Sensitivity Readers

You’re probably aware of recent debates over the use of racist, ableist and misogynistic stereotypes in fiction and memoir. Some writers have welcomed the chance to talk about potential pitfalls in writing about other cultures and life experiences, some have found it thought-provoking and challenging, some have minimised or denied the existence of any issues. 

The concept of working with a specialist reader who can advise on the authenticity of characters is often raised as an example of good practice but it’s also been attacked as a cop-out on the part of the publishing industry and the ultimate in uber-wokeness. This summer, my debut – Hear No Evil – a novel that features a main character who’s Deaf, was sent to a sensitivity reader. 

It was a wholly positive experience and I’m thankful I had the chance to do it. 

I had the idea for Hear No Evil  years ago, but it wasn’t until I was studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow that I began to develop it. I’m hearing, so I needed to find a way of telling the story that wouldn’t risk culturally appropriating another community’s lived experiences. 

Hear No Evil is set in 1817 and inspired by the first case of a Deaf person tried in a Scottish Court. I came across the real-life story about 15 years ago, when I was working with a Deaf organisation in Glasgow. The character at the core of the novel is a Deaf woman called Jean Campbell, who’s seen throwing a child’s body from the Old Bridge into the river Clyde. 

Although the book’s largely fictional, it draws on the history of Deaf people in Scotland. I sent some early extracts out to beta readers – some hearing, some Deaf – who advised me on the many aspects of language, culture, history, and law that I had no direct knowledge or experience of. 

So far, so good. I finished the novel, found an agent and a publisher, and embarked on the editorial process. I knew that the entire text needed to be looked at by a Deaf person who could point out where I’d gone wrong. I knew that, despite my best efforts, there would be mistakes and missteps that only someone with that kind of life experience would have a chance of spotting. 

My publisher agreed that specialist feedback on the manuscript was an essential part of the editorial process, but it was tricky to find someone who fitted the bill – a Deaf person who also understood the historical and cultural context that provides the basis for the story.  However, after some trial and error, I asked Dr Lilian Lawson OBE. 

Over the course of a long and productive career, Lilian has been a ground-breaking advocate for Deaf people and British Sign Language. Lilian had generously given me very useful feedback on some early extracts when I was experimenting with the story and, luckily, she was willing to take on the job. We sent her the manuscript, along with a brief list of questions and issues that we had already identified as potentially problematic. 

A month or so later, Lilian sent me a list of inaccuracies to work through. It can be hard to have your mistakes pointed out, but I felt a huge sense of relief – firstly, that the things I’d done wrong didn’t appear to be fundamental or terribly complicated to fix, and secondly, that Lilian had spotted a few absolute clangers that I could sort out before the book was published! Lilian’s notes also had a wider significance for me. They demonstrated that even the best copyeditor or proof-reader wouldn’t have noticed these mistakes because they were directly related to Deaf history, culture, and language. 

For me, working with a sensitivity reader was productive, insightful and has made me more confident about launching my novel into the world. But what did Lilian think about it? 

‘I had never heard of sensitivity reads before you contacted me,’ she says. ‘It was an entirely new concept and experience for me, but I was given guidance from the publisher about the type of feedback they were looking for, and that was helpful.’ 

Lilian went on to describe the practicalities involved in reading through the book. ‘It took time to read the manuscript thoroughly, not only once but twice. During the first read-through, I made notes for myself to carry out some research – looking up books, articles, and other publications to double check some facts. I really enjoyed the experience of being a sensitivity reader, especially because the story in the manuscript was so close to my interest in Deaf history.’ 

We discussed the impact of sensitivity readers being used more widely. As well as encouraging writers to include more accurate representations of people from other cultures and communities, isn’t it just as important that it could lead to more people from those communities getting involved in writing and publishing generally? 

Lilian explained, ‘I’m sure that some sensitivity readers might think, “Hey, I could write a better story…I’m more familiar with this culture or history,” but what I would really like to see is more publishers willing to print books for smaller readerships. I know some Deaf people who are finding it hard to get a publisher,’ says Lilian, ‘For many years, there was an excellent publishing company called the Forest Bookshop which both printed and sold Deaf-related books. Unfortunately, the company closed down in 2015.’

Rising costs and changing reading and book-buying habits mean that, when smaller independent presses and bookshops disappear, the connection between specific communities and audiences is often severed. The book that first introduced me to Jean Campbell’s story and led directly to Hear No Evil – Robert Smith’s The City Silent – was published by an organisation that no longer exists and is currently out of print. When I was researching my novel, I realised that I’d lent my copy of Robert’s book to someone and had no way of getting it back. Luckily, I found a reference copy held by the Mitchell Library in Glasgow that I could access.

There are brilliant and informative books being written that are unlikely to reach an editor’s desk because their writers have no connections within the publishing industry. There’s also a lot of work to do to improve representation in publishing. Those two things are linked and it’s up to the people who make it through the gates to keep lobbying for positive change. Listening to constructive criticism from people with lived experience seems a sensible place to start.

Further Reading:

Crystal Shelley’s new series of blog posts at CIEP covers a variety of aspects related to Authenticity Readers. 

While I was writing Hear No Evil, I wrote about the challenges of writing about Deaf language and culture in a guest blog for The Polyphony, a website that explores critical medical humanities.

An excellent article from Rabbit with a Red Pen that goes into more detail about the nuts and bolts of Authenticity Reading – including a great explanation of why that term is preferable to Sensitivity Reading.

* I use Deaf with a capital D to indicate a cultural identity for people with hearing loss who share a common culture and who usually have a shared sign language. I haven’t capitalised the word deaf in the novel because, although today Jean would probably identify in this way, it wasn’t in use 200 years ago and I felt it would come across as anachronistic.

* Although I’ve used the term ‘sensitivity’ reader in this post because it seems to be the most widespread way of referring to people who do this work, I hope the newer term ‘authenticity’ reader catches on. I prefer it for all the reasons mentioned in the sources listed above.