Recently, the literary world has been abuzz with discussions about sensitivity readers, their role in the publishing process, and the value they bring to the industry. However, I can’t say it would surprise me to learn that you’ve never heard of them.
It would seem that the battle for inclusiveness has been spreading exponentially from one industry to the next, and you’ll find that publishing is no different. An industry that revolves around the immortalization of our deepest societal thoughts and feelings would logically be at the forefront of the struggle between the old guard and the new order.
So what exactly are sensitivity readers, and why are they becoming increasingly important in modern literature? In this article, we will delve into the world of sensitivity readers, their function and significance, and the various criticisms and misconceptions that surround them.
BEFORE WE BEGIN
According to Wikipedia, “A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a literary work, looking for perceived offensive content, stereotypes and bias, creating a report for an author or publisher with suggested changes.”
While this is an accurate depiction of the term, there are difficulties that surround the use of these beta readers that cannot be ignored. I believe, however, that the fault is not in the reader. In my opinion, you will find that the publisher is to blame for the controversies that plague the issue. We’ll talk a bit about that in a later section.
As of late, I have witnessed the growing demand for sensitivity readers in the publishing world. This demand stems from a broader awareness of the need for diverse representation in literature and a desire to create works that accurately and respectfully portray people from various backgrounds and experiences. Sensitivity readers can provide invaluable insight and guidance to authors, ensuring their work is as inclusive and authentic as possible.
Before we carry on, it would be prudent to take note of the context in which sensitivity readers operate. The publishing industry has long been criticized for its lack of diversity, both in terms of the authors it publishes and the characters and stories that are represented in its books. This lack of diversity has led to widespread calls for change, and sensitivity readers have emerged as one way to address this issue and create more inclusive and respectful literature.
WHAT SENSITIVITY READERS DO, AND THEIR ROLE IN THE PUBLISHING PROCESS
Sensitivity readers are individuals who are hired by authors, agents, or publishers to review and provide feedback on a manuscript, particularly focusing on the portrayal of characters from marginalized backgrounds. These individuals possess firsthand experience or knowledge of a specific culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other identity that is represented in the manuscript, allowing them to identify potential issues and suggest improvements.
Sensitivity readers play a useful role in the publishing process by helping authors avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, biases, and inaccuracies in their work. This is particularly important when authors are writing about experiences or identities that are not their own, as they may inadvertently include problematic content despite their best intentions. By providing feedback from the perspective of someone who has lived experience with the identity in question, sensitivity readers help authors create more authentic and respectful portrayals of characters from diverse backgrounds.
In addition to identifying potential issues and suggesting improvements, sensitivity readers can provide valuable insights into the nuances and complexities of the identities they represent. This can help authors develop well-rounded, three-dimensional characters that are true to life, rather than relying on clichés or stereotypes.
Ultimately, sensitivity readers help authors create richer, more nuanced stories that resonate with a wider audience and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive literary landscape.
SENSITIVITY READERS AND DIVERSE REPRESENTATION IN LITERATURE
It should be noted that the push for diverse representation in literature is not just a trend; it is a vital movement that seeks to address the historical underrepresentation and misrepresentation of marginalized groups in literature. By including characters and stories that reflect the diverse experiences of people from all walks of life, authors and publishers can create a more inclusive and equitable literary landscape that truly speaks to our shared humanity.
Sensitivity readers can help challenge and dismantle harmful stereotypes and biases that have long been perpetuated in literature. They can ultimately contribute to a more diverse and respectful literary landscape.
CRITICISMS AND REBUTTALS ABOUT SENSITIVITY READERS
Despite the valuable role sensitivity readers play, they are not without their critics. Some argue that sensitivity readers contribute to a culture of censorship and political correctness, stifling creativity and artistic freedom. Personally, I would argue that this statement isn’t entirely wrong. But that doesn’t make it entirely right, either.
The primary concern here is the alteration of an author’s work without their approval or consent. In one recent scandal, the prominent children’s publishing division of Penguin Books known as Puffin Books altered much of the text in famous author Roald Dahl’s books to “ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” While the publisher’s intent was pure, what Puffin has actually done is to erase every example that reminds us of why closed-mindedness is wrong and harmful.
In and of itself, this practice is wise—but it should never be performed after publication. As a society, when we erase historical examples of ideas and negative views of certain people, not only do we pave the way for new connotations and stereotypes, but we also disassociate ourselves from the pain and stomach-churning nature of the terrible images generated by our words. Without the anchor of what was to chart our future, how can we be certain that what will come doesn’t resemble where we’ve been?
Additionally, sensitivity readers should never dictate what authors can or cannot write; rather they should merely provide feedback and guidance, helping authors create more authentic and respectful portrayals of marginalized characters. In this sense, sensitivity readers should be seen as a valuable resource for authors rather than a threat to their artistic freedom.
Furthermore, sensitivity readers can help authors avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, a contentious issue in the literary world. Cultural appropriation occurs when an author incorporates elements of a culture or identity that is not their own, often in a superficial or stereotypical manner. Sensitivity readers can help authors navigate this complex issue, ensuring that their portrayals of diverse characters are respectful and well-researched. One can hardly argue that these advantages are unnecessary.
Another common misconception about sensitivity readers is that they serve as the "gatekeepers" of diversity in literature, with the power to single-handedly determine what is, or is not, published. In reality, sensitivity readers are just one part of the broader publishing process, and their feedback should be considered alongside the input of editors, agents, and publishers. While sensitivity readers, when utilized appropriately, can provide valuable guidance and insight, they should never have the final say when it comes to the publication of a manuscript.
I think Disney has really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the viewing of questionable content. Instead of changing and revising the original versions of many of their early films, the company has now added a disclaimer to the beginning of the pictures in question. It reads,
"This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”
There seems to be this resonating idea within the publishing industry that we have the ability, or the right, to rewrite history that we don’t agree with. But the truth is you can’t rewrite histories. The things that happened, happened—the things that were written were written. Human beings have done and said some terrible things in our time on this world, and removing those things from our collective sight is about as sharp as a bowl of jello. Attempts to suppress our past and embarrassing moments as a society is likely to fail, and even if it didn’t, would you really want to forget?
In conclusion, sensitivity readers play a crucial role in promoting diverse and respectful representation in modern literature. By providing feedback and guidance to authors, they help to ensure that the portrayal of marginalized characters and experiences is accurate, nuanced, and respectful. While sensitivity readers have faced their fair share of criticism and misunderstanding, their growing presence in the publishing world is a testament to the importance of diverse and inclusive literature in today's world.
As authors, publishers, and readers alike continue to push for greater diversity and representation in literature, sensitivity readers will undoubtedly remain an invaluable resource in the publishing process. By fostering a more inclusive and respectful literary landscape, they help to create stories that truly reflect the diverse experiences of people from all walks of life, enriching our understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it.
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