I woke up early one morning, my wife lying in bed next to me, already awake. She has often has bad insomnia, so I asked how long she’d been up.
“All night,” she said. “I haven’t slept at all.”
“That sucks,” I said. “You want some breakfast?”
It was a simple interaction, but recently I’ve been thinking how ridiculous it would’ve been if I’d said, “I was here next to you all night. If you were really awake, I’d have noticed.” Or, “I’ve never experienced insomnia. I don’t think it’s real.”
And, yet, that’s how many of us respond when people of color tell us about their experiences with racism. This nonsense has been on full display in the publishing industry recently thanks to the ongoing debate regarding the role of sensitivity readers in modern publishing.
For the uninitiated, sensitivity readers are people from marginalized backgrounds who vet manuscripts to ensure that their representation of underrepresented groups is both accurate and respectful. Unfortunately, these readers, who should be universally celebrated and appreciated, have instead been at the heart of a heated argument that’s been spotlighted by everyone from the New York Times to Katie Couric.
The heart of the controversy? Many white writers cry censorship whenever a sensitivity reader advocates for thoughtful and accurate representation.
And the weirdest thing about it? In just about every other way, writers as a group are notoriously obsessed with accuracy. We’re the folks who go down hours-long digital rabbit holes to iron out the most mundane details. And yet too many of us have a lower set of standards when it comes to our marginalized characters. It’s as if some authors care more about getting poisons right than representing black characters.
As a straight white male who’s spent the past four years writing a queer love story, I’ve used nearly a dozen sensitivity readers so far, and I will no doubt use several more once my agent and I go on submission. The verdict? Sensitivity readers are hands down the best thing to ever happen to my manuscript.
All of my sensitivity readers have provided me with honest, courteous, and confidential revision notes. Many of these readers are authors themselves, and others are professional editors who had ideas as to how I could improve not only my representation but also my plot, pacing, and characterization. By engaging these sensitivity readers early in the revision process, I was able to make important and substantial changes to my manuscript before sending it to a publishing house. If I’d waited until later in the process, looking simply for a last-minute thumbs-up, I would have missed out on the opportunity to improve both my representation and my manuscript as a whole.
Sensitivity readers are helping me learn to be more intentional with my privilege. By paying marginalized creators for a sensitivity read, I help finance their own creative projects. These sensitivity readers also inspired me to think critically about putting my money where my mouth is and supporting wonderful organizations like We Need Diverse Books.
When I reached out to a couple of my favorite authors, both of whom have been open about their own need for sensitivity readers, to ask for recommendations, they also offered to read my manuscript themselves. Similarly, several of my sensitivity readers have become friends. They even plugged me into their Facebook group. These budding literary friendships would not have been possible if I hadn’t hired sensitivity readers.
If you’re an author writing a character outside of your lived experience, don’t lament the existence of sensitivity readers. Appreciate them; listen to them; and, of course, pay them. They deserve it.
James M. Tilton is an author, teacher, and the creator of PickMyYA.