Question and Answer

At long last, a question! Thank you, whoever you are. More, please.

Q: I need a sensitivity reader. How do I find a good/proper one?

A: For those of you who haven’t caught on to this, the notion of sensitivity readers is relatively new. A sensitivity reader is a person, usually some kind of artist themselves, who is contracted (by the author or the publisher) to read a manuscript that contains characters from an identity category that the sensitivity reader fits into, but the author doesn’t. Obvious examples would be: a white author whose work contains multiple Asian characters, a cis author whose novel has a secondary or primary character who is trans, a character who lives with a mental illness the author has no experience of, etc. A sensitivity reader will guide the author on correcting any mistakes they might have made, particularly around stereotypes. These can be glaring and show that the author has a fairly superficial view of cultures or identity groups with which they are unfamiliar; they can be quite minute. The theory is that a sensitivity reader will “sign off” on the work, or push for changes.

Now, just to say it, the literary world has mixed opinions on sensitivity readers, including the problem of whether it is, in itself, problematic to ask a person to be representative of an entire identity category because they share that identity. There is a risk of putting someone in the strange position of ambassador for something as nebulous and multiple as “identity,” as well as the implicit assumption that two people experience the same thing in precisely the same way (for instance, living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia does not guarantee a similarity of experience with another person living with the same diagnosis, though there is obviously greater overlap than with someone who has no experience of serious mental illness whatsoever). Having said this, a sensitivity reader is precisely a person who has agreed to take on this role. It’s a professional relationship.

Finding one: the organization Writing Diversely keeps a database of sensitivity readers you can hire to read your work, and though the number of readers are small, most are open to any genre. The organization itself strikes me as thoughtful and knowledgeable, and the rates are quite reasonable, given the work. They are, however, heavily focused on the US and UK. I would also advise contacting the Writers’ Union of Canada, and ask if they have writers who provide services as sensitivity readers. They are a helpful and professional organization. But this person will also need to be paid, and if they are doing this professionally, probably as a revenue stream that supplements their own creative practice, the fee might be beyond your means. If this is the case, see if there is someone in your wider social circle, another emerging writer, who might be appropriate and willing, given the terms of your work and what you need help with.

Here’s the thing: if there is such a person, ask them formally and respectfully, be really clear that you do not think they are in some way representative (that word again, and it’s an important one) of every single person with whom they might share some part of their identity (that’s just patronizing), write it in an email rather than casual conversation, see if they might be interested, don’t press (not even once) if they aren’t and even if you can’t afford to pay them offer them something in return. Assuming they are a fellow-writer, ask if you can help edit their work (and more of it than they will look at for you in their role as sensitivity reader, because the labour is more arduous). If they don’t want that, ask what they do want. Cook them dinner. Walk their dog (more than once). Clean their room. Offer to write a glowing reference if they want to seek work as a professional sensitivity reader, which some publishing companies do hire, and which could represent an art-subsidizing possibility for them in the future. Figure out something that means you don’t expect this quite tangled and complicated work to be done for free.

And if they say yes, there’s another big step you need to have completed first, whether you are able to hire a sensitivity reader or can find one willing to try out their skills on your work for a fair exchange. You need to have brought your work as far as you possibly can on your own. So, if your story is set in a country or culture you are not familiar with, read everything you can lay your hands on. Do your research. Be thorough. More than that, really interrogate yourself as to why this character or setting feels necessary, feels true, feels earned, feels real. Be hard on yourself. I don’t mean compromise what you want to do, but investigate, deeply, the why. Ask yourself questions so someone else doesn’t have to. Does a supporting Black character exist to teach a Valuable Lesson to the white main character? Is a trans character exoticized, rather than a human person with foibles and daily irritations? Is a character with a disability defined solely by it? Are people from a non-Western cultural group portrayed as having some kind of mystical knowledge of nature/the past/the future? (for a really good satire on this, read the late great Kenyan writer/AIDS activist Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write About Africa.” It’s easily available on the internet.) Hell, is there a gay guy who seems to flit about making cutting remarks and advising the heroine on her sex life while never having one himself? I thought that cliché died in the 90s, and then I pick up something called “Women’s Fiction” (don’t get me started) in a bookstore, and there it is. Figure out where you’ve been sloppy, where you’ve taken shortcuts, and do the work on your own.

These are questions that need to be asked because of the long history of who gets to tell a story, and who gets to be the story. But they also need to be asked for the sake of the fiction itself. Ultimately, every person in your work, from the main character to the walk-on, needs to be complicated, flawed, tragic, comic, too-much, self-deluded, richly interior, and worthy of love. Everyone. Straight white able-bodied het-cis North American men from upper class backgrounds also have tragedies, follies, redemptions, and terrors. In short, everyone has a complex and contradictory consciousness. That is what you are interrogating. Does each person’s consciousness feel real?

Now, when you have done that work yourself, you can give it over to a sensitivity reader. You will hit the limits of what you know, and it won’t be enough. Imagination doesn’t necessarily substitute for lived experience. Sometimes it can’t, anymore than you can speak a language because you have diligently memorized a few sentences. The vividness of your imagination does not entitle you to tackle every topic. It’s not a free pass. But push your thoughtful and well-informed and well-read and not defensive imagination to its limits. Before you ask a sensitivity reader to tackle your work, do the work you can do on your own. Clean your house first.