sensitivity reader is not a miracle worker,” Ireland said. Hiring multiple sensitivity readers can help an author to broaden their understanding and awareness. “It’s not about just sticking to writing what you know.... But go out and do research,” Ireland said.