The True Value of Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity readers used in the publishing of multicultural books have been in the social media conversation recently.   A sensitivity reader, sometimes called a cultural consultant, reads a manuscript from a standpoint of membership in a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or spiritual community and evaluates the story for authenticity and makes revision recommendations.
It’s all very Captain Obvious that writers should be checking their cultural research and using a member of that culture to do so. But it’s easy to overlook the deeper value of a sensitivity reader when we employ them only at the end of the process, and only when we are writing outside our racial or religious culture. I have used cultural consultants to help me understand the culture of military families and maritime professions. And I have used cultural consultants to help me more fully understand characters who share my own ethnicity and religion. Membership in the race, ethnicity, or religion of your characters doesn’t automatically
make you an authority on your characters particular situation. There are a multitude of life experiences and ways to live within every racial or ethnic group. Don’t short change yourself in the research just because you are writing from a home culture.
Here are three benefits to consulting a sensitivity reader early in the process of writing a book.
  1. Gain access to research materials 
The best thing you can ask at the beginning of a book research process is “what should I read, see, hear, taste, study, and visit in order to fully understand this aspect of the culture.” A good consultant will know. For example an early consultant for The Turn of the Tide suggested, since a trip to Japan was out of my budget and my questions were ecosystem specific, that I talk to the horticulturalist at the Japanese garden about the flora in my Japanese setting. I could have just read a field guide but seeing and hearing and smelling the trees made all the difference. I’ve made valuable personal connections through research consultants and I’ve gained access to unpublished research and off-display museum materials which did much to round out my understanding of a culture. And because I used a consultant early in the process, I could efficiently make the necessary changes.
  1. Embrace the need for substantial change in your story 
Sooner or later you will come across a topic in your research that stymies you. Written resources don’t mention the information you are looking for. People you interview give vague or wildly disparate information. Suggested contacts don’t return your queries. And sometimes a sensitivity reader will recommend explicitly that you leave an entire topic alone.
Listen. Seriously. Listen.
And change your story accordingly. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about a culture, but there are things within a culture that simply do not belong in your story. And your reader is not making this suggestion to make you fail. She is actually hoping you will succeed and trying her best to help you do so. It can feel like a defeat but really it’s an opportunity to reimagine your story in a way that will make it more respectful and also more robust in its narrative structure.
  1. Open your heart to a change in your world view. 
The joy and challenge of writing fiction is the opportunity to submerge yourself in another person’s experience. If you enter into that work wholeheartedly it can change you. If you have the assistance of a good consultant it can change you for the better. I had a real gem of a consultant for The Turn of The Tide. She is a Japanese language teacher and initially I just asked her to check the Japanese words to make sure I was using them correctly. But we ended up having a much longer conversation because my main character is biracial & she is raising biracial children. And she is from an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She had much to say about the contemporary experience of Japanese American students and the impact of the tsunami not just on the land but upon the broader Japanese culture. I was truly touched by her words and have thought differently about Japanese culture and many global issues, particularly the impact of rising oceans on indigenous peoples in the Pacific, ever since. As for the story, I went back to the beginning with my biracial character and reexamined every bit of internal and external dialogue to make it more reflective of what I’d learned about the grief particular to a tsunami survivor. I didn’t need to change any major plot points but I did uncover the soul of the character in a way I hadn’t before.
So after all that work do I have a bullet proof story?
Nope!
And if you think using a sensitivity reader will exempt you from criticism for the cultural representation in your story, you are going to be disappointed. Because there is no single correct representation of a culture. If I had consulted with a different Japanese person I would have gained a different perspective and made different edits. In my opinion a writer is better served by letting go of the goal that nobody will ever be critical or offended by your story in favor of the goal of deeper, and more specific cultural understanding in order to write your characters and story bravely and whole heartedly.
Rosanne Parry
Rosanne Parry is the author of a 4 MG novels and the forthcoming A WOLF CALLED WANDER and LAST OF THE NAME. She is a bookseller at Annie Blooms and teaches in the Masters in Book Publishing program at Portland State. She writes in a treehouse in her back yard.
11 Comments
  1. Anonymous – thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. As one of the founding members of this blog, I can assure you that we believe in and welcome diversity, including diversity of thought. It is important that we listen to and respect all opinions, whether we agree with them or not. If we remain in an echo chamber we absolutely cannot learn from others. It is also important that everyone in the kid lit community feels safe in expressing their thoughts and feelings. I certainly hope that the opinion corridor in the kid lit community isn’t narrowing, but instead, expanding with our knowledge and respect toward all groups. I hope you will continue to read our blog and feel welcome to share your ideas.

  2. Wonderful post, Rosanne. Thank you for stressing on the importance of sensitivity reading. It’s crucial for writing books across cultures to get the authenticity right. We owe the respect to our readers.

  3. As James Traub wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “The Swedes have a word, ‘asikstkorridor,’ which translates as ‘opinion corridor’ and describes all those things considered incorrect not only to say but to think.” The “opinion corridor” of kid lit is narrowing by the day.

  4. Thanks for this, Amber and thanks for a great post, Rosanne. Couldn’t agree more with both of you. Sensitivity readers have made a huge positive impact on my work.

  5. Just to clarify, I am disagreeing with the comment of Anonymous that the use of sensitivity readers is a problem.

  6. I must disagree. The problem is not sensitivity readers trying to force authors to change their writing. It’s authors who aren’t willing to look outside their own world view. All of the examples that you cite in defense of artistic freedom are harmful, stereotypical tropes directed at marginalized groups. As an author, I want to know if something I depict is hurtful. A sensitivity reader provides that. What an author does with that information is up to to the author. But if she choses, as Lionel Shriver advocates, to proceed with characterization or plot that is disturbing to others, she doesn’t get immunity from critique of her work.

  7. Can we please stop kitten-footing around the real issue? Every author worth her salt should do her research from the moment an idea is conceived to the moment of publication, and probably beyond. If we’re writing a character outside our experience, of course we’re going to talk to people as close to inside the experience as possible. It’s write about what you know, and if you don’t know it, learn it.

    However, we all know that’s not the problem with “sensitivity” readers. The problem is these readers wanting to shape manuscripts to fit a particular sensitive outlook on a race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or whatever. They have a category of depictions in mind that is acceptable, and all others be damnable. If an author decides to write a character or words that may be upsetting or disturbing, like a Native nations member who loves the Cleveland Indians, a Muslim teen who unapologetically engages in suicide bombing, a transgender teen who decides she has made a big error, an African-American school dropout who is a gangbanger, a Jewish teen who unapologetically joins the West Bank settler movement, or a Latina girl in America illegally who decides to have a baby to improve her chances of staying, the sensitivity reader will note it as “problematic” even if the book, section or character is written as well as ONE CRAZY SUMMER or THE CRAZY MIXED-UP FILES…

    That’s the real issue with all this, and only Lionel Shriver has the guts to name it. Good for her, because if you send your book out to 1.2 billion Roman Catholics for “sensitivity reads” because you’re not every single kind of Roman Catholic, and you get back 1.2 billion different takes on the material, what is the good of the sensitivity read compared to any other kind of research conversation or read? The answer has to be, not much.

  8. Great advice and nicely laid out steps~ thanks so much, Rosanne! I’m looking forward to reading The Turn of the Tide 🙂

  9. Wonderful piece, Rosanne. Thank you.

  10. Amen, Rosanne!

  11. Great post and just in time for what I’m writing currently. Planning to seek a sensitivity reader when I finish my first draft.