The right to free speech is pretty awesome, right?
It lets us write and say whatever we want. If I wanted to write a two thousand page essay on why dogs are better than cats, I can. If I want to write a two thousand page essay on why Trudeau is the worst thing that has happened to Canada, I can. I have no desire, let alone strong enough opinions, to write those things. But my ability to do so is protected in this country.
But being able to write whatever you want leaves lots of room for error. You could include a character of a certain heritage, and get the realities of living in a certain place as part of that culture wrong. You could include a sexuality that you haven’t experienced, and portray it wrong. You could write a mental illness, and get the symptoms right, but the experience wrong.
That’s where sensitivity readers come in. They read a manuscript and make sure that the author hasn’t unintentionally misrepresented a group within their novel.
The reality is that everyone comes into life with a bias. It’s not your fault, it’s part of your psychology. Being aware of your biases helps you manage them, but they can easily colour your approach and representation within the characters you write. If you’re going to write outside your experience, it’s not a bad idea to get someone within that experience to read over your work, and make sure you’re not accidentally offending or misrepresenting a group.
Assuming you care about how you represent a group. If you don’t, well, do what you do.
Sensitivity readers may be a newer thing in the literature world, but it’s not a new concept. Authors have long consulted psychologists, medical professionals, lawyers, and other field experts to make sure that their stories are accurate. So it makes sense, especially now when there is such a push to ensure all groups are represented properly, that authors also consult people of the various cultures, sexualities, and the like when writing about those things.
But this post isn’t about what sensitivity readers do. It’s about what they’re called.
What we call ourselves and how we label ourselves is important. Would you rather go to a doctor for a prescription or a medicine guy? Would you rather a lawyer defend you in court or a law-based debater? A music therapist or a music person? Which one of those would you put your money into? Sensitivity readers are doing great things, and I can’t help but wonder if people would take less issue with them if they sounded more professional.
Let’s break this down by the words, shall we?
Unfortunately, the word ‘sensitivity’ doesn’t have the greatest reputation these days. Older generations are forever going on about how sensitive millennials are, as if being sensitive is a bad thing. We want our little boys to be strong, rather than sensitive. Kids who are ‘sensitive’ need extra assistance in the school system. Or so it seems in my experience, and I could find many teachers who would agree with me.
Secondly, the word ‘sensitivity’ suggests that something is delicate in nature, or that it’s something to be treaded on lightly, lest it offend someone. Is that true about some matters that sensitivity readers are handling topics that are sensitive in nature? Sure. But technically, politics are a sensitive subject too, but that doesn’t stop people from blatantly discussing them in public, books, and other media. We don’t shy away from political discussions, especially in this day and age. And if we don’t shy away from political discussions, why should we shy away from discussions of lifestyle, culture, and sexuality, when those things likely have a bigger day-to-day impact on people than your political views?
Maybe it’s just me, but I think your lifestyle, culture, sexuality, whatever you use to define yourself should be something you are proud to discuss. I always want to hear about it when I meet people who come from a different place than I do, and I’ll gladly talk about mine. And when it comes to representations in books, I hold those who talk about my culture and where I’m from to a high standard. When it comes to books, I think we should all hold those who write about different life experiences to such a standard, and we should be proud to share what they’ve gotten right and comment on what they’ve missed or misrepresented. To hell with sensitive, let’s be proud about this stuff.
Second word: readers. I’d argue that calling them ‘readers’ sounds passive. Anyone can be a reader. I’m a reader, because I read books. Kids in my programs call themselves readers, and most of them are too young to read.
People who do sensitivity reads are doing something more than reading. They’re advising, assisting, and representing, and I think calling them mere readers downplays the work they’re doing.
I don’t do sensitivity reading, so perhaps I’m coming in from way off and missing the mark entirely. But I think that what sensitivity readers are doing for representation within the book community is a great thing, and they deserve to be recognized for the work they’re doing professionally. And if you put together a résumé, and you’ve got ‘sales representative’, ‘private music instructor’, and ‘civil engineer’ on that list, ‘sensitivity reader’ just doesn’t have the same impact as those previous things.
I have no idea what we would call them, if not ‘sensitivity readers’. I think including the word ‘representative’ would fit well, but again, this is not something I do so I don’t really get a say.
What do you think? Is ‘sensitivity reader’ a fine title for them, or do they deserve something more professional? Let me know in the comments below!