They say that writers only write what they know, which to me, is the worst thing an author can do.
Say an author grew up in a very sheltered environment with limited exposure to diverse cultures or religions. Their only understanding of different people would come from television shows and other media or literature that can be riddled with inaccurate stereotypes, which in turn, may be reflected in that particular writer’s works.
Now come sensitivity readers, who come in and edit stories to help depict characters correctly by giving the author insight to communities that he or she may not be a part of. These sensitivity readers hold authors accountable for their knowledge and ensure that they’re doing their homework when they decide to write about others.
The NY Times released an article about sensitivity readers, questioning if this type of editing was some form of censorship, which is a problematic rhetoric. The article questions if we would still have amazing literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Confessions of Nat Turner if sensitivity readers were there to “hijack authors’ visions.” But asking someone to take responsibility for their actions and to understand the impact they will have based how they paint others isn’t censorship, it’s integrity.
To put it simply, some people’s visions are bigoted and need to be checked.
You can call it “hyperactive” or “overly sensitive” if you want, but it’s simply not right to stand by and let authors feed audiences baseless biases, inaccurate information and more magical Negro spirituals who help move the story along without cultural consideration. Sensitivity readers are a form of editing that holds authors accountable and only broaden what could have previously been narrow ideas or mindsets. It’s time for authors take action to prevent more sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic narratives from reaching publication. Readers deserve to see themselves depicted accurately in the books they read, because representation, no matter how small, means all the world.
Authors from within diverse and marginalized communities often can’t get their books published or circulated as widely, so authors that can should do their best to utilize the effective checking system that exists with sensitivity readers.
The idea that demanding authors to care about their readers and the impact that they will have is being “overly sensitive” is damaging. Even in the title “sensitivity readers” reinforces the idea that this kind of careful consideration for diversity is but an afterthought. That authors should just write with carelessness and then rely on sensitivity readers to correct them. Instead, authors should treat these editors as accountability readers, because it is not their job to teach writers or do the homework for them. They exist to hold authors accountable for their actions and remind them of the readers they are influencing when they write.
Sensitivity readers are important, but it should also be a top priority for authors to research and work with the communities they want to depict so that our literature can progress with society. A Huffington Post piece states it quite simply:
“We exist too, and we ought to exist on our terms.”