What do sensitivity readers actually do? We meet them

 (Lydia Silver)
(Lydia Silver)

The age of outrage is upon us. Umbrage is taken easily, insults given just as freely, leaving us in a self-perpetuating loop of indignation. Feeling offended, slighted, or thoroughly pissed off about something? Well someone else is going to feel offended, slighted or thoroughly pissed off with you for feeling that. Disagree with me? Well you must be a bigot. If not, a snowflake. There is little oxygen left for the majority of us who are muddling along, sometimes getting it wrong, hoping and trying to get it right.

You’ll be familiar, of course, with Roald Dahl Gate, involving Puffin’s sensitivity readers who had either deleted or amended language deemed to be potentially offensive or discriminatory. To say that knickers (or, non-gender specific undergarments, as the eye-rollers would have you believe a sensitivity reader would make me write) duly got into a twist would be an understatement. Salman Rushdie tweeted: ‘Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’ The Prime Minister’s spokesman said works of fiction should be ‘preserved and not airbrushed’. Even the former PM Boris Johnson blathered on last week about Augustus Gloop and the Oompa-Loompas, and why Britain was a wonderful country because people got to call him a wanker. The clapback has been so loud that Puffin announced in February that it would be releasing a ‘Classic’ Dahl collection under the Penguin banner, ‘offering readers the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvellous stories’, Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin Random House Children’s, said in a statement.

But who are these sensitivity readers: cultural desecrators or preservationists? Censors or safe-guarders? Spoilsports or good sports? And what do they actually do?

‘The term “sensitivity reader” is a bit of a misnomer — my reviewers aren’t overly sensitive, woke snowflakes who take offence to the real world. The idea is to make the author and publisher sensitive to their work’s possible issues and implications and let them make an informed choice about what, if any, changes to make,’ explains Holly Edgar, freelance editor and the founder of Write Up, an agency that provides publishers with sensitivity readers and access to a diverse pool of freelancers. ‘Contrary to media portrayals, they aren’t censors and aren’t accusing authors of being bigoted.’

Alaina Lavoie, journalist and programme manager at We Need Diverse Books, echoes her sentiment. ‘My work as an authenticity or sensitivity reader starts when I’m hired to work on a particular project, looking for the representation of a specific experience.

When I am reading a project that I have the right experience for, I am looking only for how that experience is reflected in the text.’ The biggest challenge, she adds, ‘is that there is no singular experience of any kind […] I am one person. What sticks out as potentially offensive or harmful to me may not stick out to others, and I might miss things someone else would notice.’

It’s the opposite [of censorship]. It’s about how we can help to make your work better. It’s about having that dialogue.

Virginia Mendez, author of Childhood Unlimited: Parenting Beyond Gender Bias, who offers sensitivity reading as part of her consultancy projects, emphasises that the service is not about a broad-strokes morality police. She will look for gender representation, but as a white woman would ‘never dream’ of sensitivity reading for issues of race. ‘We are all severely biased by our upbringing,’ she says without any judgement. What sensitivity reading allows writers to do is ‘borrow the eyes of somebody with a lived experience you don’t have’. She, by the way, has hired one for her own books.

There is a misunderstanding that sensitivity readers are the foot soldiers of totalitarian wokeness. But they say it is just about encompassing another layer of opinion. ‘I’m not reading for the author’s voice, I’m just reading for the way that a specific experience is represented. Everything I note is just a suggestion that the writer does not have to take or could take differently than I express it. I’m simply pointing out what I see,’ says Lavoie. They’re not in the business of telling writers ‘No! This is unacceptable!’ laughs Mendez. ‘A lot of the [notes] are literally Google Docs comments, “Have you realised that…?” Nobody is under any obligation to use them. It’s the opposite [of censorship]. It’s about how we can help to make your work better. It’s about having that dialogue.’ No doubt there is many a cancelled person who would, in hindsight, have welcomed a quick sensitivity read of a misfired tweet.

Problems can arise for books with blind spots. In 2020, the book tour of much-hyped American Dirt (a reported seven-figure advance, an Oprah Book Club pick) was derailed. The problem? The novel, about illegal immigration from Mexico, was written by Jeanine Cummins, an author not of Mexican heritage. Critics argued she perpetuated harmful Mexican stereotypes. Could that have been avoided by using a sensitivity reader? Who knows. But, points out Lavoie: ‘Using a sensitivity reader is not a “get out of jail free” card for writing offensive or harmful portrayals of marginalised characters.’ There is a whole other conversation to be had about the lack of diversity in the arts.

Still, that is a contemporary piece of fiction, and much of the Dahl furore is over the fact that a) these are books of that much-mythologised ‘another time’, where the writer doesn’t have the right to reply, and b) that some of the amends seem a little precious (the changing of the BFG’s cloak from ‘black’ to ‘dark’) in a world where any kid with a phone can access hardcore porn, or redundant (Augustus Gloop’s barely perceptible shift from ‘enormously fat’ to ‘enormous’). But the notoriously truculent Dahl did agree, in 1973, to remove racist language from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We all have our lines. The nasty brilliance of Dahl’s stories doesn’t rely on slurs or stereotypes.

Perhaps, too, we should distinguish between children’s and adult books. A child’s mind is more malleable and more receptive to biases seeping through. The responsibility isn’t entirely on the author, publisher or sensitivity reader, however. Mendez is an advocate of encouraging critical reading, asking questions. ‘How do we use this as a conversation starter? How do we tell our kids we used to think that but not any more?’

When I was growing up, my mum would regularly interject bedtime readings of Enid Blyton books to alert me to the inherent sexism. That proved to be useful, educational in its own way, if perhaps making me a quite annoying presence in the playground.

The sensitivity reader fuss is a good example of outrage piled on outrage. But why have the sensitivity readers attracted such ire? ‘The defensiveness about it is “this is a criticism of who I am”. No, this is an understanding of what society is and about how we can be part of the solution rather than just continuing the problem,’ says Mendez. ‘I think that’s the beauty of this. Just having that possibility of learning from it and being part of the way we want to do things differently. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean you get to say everything, and nobody gets to challenge it’.