Why the use of sensitivity readers is causing such a stir in the publishing world
When British Columbia editor and author Kimberly Vanderhorst read through a recent unpublished manuscript, she said there were times she would cringe at the depiction of the lead character — an autistic girl who spent her time hating herself and being a burden to her family.
"I was like, whoa, I do not want my autistic daughter reading this book," said Vanderhorst, who is herself autistic. "This would have been hard on me if I'd read it. And I had to tell [the author and publisher] that that's really harmful. This needs to change."
Vanderhorst works as a sensitivity reader. Her work profile includes a list of personal traits — "autistic," "demisexual," "mental health" — that are unlikely to be included in most standard resumés. But these are all qualities she feels make her qualified to be a sensitivity reader — a type of editor who looks through authors' work for potentially offensive material or stereotypes.
"We are highly specialized developmental editors focused on character identity. We bring extra authenticity to a writer's work," she said. "We help them with vocabulary. We help them with knowing what the harmful stereotypes that we've had to face in our lives are so they don't put those into their books."
Her line of work has recently gained attention following controversy over revisions to classic children's books written by Roald Dahl. Sensitivity readers were consulted to make revisions to some of the books, in which passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race were altered.
Sensitivity readers were also used to tweak language in some of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, the publisher recently acknowledged.
The use of sensitivity readers, say people in the industry, has increased since 2020, prompted by calls for more institutional inclusion and diversity following the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota Black man, at the hands of police.
Backlash after revisions to Dahl's books
Supporters of sensitivity readers say they provide an important service in promoting inclusivity and that they help authors avoid offensive tropes or racial, gender or sexual stereotypes. But others see the whole process as oppressive meddling or verging on censorship.
The case of Dahl's children's books — which include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fabulous Mr. Fox and Matilda, written decades ago — prompted a vocal backlash among some authors and free speech activists. British author Salman Rushdie referred to the revisions as "absurd censorship."
(Following the criticism, the publisher of the books, Penguin Random House, said it would also publish a classic version with no changes.)
British poet Kate Clanchy — whose award-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me was edited by sensitivity readers after she was accused of using racial and ableist stereotypes in the book — just wrote an essay for the Times titled, "I Was Censored by 'Sensitivity Readers.' Now They're on to Roald Dahl."
Clanchy described the process as "quite extreme."
"I think that's because they'd been tasked with finding offence," she said in a phone interview with CBC News. "They were tasked with justifying why this book had caused offence."
Yet many publishers say they continue to find great value in the services of sensitivity readers.
WATCH l Reaction swift and strong, but Dahl edits were years in the making:
"We think they are very helpful on some projects, as many authors really do appreciate the insight of a specialist editorial perspective as part of the process," Rebecca McNally, publishing director for Bloomsbury Children's Books, said in a statement last year to the book industry magazine and website The Bookseller, based in London.
"We view it as another kind of expert read that raises questions a general editor, however rigorous, may not think or know to ask."
'Sensitivity is not a bad thing'
Travis Croken, a Canadian author and national co-chair of the Canadian Authors Association said while he believes using sensitivity readers to rewrite classical literature like Dahl is problematic, employing them to work on in-progress manuscripts can be an important aspect of the writing process.
"When you get a sensitivity reader, it's not just one person that is holding the weight of the community on their shoulders. You should have multiple sensitivity readers looking at it," said Croken, who has used sensitivity readers for his writing.
"They don't have to have a PhD in whatever community they're with, but it's someone that has lived experience, someone that's gone through part of the experience of what you're trying to represent."
While the revisions to published classical literature by sensitivity readers have made headlines, the vast majority of their work is done during the writing process.
"I don't actually change the piece. I'll put in comments, and then usually I'll give them an overview of my thoughts," said New York-based sensitivity reader Lynn Brown. "I'll flag stuff that could be problematic, that maybe could be reworded. Then I'll give them an overall report."
She said she reads specifically for text that includes African American, Native American and invisible disability themes "because that's my background."
"I've written where this character feels very stereotyped or the language — would this character actually speak like this? ... If the writer is intentionally trying to make the character a certain way, I might flag and be like, this could be offensive."
Vanderhorst said she believes the word sensitivity is being misinterpreted and that the belief that "we're going to stomp in there" and remove anything sensitive from the story is simply not true.
"What I'm sensitive to as a sensitivity reader is character, authenticity," she said.
"Sensitivity is not a bad thing. And the fact it's being labelled as a bad thing is kind of indicative of some of the problems in our society — to be sensitive to the feelings of others, to want to represent people with compassion and respect."
Other sources to turn to, author says
However, Clanchy, the British poet, gave a detailed description of the editing process of her sensitivity readers in a column last year titled, "How Sensitivity Readers Corrupt Literature,' which was published in the British news and opinion website Unheard.
In her interview with CBC News, she expanded on her column and said her sensitivity readers rated her on potential offences for certain phrases. She said one of the worst things they found was that she had compared spoiled heaps of earth to boils.
"And it was suggested that I shouldn't do that in case I offended acne sufferers."
Another example, Clanchy said, was a reference she made about children with fetal alcohol syndrome and how they can't progress, "which I think is a gentle way of stating a medical problem. But they said I shouldn't say that because the child would be hurt."
Clanchy said some of the sensitivity readers themselves make generalizations about how an individual would or wouldn't act. For example, she was told a Muslim girl in her book wouldn't talk that way.
Yet one of her sensitivity readers told her not to "generalize about anyone, exclamation mark, in the margin."
American author Francine Prose, who has written about the issue, said in an interview that she believes authors and publishers don't need to hire professional sensitivity readers and that they have other sources to turn to.
During the writing process, "you give it to people and you give it to your friends and you give it to people you trust," she said.
"You want people who actually know something about something to help you. But it's not like I'm going to get a pro-sensitivity reader," she said. "Few of us are working in so much isolation that we can't find someone who we trust about a certain subject and say, 'You know, you think I'm getting this wrong?'"