The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

Recently, some publishers have been hiring people called “sensitivity” readers to “scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content,” according to the Chicago Tribune article on the subject (which you can read here on archive.is if you are interested). It’s caused a minor stir among the circles I run in and, while I normally don’t comment on these sorts of things, I felt this was worth making an exception for.

To be frank, I think this is a dumb idea, possibly one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived of in publishing (and there have been lots of dumb ideas in publishing, believe me). I think it is nothing more and nothing less than certain individuals taking advantage of the fears that certain writers and publishers have offending certain groups of people in order to profit, to say nothing about how this could lead to extreme censorship at any publishing houses that choose to employ these kinds of people.

I’ve seen some people defend sensitivity readers by comparing them to having a friend from, say, a police background reading a police procedural to make sure that you get the facts about police work is right. But that’s a bad argument because there is a very big difference between fact checking and sensitivity reading (at least, sensitivity reading as I understand it; perhaps some do it differently).

For example, let’s say I wrote a police procedural; however, not being a police cop myself, I have probably gotten some details and facts wrong even if I thoroughly researched the subject beforehand. To catch the mistakes I didn’t notice, I employ a friend of mine who is a police officer and ask him to read the manuscript and report any factual errors or mistakes about police work that I might have unintentionally made due to my ignorance and lack of experience as a police officer.

Let’s say that my police friend reads the manuscript and gets back to me, but instead of providing me with the errors he caught, he takes offense at my portrayal of police officers in the book (for the sake of this example, let’s say my police procedural deals with police corruption and features a few bad cops as prominent characters). My police friend demands that I rewrite my book in order to make the police look better, even if I already have some good cop characters in the book. Perhaps my police friend even tells me that the way I portrayed corrupt officers is really problematic and offensive and contributes to society’s negative views of police, which makes life harder for police officers. Maybe he will even accuse of me being a cop hater if I don’t revise according to his subjective opinions.

Is that reasonable? No, of course not. Nor does it have anything to do with fact checking or even telling a good story. My hypothetical police friend did not tell me, for example, that I described characters using the wrong kind of guns or referring to each other with incorrect titles or something objective like that. He simply got offended by the fact that I portrayed some cops as corrupt or immoral or perhaps simply incompetent and he wants me to revise according to his personal ideas about how cops should be portrayed in fiction so I can push his agenda, instead of staying true to my own.

That, as I understand it, is sensitivity reading in a nutshell, and why I am against it. It is less about fact checking and more about making sure that writers portray things according to the tastes of certain easily offended people.

See, I have nothing against fact checking. As writers, we owe it to our readers to get the facts right as much as we can. That requires doing research and, yes, sometimes having people more knowledgeable about certain topics than you read the book to catch any errors you may have unintentionally made.

But I draw the line at people telling me how I “should” portray this person or this group of people, as if I broke some sort of unspoken and unwritten rule about how to portray certain minority groups. I especially would never pay for such advice; I can’t think of a bigger waste of money than paying someone to tell me how to censor myself to appease certain unappeasable groups who probably don’t even read what I write anyway. I have the freedom to portray anyone however I want, even if offends some people in the process. If my books offend them, they don’t have to read them.

Really, what sensitivity readers reveal is a lack of courage among certain publishers and writers. Instead of learning to trust their own opinions and experiences and to write what they want, they choose to let themselves be bossed around by people who, as far as I can tell, are not even successful writers themselves and care more about pushing a particular agenda or narrative than telling a good story readers will enjoy. Writers already suffer from huge self-confidence issues; all sensitivity readers do is make that problem even worse by causing writers to worry about being unintentionally bigoted. We need to teach writers that you can’t please everyone and that you will always offend someone, so it’s better to ignore those people and just write the best stories you know how.

Personally, I would never use a sensitivity reader myself, much less pay $250 (which is what some sensitivity readers charge, according to the article) for one’s services. I can understand paying for covert art, paying for developmental and copy editing, paying for formatting, but paying for sensitivity readers is nothing more than adding another unnecessary expenditure to your budget. Big publishers may be able to afford it, but smaller and indie publishers cannot, and I don’t want indies in particular thinking that they ‘need’ sensitivity readers; that money could go toward something more important, like cover art, for example.

In the end, though, I don’t lose any sleep worrying about sensitivity readers, given how I am an indie who doesn’t publish with any publisher, big or small, which makes it unlikely that I will ever use one myself. Still, I find it a disturbing trend in the industry, one I hope either dies out or stays small and insignificant, and I hope that this post has helped some people understand why sensitivity readers are not a good thing.

Author: Lucas Flint

Lucas Flint writes superhero fiction as an indie author.