Giving Your Fiction a Sensitivity Read

As a new project manager starting out on a manuscript that was going through the process of review by a sensitivity reader, I felt a nagging sensation in the back of my writer mind that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It makes sense that an author should want to make sure their manuscript feels authentic. Research is an important aspect of writing, often prompting authors to reach out to experts in the topics they are writing about. But things start to get complicated when we talk about fiction.

I recently had a conversation with a writer friend of mine who argued that if her characters were fictional, then their experiences were as well. Therefore, she should have been able to write them as she felt they should be. This sentiment is shared by a fair number of authors as the debate over sensitivity readers grows. In her article in National Review, Katherine Timpf argues that “in the name of political correctness, ‘sensitivity readers’ stifle the creativity and imagination that makes fiction what it is.” There are so many amazing novels that would be completely different if they had to first pass through the hands of a sensitivity reader. At the same time, one would think that an author would want the overall message of their book to be heard, not lost in the arguments caused by their ignorant missteps as they try to write characters who are outside their personal experience.

I think at the heart of this conversation is a bigger issue: diversity. The diversity movement has affected many aspects of life, from the demographics of our elected representatives to hiring policies in corporate America. However, change is slow. In publishing, every level is dominated by white individuals, from the publishing houses to the authors. According to Publishers Weekly, from 2014 to 2018 the percentage of industry professionals identifying as white has only slightly decreased from 89 percent in 2014 to 86 percent in 2018. And it doesn’t get much better on the other side of the book. Laura B. McGrath of Stanford University found that 478 of the 500 most commonly used comp titles from the last six years were written by white authors. Comp titles are used by the industry as a means to prove marketability. The basic idea is that book B (the new potential book) will do well because book A (a similar book that has already been published) has sold a lot of copies. It’s a way for the publishing industry to theorize that there is a market for a certain book while also identifying where that potential market is. It’s all about risk reduction.

With an industry that’s predominantly white every step of the way in a social climate pushing for character diversity and broader representation, it’s no wonder that sensitivity readers are becoming so important. They help to bridge the gap between an established pool of mostly white authors and a diverse group of unknown debut authors.

Like I pointed out earlier, change is slow. But as the publishing industry embraces more diversity—and the people who participate in a book’s journey to publication become more representative of the society that book serves—the market will decide, and the role of sensitivity readers will become clear.