Sensitivity Readers Are the New Literary Gatekeepers

Kat Rosenfield:

At first, Gullaba was asked to add an Asian character—east Asian, specifically, perhaps a Pacific Islander. Then it was suggested that Titus’ wingman, the biggest secondary character, should also be assigned an Asian identity. And there was one more bizarre twist: Another agency employee, who we’ll call Sally, was brought in at the eleventh hour to read the book and provide additional feedback.

“My agent was like, ‘I don’t want to do this, it makes me very uncomfortable,'” Gullaba says. “But then he says it.”

Sally, the agent explained, was black.

Known as sensitivity readers, or sometimes authenticity readers, consultants like Sally are a growing part of publishing, hired to correct the pre-publication missteps of authors who don’t share the same traits—or “lived experience,” to use a favored buzzword—as their characters.

The sensitivity reader’s possible areas of expertise are as varied as human existence itself. One representative consultancy boasts a list of experts in the usual racial, ethnic, and religious categories, but also in such areas as “agoraphobia,” “Midwestern,” “physical disability, arms & legs,” and (perhaps most puzzlingly) “gamer geek.” Another one lists individual readers with intersectional qualifications: Depending on the content of your novel, you might hire a white lesbian with generalized anxiety disorder or a bisexual, genderfluid, light-skinned brown Mexican with a self-diagnosis of autism. Every medical condition, every trauma, every form of oppression: Sensitivity readers will cover it all.