Why we need “sensitivity” readers

Art imitates life. Each time we create, we re-present our natural world and the intricacies of human civilization through a unique lens. No two people see the world the exact same way; that’s what makes art awe inspiring. Each artist’s lens offers the opportunity for an entirely fresh, individual view of the human experience.

The writerly world understands this. And though the publishing community is far from perfect, we’re trying to do better to listen, acknowledge, respect, and celebrate all those differing perspectives. Progress is made each time publishers, writers, and readers spotlight a story that shares an experience apart from what was, for so long, deemed the only one worth telling: white, wealthy, young, beautiful, physically fit and powerful, privileged, heterosexual.

As writers from all walks of life continue to push their imaginations beyond the boundaries of their own personal experiences and address the complexities of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and faith, they can hit some tough creative walls. How can I respectfully portray the experiences of a blind character if I’ve never been blind? How could I presume to know how an Indigenous child would feel in this situation if I’m both an adult and non-Indigenous? How can I include a queer character without falling back on tired, demeaning stereotypes? I don’t feel like I’m biased, but isn’t everyone a little bit? What if I don’t even know what my own biases are or what pervasive stereotypes and challenges members of this group face on a daily basis? What are the positive, buoying aspects of having this identity?

Despite an author’s best intentions, just dropping a character who’s different from themselves in some way into a scene without taking care to do so mindfully can actually do more harm than good to readers who see those characters as a representation of themselves. As an increasing number of conscientious, well-meaning authors realized this and began to voice anxieties about cultural sensitivity and the impact of their own work, they sought help from a source beyond what they could find in a library or on the internet. A new, highly specialized kind of editor answered the call.

Understanding the sensitivity reader

Often called an “own voices,” “sensitivity,” or “cultural” reader (at Kirkus Editorial, we prefer “cultural reader”), these professionals read manuscripts with an eye toward identifying themes, tropes, characterizations, and language that reinforce harmful, dehumanizing stereotypes or systems of oppression or misrepresent the true experiences of a group of people.

A cultural reader approaches a project in a spirit of collaboration with the author—they know the author’s intent isn’t to stereotype or malign anyone. And the reader’s intent isn’t to scold or shame an author for writing a portrayal that reads to cultural insiders as exploitative, inaccurate, or ill informed. There’s no way a writer can see the world from every perspective, and no one expects them to have that ability. Just as there’s no shame in hiring a fact-checker to double-check your research and a proofreader to correct your typos, working with a cultural reader is another way to make sure your work is as successful as it can be at expressing your intentions.

Writers and readers all want the same thing: art that respectfully and truthfully represents each human’s experience, to the best of our abilities. In the immediate, the goal of the cultural read is to ensure the text itself matches the author’s positive intentions and does no inadvertent harm. In the context of the wider world of books, the goal is to continually raise the standard of publishing by decreasing the number of books that misrepresent peoples or cultures and therefore reinforce misinformation and oppression.

Working with a cultural reader

The feedback cultural readers offer is usually very top level. Often, they’ll compose an editorial letter that points out plotlines and scenes (for fiction) or lines of argument and passages (for nonfiction) they find problematic. They’ll flag language used to name or describe a group of people that many members of that group would find objectionable. They’ll offer research resources to support their points. They may also insert comments directly into a manuscript in specific spots to suggest ways the author can revise to create a more respectful, informed, and nuanced portrayal.

So who does this work? Cultural readers are often chosen because they’ve lived a particular experience. Oftentimes they also have a scholarly or professional background in the subject matter. One person’s experience living with clinical depression or growing up in Appalachia is just that: one viewpoint. But when their lived experience is coupled with deeper study or work in a given field—maybe they’re also a practicing psychologist or a professor of Appalachian studies in Eastern Kentucky—the cultural reader is equipped with historical, institutional, and sociological knowledge that makes them attuned to more complex and less obvious problems in manuscripts. Essentially, the more angles a reader can see an issue from, the more informed their “second opinion” will be.

Finding a cultural reader

Not every manuscript needs a cultural read, but it’s a good idea to consider hiring a specialized reader if:

  • you’re creating a character whose lived experiences are vastly different from your own
  • you’re considering using historical or regional dialect, especially for characters from marginalized groups
  • you’re writing about a historical period and you have concerns about the authenticity in portraying a specific type of person or group during that time frame, or you wonder if you have erased diversity from a time and place where it existed
  • you have experience with personal or cultural subject matter, but only from a limited angle
  • you worry that a character you’ve created lacks texture and is defined by a single aspect of their identity
  • scenes in your book take place in a country you've never lived in or traveled to (or have traveled to only briefly)

You can google “sensitivity reader services” and find pages of links to teams and individuals offering themselves as readers. Shopping for the best cultural reader is much like shopping for an editor: look for the right combination of experience (preferably both lived and professional/academic), communication style, availability, and value (can they comment on other areas of the manuscript besides just the area where they’re an “expert”?). If your book features more than one sensitive topic or character who differs greatly from you, it may even be a good idea to hire more than one reader, just to make sure you’re not prioritizing one group over another.

If you’re on the fence about hiring a cultural reader, we recommend going ahead and doing so. Once your work is out into the world, it can’t be taken back without great expense (to your own wallet or your publisher’s and to your reputation). And as with any type of editing, fresh eyes always make a project better.

Hiring a cultural reader when necessary is not only the professional thing to do, it is the ethical thing to do. By taking this vital step, you will be working to ensure that you are accurately reflecting diverse experiences beyond your own background, demonstrating yourself to be a literary citizen who understands that the creative choices you make affect the perspectives of your readership.    

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