In defence of sensitivity readers

I was on BBC’s Front Row in defence of sensitivity readers

A couple of years ago, I started offering sensitivity reading for disability- and LGBT-related topics. I have worked on some fascinating manuscripts since then, including both fiction and non-fiction texts, and have worked with some brilliant authors and publishing houses.

It was exciting to see this role begin to gain popularity as authors realised the benefits of making sure that their representations of marginalised characters or issues affecting marginalised communities were not going to alienate or inadvertently upset the very readers they wanted to attract.

In recent weeks, however, sensitivity reading has become mired in controversy. After writer Kate Clanchy wrote a critique of her experience of sensitivity readers’ assessments of her book (which, already published, had attracted accusations of racism and disablism), we are being discussed widely but the narratives I’m hearing and seeing bear little relation to the real-life role of a sensitivity reader. (Joanne Harris’s take is a nice counterpoint.)

Sensitivity readers are being presented as censors who want to clip authors' creative wings, when what we actually do is offer advice, context and suggestions to authors who want that input. Click To Tweet

Whereas sensitivity readers are being presented in this current discourse as censors who want to clip authors’ creative wings, what we actually do is offer advice, context and suggestions to authors who want that input. So when I was asked to go onto BBC Radio 4’s Front Row – an intimidating prospect as it is such a high-profile programme – I went for it. And, while it was admittedly terrifying, I had a good conversation with host Tom Sutcliffe and guest Zia Haider Rahman (who is opposed to sensitivity readers) about the role, busting some misconceptions along the way.

Transcript

Tom Sutcliffe

You’re listening to Front Row with me, Tom Sutcliffe. We don’t have sensitivity readers for our interviews on this programme because well, they are live and it would be too late. But we have talked to a sensitivity reader tonight, Philippa Willitts who specialises in disability and LGBT issues talks about the process of looking over the writer’s shoulder and making suggestions with the novelist Zia Haider Rahman, who doesn’t like that idea very much. Now all writers hope for sensitive readers, but there has been some debate recently about sensitivity readers; specialist researchers used by some publishers now to check manuscripts for hidden assumptions or unconscious bias. Authors as varied as Joanne Harris and Jamie Oliver are happy to use them, but others have anxieties. The writer Kate Clanchy, who has been through a difficult time herself recently, and parted company with her publisher after being accused of using racist tropes in a nonfiction memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me went so far as to say in a recent article that sensitivity readers are corrupting literature. We thought we’d talk to a sensitivity reader, Philippa Willitts, who advises on disability and LGBT issues and a writer who has misgivings about the whole idea, Zia Haider Rahman, author of the prize-winning novel In the Light of What We Know. I started by asking Philippa to explain what it is that she actually does.

Philippa Willitts

A sensitivity reader is somebody from a particular community – so in my case, that’s the LGBT community, the disability community – who will read a manuscript before it’s published and offer advice to the author on how members of those communities are represented in their books, say they have a disabled character and also provide context, background information about why certain terminology might be preferred, the takes the disabled people may have about particular language, that kind of thing. It’s just about offering advice and giving a perspective they might not have considered.

Tom Sutcliffe

Some of the reactions to kind of recent discussions about sensitivity readers have suggested that it’s, it’s a form of censorship by stealth, but authors don’t have to accept your advice. Do they?

Philippa Willitts

No, absolutely. I make recommendations. And sometimes I will say, for instance, people sometimes worry about saying things like they went for a walk, will that offend wheelchair users? And virtually never does, but I will sometimes say I’m letting you know that people are concerned about this, but I actually don’t think it’s a worry. I don’t think you need to worry about saying, I’ll see you later to a blind person. And I think it’s interesting also that the author at the centre of this discussion has republished without taking the advice of the sensitivity readers. So we don’t have this kind of massive authority to interrupt the process.

Tom Sutcliffe

Does the work you do cover a whole, a whole range?

Philippa Willitts

I would say about three quarters of the books I’ve worked on have been non-fiction, the remaining fiction ones have been a mixture of adult fiction, contemporary fiction, young adults.

Tom Sutcliffe

So when you’re working on nonfiction, you are a researcher, aren’t you?

Philippa Willitts

Yeah. To, to a degree, a specialised researcher with a particular perspective.

Tom Sutcliffe

Can you give me some examples of the kind of intervention you make where you say this does matter? I mean, you’ve just given two examples of ones where you think I’m not, I don’t think this is going to be a problem. Can you give us some examples of where you think it might?

Philippa Willitts

Sure. A lot of it is about… is quite technical people using terminology in one way when it might mean something else, people talking about, say, the gay community, when they mean the LGBT community as a whole, I looked into whether there was a character who was an amputee in a novel, the author had them crawling. And I looked into whether it was possible for a lower limb amputee to crawl, offered advice on that.

Tom Sutcliffe

What about language though? I mean, one of the things that Kate Clanchy referred to was a sensitivity reader suggesting that using the term disfigure about a polluted landscape was a problem. Would you think that was a problem?

Philippa Willitts

That would be the kind of thing that I would highlight as you may want to think about this, but I don’t think it’s a priority in that context. I recommended changing the use of the word homosexual in one book, just because it’s quite outdated,

Tom Sutcliffe

It would be a different matter, of course, if that novel was about the 1950s.

Philippa Willitts

Absolutely, absolutely. Yes.

Tom Sutcliffe

Zia, if I can turn to you, what, what are your anxieties as a writer about sensitivity reader? Oh, of

Zia Haider Rahman

I say that what Philippa has just given us are examples that really don’t justify then the nomenclature of a sensitivity reader. What she said is that she is a good researcher and a good copy editor or good editor. Sensitivity reading, I think it’s just disingenuous to think that it doesn’t mean anything more than that. The problem begins when you bring in these normative judgments, it’s preposterous to think that disfigure is something even for the author to think about. Why

Tom Sutcliffe

Do you say that? Authors should think about all the words they use shouldn’t they?

Zia Haider Rahman

But not for reasons to do with the sensitivity of some constituency. I think we need to take a step back. It doesn’t make sense to think of sensitivity readers without thinking about the broader context in which they appear. It just doesn’t. The broader context is one in which writers – and I’m talking about fiction – novelists are finding that their sovereignty is being encroached upon, their imaginative space is being clipped. And that I think is dangerous.

Tom Sutcliffe

Why do you say their sovereignty is being encroached upon if all they are receiving is advice, which they can ignore?

Zia Haider Rahman

The sensitivity reader has evolved because there is a furore about the perceived politics of a work of art. The notion of relevance of politics to fiction is a faulty one now. Politics is of course relevant, but it’s not relevant in the way that you think from watching social media.

Tom Sutcliffe

I imagine you have read novels written by white writers about the sub-continent or about Afghanistan, which you have written about too, and you’ve thought they’ve got this completely wrong. What is wrong with the publisher saying, actually, this is a field we’re not fully aware of. The writer might not be. We can redress our overwhelmingly white establishment by getting somebody in to read it.

Zia Haider Rahman

Well, that takes us to some of the, the, the details of a novel. If you have a first person novel, a novel in which the narrator is telling you the story, then of course you have to make allowance for the fact that the narrator is making mistakes. Also, how do we, what, what readers and even a sensitivity reader might perceive as a mistake might not actually be a mistake. The responsibility for the errors should lie on the author. In my novel, I use the word Afghan and Afghani to describe people from that country. And a few readers sent me messages saying, why did you use Afghani it’s wrong? Well, actually, no, it’s not wrong. If you go to the subcontinent, there are certain people who refer to Afghans as Afghani. And in fact, it really showed the ignorance of the white Western NGO workers

Philippa Willitts

I don’t disagree with Zia that sensitivity reading is a form of copy editing, it’s just a form of copy editing that comes from a really informed place. There was a wheelchair-using character who was going to a series of parties and I was able to say, there’s no way a wheelchair user could go to a series of parties and be able to get into them all. There’s no way a wheelchair user could go to a series of parties without ringing every venue in advance and saying, do you have steps? This was a really well-thought-out character, but the author with no experience of disability, you know, just hadn’t considered that.

Tom Sutcliffe

What happened in that case. Was the author happy then to take on that correction?

Philippa Willitts

In pretty much every book I’ve worked with, the author has been keen to do the best representation they can, and to avoid causing unnecessary upset. They want their books to be well received by the communities they’re writing about.

Zia Haider Rahman

Sensitivity reading has emerged in the context of, for instance, people asking whether so-and-so the author has the authority, is it his or her place to write a book about, I don’t know, Mexican immigrants coming into the U S when they’re not a Mexican immigrant in the US, that’s actually a real example of course. These sorts of assaults of the author’s imagination, we should be allowing anyone to create art from their own imagination, untroubled by the prospect that stupid questions such as “is this your story to tell?” will be raised.

Tom Sutcliffe

Do you have a view about that Philippa? Do you, I mean, do you feel that a writer say who writes a main character who is disabled doesn’t really have the right to do that?

Philippa Willitts

No, I, I wouldn’t say they don’t have the right to do that. I would say that done carefully and, you know, consciously with a lot of research, it can be done really well.

Tom Sutcliffe

And how do you stop a sensitivity reader from turning into an over-sensitivity reader? I mean, what I mean is because your job is to look for offence, it’s always going to be possible to find it, but you may be having offence on, on behalf of people who don’t feel that at all. And of course, you know, a lot of disabled readers will not want to be thought of as a potential occasion for offence. They’re just readers.

Philippa Willitts

Absolutely. If you have 10 disabled people in one room, they’ll all disagree on the degree to which things should be advised on or corrected or suggested. I think, from my point of view, the way I handle that is I spend a lot of time listening to disabled people speak, reading disabled people’s writing, so that I’ve got as wide a perspective as possible. And so that I can then offer advice and suggest how much of a priority I think it should be at the same time.

Tom Sutcliffe

Do you think, Philippa, that writers have a right to offend readers? I mean, I know offence is complicated. It weighs differently on different people, but it’s at, at heart. Do you think that is a writer’s right?

Philippa Willitts

I would say yes, but I would back that up by saying that they have the right to do that, but in the modern world, it’s unrealistic to expect that that wouldn’t come without consequences. So it’s not that they can’t do it. It’s just that it could be rough for them if they do.

Tom Sutcliffe

But is that, and is that why you think publishers are hiring sensitivity readers too, because they know social media networks are out there that they’re running scared a little bit of that correction.

Philippa Willitts

Yeah. To some degree, for sure. You know, I think a lot of authors would prefer to be told something once by a sensitivity reader rather than a hundred times in Amazon reviews.

Tom Sutcliffe

Zia. Do you think that presents a threat for the imagination? That, I mean, it’s not, as it were, censorship because it’s just advice, but that sense that it is hanging over you as a potential may induce a certain amount of self-censorship.

Zia Haider Rahman

It absolutely does induce that. I mean, it also means that publishers are not bidding for books if they think that the, the book comes with risks. And I know this from, from authors who’ve written to me,. It doesn’t mean that the book might won’t get published. They do have a few authors who have to me have said that other publishers have bid for the book.

Tom Sutcliffe

Have you got skin in the game? I, I said that metaphor and I suddenly thought, is there any offence in skin in the game, but

Zia Haider Rahman

There you go. It’s absurd.

Tom Sutcliffe

No, no, but I mean, do you, do you have a book that you kind of hadn’t published because of,

Zia Haider Rahman

Oh yeah. So I do. I wrote a book from the first person perspective of a woman who very much wants to have a child and she wants to have it at a time that is, you know, proves really difficult for her because it’s competing with another desire of hers. And I can’t imagine publishing that. It’s, it’s just, I don’t want the hassle that would come with it.

Tom Sutcliffe

Can I ask you, did you ask some women to read it, as it were, in draft form?

Zia Haider Rahman

Well, actually my readers are, yeah, women

Tom Sutcliffe

So you did employ a sensitivity reader yourself?

Zia Haider Rahman

No, only because it’s not a sensitive, I didn’t employ them for the purpose of getting feedback on the issue of sensitivity. My friend read it in order to tell me if it was a decent book.

Tom Sutcliffe

Her experience as a woman was critically important there wasn’t it, it was going to tell you things that you might not have known.

Zia Haider Rahman

Yes. Yeah, I think so. I mean, actually, no, well, the thing is it grew out of a deep experience of my own of watching my best friend, a woman, go through IVF over five years and the struggles she went through

Tom Sutcliffe

So why not publish?

Zia Haider Rahman

Well, because these, the… such is the atmosphere now that, you know, is this my story to tell? One other thing I would add is that sensitivity readers have emerged at a time when fiction is in free fall, you know, over 30%, some say 40% fall in sales over the last decade. Publishers are desperate to find some way to save it, save fiction, and you can see how the market has narrowed, how it’s now targeting a particular kind of reader. And it’s really just pandering.

Tom Sutcliffe

You’re saying that fiction is in free-fall, but, but sales have been up over the last decade.

Zia Haider Rahman

No, sorry. Literary fiction. Sorry. So four years ago, the, the Arts Council of England said that literary fiction is in crisis. Literary fiction sales have fallen. So fiction covers a very broad yeah, absolutely. They all the genre fiction is doing very well, but, but literary fiction is in free fall.

Tom Sutcliffe

Sensitivity readers are used in general fiction too, I think maybe more than, than in literary fiction. Let me just go back to Philippa to finish. I mean, Zia obviously has problems with that term sensitivity reader, I think because it presupposes a notion of, of delicacy. It’s interesting that sensitivity readers, I think came in mostly from young adult fiction, where there is a notion that the sensibility of the reader is more delicate, is more exposed, is, you know, needs protecting more. Do you, do you think it’s as appropriate for, for adult fiction and, and, and also do you like the term sensitivity reader yourself?

Philippa Willitts

I don’t love the term, no. It’s not great is it? Diversity editor I’ve heard as well, but again, I’m, I’m not a fan. I don’t know what the best name is. I do understand. Yes, I do, as I understand it, it did come from young adult fiction. I think there’s a place for it in nonfiction, in all kinds of fiction. If the author – I think it’s about the motivation of the author- do they want that pair of eyes looking over their work or is that something they resist? If it’s something they resist, I wouldn’t want to do that work for them. If it’s something they’re seeking out because they want a really good representation of a lesbian character, then I welcome that.

Tom Sutcliffe

Our thanks to Philippa Willitts and Zia Haider Rahmen. And you can find the Kate Clanchy article about her experience with sensitivity readers on the Unherd website. Sam, I wonder what your view about this is. I mean, the theater is also a place where kind of sensitivities are, you know, easily provoked. Yeah. Do you, do you like the idea of a sensitivity reader as a writer, as a writer?

speaker 3

Well, I mean, I, you know, I, I don’t necessarily have an issue with an extra, an extra filter or, you know, someone to offer me advice. Your subconscious is your subconscious and sometimes, you know, as we’ve seen you don’t always know exactly what’s in there. So I think sometimes an extra pair of eyes can be helpful.

Tom Sutcliffe

Has a director ever done that for you? Say you don’t, you don’t quite understand what this line is doing and it’s, or what it’s going to do to an audience.

speaker 3

Certainly. I mean, there’s, there’s a, you know, there’s, there’s a character in, sorry, you’re not a winner who is, you know, is their lived experience is not my lived experience. And so it was important to listen in that regard to the actor that plays that role and to the director who shares that experience and to other people, you know, I think that’s, yeah,

Tom Sutcliffe

Well, we’re going to move on to making people sort of angry on purpose because we live in a golden age for getting furious about things.

Image: Susan Q Yin