Getting it Right: Diversity, Representation, and Sensitivity Readers in Romance
By Hannah-Esmeralda Figueras
Any bookworm can tell you that stories have power; with that power, comes social responsibility. In the words of author Piper Huguley, “fiction helps people see the humanity in others,” regardless of how seemingly different the characters on the page may be from their readers (Northington). They allow us to experience how other people might think or feel, and to see that others feel the same way we do; this is especially true in romance, a genre rooted in feelings. Given such an intimate relationship between story and empathy, people are calling for more diverse books. Not every hero is white or able-bodied, and not every romance is between a man and a woman; readers want literature to reflect the full spectrum of humanity. But the calls for greater diversity don’t end at mere inclusion; readers want quality representation.
They want to read about native characters who aren’t exoticized, chronically ill characters who don’t die at the end, lesbians who fight more than homophobia to save their damsels in distress. Most of all, they want to enjoy Happily Ever Afters about characters like them, without vague (or not-so vague) feelings of discomfort marring the experience.
Some bookworms are choosing to do something about this: they’re becoming sensitivity readers (Flournoy).
Sensitivity readers are essentially specialized editors (or beta readers, if you hail from the fanfiction scene). Instead of plot holes or historical inaccuracies, however, they focus on the characters and the cultures they represent. A good sensitivity reader can spot inaccuracies, harmful stereotypes, or implicit bias. In addition, they can suggest resources for further research and provide meaningful feedback. The main requirement for a sensitivity reader is first-hand experience. Authors consult sensitivity readers for a wide variety of reasons, and the areas a sensitivity reader may read for are equally varied. There’s the standard roster of demographic identifiers, of course – race, nationality, religion, orientation, etc. – but there are also experiences like being adopted, having a disability, or surviving domestic abuse. (Alter, Howard, Shapiro, Writing in the Margins). Running manuscripts by sensitivity readers results in higher quality books with better representation, so that all readers can find Happily-Ever-Afters that speak to them without having to wade through harmful stereotypes. That said, sensitivity readers are not panaceas. Better representation on the page may or may not correlate with progress in the real book-world.
The term “sensitivity reader” is a rather recent one. A search on google trends shows that the term didn’t start getting consistent attention until around 2013, and discourse regarding the topic is still more common on social media than in academic papers.
The quest for credibility in art is older than Twitter, though. Romance authors have traipsed through medieval castles in full skirts, taken workshops on BDSM, and laced themselves into corsets just to get into their character’s shoes (Quora). It’s one thing to step into a character’s shoes, however; it’s quite another to slip into their skin. There are some things that it is simply impossible for authors to choose to experience. Sensitivity readers allow authors to write with experiences they can’t manufacture.
In Kati Gardner’s experience as a sensitivity reader, a lot of the problems she notices are little things—unrealistic simplifications of prosthetic limbs, or using antiquated language like “stump” instead of “residual limb”—but they’re enough to throw her off and break the believability of the book. Furthermore, she says there are also plenty of larger scale issues, books where disabled characters “would either die or just be there to teach the abled bodied person how great their lives were,” (Gardner). Both of those tropes recently appeared in Jojo Moyes novel, Me Before You (2012, Viking), and while some of the Goodreads reviews point out how problematic it is to strongly imply that a disabled life is not worth living, the majority of the reader responses are glowing testimonials of how beautiful and inspirational they found the story.
Blake Flournoy—who sensitivity-reads for a variety of experiences in several genres, including Romance and Contemporary—says that one of the biggest draws for them is the opportunity to actually help fix the problematic writing they encounter. And when there aren’t the sort of major problems that motivated them to sensitivity read in the first place, they say they enjoy getting to work with authors and read good stories about characters they can identify with. However, Flournoy made a point of noting that sensitivity reading isn’t as easy as the name or certain news editorials make it sound. There’s a lot of vulnerability involved in the work. And even when the author has clearly done their research, “you’re still exposing yourself to the threat of reading or having to work with something with the potential to dig up old traumas or twist a proverbial knife. You have to expose yourself and, to get work, part and parcel yourself as this marginalization and that up-and-coming demographic of readers… and then have to hope that your client doesn’t blow up on you or withhold pay when you stand up to say “hey, you’ve made a mistake.””
Flournoy indicated that even in their first month as a sensitivity reader, they saw that there was a lot of demand. As of right now, Writers in the Margins–which hosts one of the largest, and most well-known directories of sensitivity readers–lists 223 sensitivity readers, 45 of whom have explicitly listed romance as one of their genres of interest.
Critics of sensitivity reading tend to come from two camps. The first of these believes that submitting books to sensitivity readers is tantamount to censorship. This group tends to conflate sensitivity reading with political correctness and suppression, arguing that sensitivity readers hijack authors’ creative visions, and expressing concern that both authors and publishing houses will take less risks because of social media outrage (Alter).
It’s astonishing how often discussion of sensitivity readers circles around to social media. One of the authors I spoke to – Elizabeth Lennox, author of innumerable contemporary romances featuring Sheiks and business tycoons– had never heard of sensitivity readers before I asked her about them. Nevertheless, in the ensuing discussion, she was quick to connect the topic to social justice movements and trending hashtags like #TimesUp and #MeToo. Lennox says movements like these have impacted the way she approaches work place romance and other topics in her writing. However, in our correspondence, her motivation seemed to spring from a desire to do her part, as an author, to help the movement, rather than from a fear of incensing online communities. Lennox says she has noticed a similar attitude among other authors. This hardly amounts to censorship, but nonetheless it is indicative that authors are responsive to the times, and to social media movements.
But has social media changed publishing? Esi Sogah, a senior editor at Kensington Publishing, says the industry hasn’t changed enough. “I think the prevailing narrative in a lot of these controversies is still coming from a place of keeping the status quo,” she wrote, when questioned about the impact of media controversy on publishing. She added a lot of controversies wouldn’t gain the degree of attention and anger that they do if the authors would learn to listen and start a conversation, instead of reacting defensively.
Another company, Riptide Publishing, has been the subject of multiple scandals in just the last few years, scandals involving racist content and poor treatment of black authors. In some ways, Riptide is a very progressive press; it publishes queer fiction, and its staff represents a broad spectrum of queer identities (Snarly). In an industry where there are no standard best practices to ensure quality, diverse representation (Sogah), Riptide now requires authors writing outside their own identities to have their manuscripts reviewed by a sensitivity reader before it will accept them, submits all such manuscripts itself to a second sensitivity reader, and has promised to distribute a formal sensitivity guide amongst all of its staff and authors (Snarly). And yet, as RITA-winning author and RWA board member Courtney Milan points out, the incidents keep happening (Milan). Just this March, queer romance author Xen X Cole McCade severed all relations with Riptide, terminating a contract mid-series, because, among other things, he says “the company was at all levels hostile to [him] as a person of color…” (McCade). Sensitivity readers can help clean up manuscripts, but they have no impact on other aspects of the publishing process like author relations, book covers, or marketing campaigns. That remains the realm of the publishing houses – an area that has so far proved safely beyond the reach of social media activists.
Returning to sensitivity readers outside of social media, Publisher Stacy Whitman of Lee & Low Books asks: “Do you accuse your editor of censorship when they ask you to make changes?” (Howard). Both Flournoy and Gardner reported that that the authors they’ve worked with have all sought out sensitivity readers of their own free will, and been very nice to work with.
Far from being intimidated away, authors today are writing more books outside of their cultural experiences than ever before, which leads to the second critique of sensitivity readers…
Real Representation is Passing the Mic:
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 28% (a record-breaking amount) of the American children’s books published in 2016 contained “multicultural content” – but during that same year, only 6% of those books were written by minority authors (Helrich). Conducting a similar data study on the ethnicity of romance characters compared with the ethnicity of their authors is beyond the scope of this report; however, the number of minority romance authors in traditional publishing is known, and comparable to the numbers found by the CCBC. According to the Ripped Bodice Report, only 7.8% of romance novels in 2016 were written by minority authors. In 2017, that number dropped to 6.2% (Koch). This is in spite of the fact that surveys indicate up to 14% of romance readers are people of color. Even more striking, 57% of romance readers report that they read books with diverse characters, while nearly 10% more expressed that they would like to read books with diverse characters, if they could find such books (Rodale).
It’s great that more people are seeing themselves represented in books, but a lot of people would prefer to see minority authors published instead of just written about, as well as more diverse staff in the publishing houses (Writing in the Margins). “The problem is that they’re showing up and they’re taking a seat. And they’re not realizing that them writing a story about a black kid prevents me from writing one, because when I show up with my manuscript, the publisher tells me that the position is filled,” says Dhonielle Clayton, a children’s book author and a prominent sensitivity reader thanks to her work with the We Need Diverse Books foundation. Clayton was not speaking hypothetically; this has happened to her twice (Shapiro). News is breaking on Twitter that romance author Patricia Engel, in a similar experience to Clayton, was told that her publisher couldn’t publish her manuscript because they had already published a book about a Latina heroine – one written by a white man. Harlequin recently gave people reason to worry that this might be a widespread trend, when it was revealed that at the 2018 RWA conference, an editor approached a prominent black author and asked her for her help writing a diversity guide for white authors but indicated that she was not interested in any of the author’s own writing (Milan).
Does the need for #OwnVoices negate the need for sensitivity readers? As an editor, Esi Sogah of Kensington said she didn’t have an inherent problem with authors writing about marginalized identities they themselves do not share. She has steered authors away from harmful ideas in the past or topics she didn’t think they were capable of addressing, but in general, she believes that “part of challenging the status quo is asking people to step outside what they’ve done before.” She likes to encourage risk-taking and foster growth in her authors to ensure that new stories get told in a slow-moving industry where “majority rules” is the business model. However, she balances this approach by staying mindful and asking questions: Why do you want to write this? Why are you the person to tell this story? Would an author from this background be given the same chance to write their own story? (Sogah). With all this in mind, I try to address the question I was asking when I started my research:
Do sensitivity readers work?
It’s a deceptively simple question; the answer depends on your priorities.
From an artistic perspective, sensitivity readers aren’t the only option out there for cultural research. There are books, documentaries, articles and countless other resources an author can and should use. The difference is that, even if an author interviews people, or submits a query to a popular blog like Writing With Color, there is always the probability that the author won’t know their own ignorance. Sensitivity readers, professional or otherwise, are the only way writers get feedback on issues of representation in their specific writing and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes from earlier literature.
From the business side of creating books, a lot of the discussion on hiring sensitivity readers seems to be on maintaining good public relations and avoiding social media outrage. When the Advanced Reader’s Copies of Keira Drake’s fantasy, The Continent (2018, Harlequin), received rampant criticism for what was seen as offensive racial coding, Harlequin’s response was to delay the book and hire sensitivity readers. But do controversy and poor representation hurt book sales? E. L. Jame’s romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey (2011, Vintage Books) has been repeatedly condemned for its disturbing and uninformed portrayal of BDSM and sub-dom relationships, yet the series has become a cultural phenomenon, with a film spinoff series and over 1.5 million ratings on Goodreads. Meanwhile, Laura Moriarty’s dystopian novel, American Heart (2018, Harper Teen) was read by many sensitivity readers and still attracted massive amounts of negative press (Alter).
Sensitivity reading is still a recent and growing phenomenon in the publishing world, and there are some valid concerns over how the industry might use readers as a stopgap solution to diversity instead of implementing comprehensive change. However, taken independently, sensitivity readers still provide a fantastic service to authors and readers alike, so that we can all curl up with a good book and enjoy the human experience.
Alter, Alexandra. “In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?” New York Times, December 24, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/books/in-an-era-of-online-outrage-do-sensitivity-readers-result-in-better-books-or-censorship.html.
Deahl, Rachel. “Why Publishing Is So White.” Publisher’s Weekly, March 11, 2016. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69653-why-publishing-is-so-white.html.
Hecker, Anna. “Become a VIP! The Writing Prompt Boot Camp Subscribe to Our FREE Email Newsletter and Receive a Free EBook of Writing Prompts! The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think It Is.” Writer’s Digest, January 16, 2018. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/questions-and-quandaries/problem-sensitivity-readers-isnt-think
Hehrlich, Hannah. “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Book Publishing, 2017.” Lee & Low Blog. March 30, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2018. http://blog.leeandlow.com/2017/03/30/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-book-publishing-2017/.
Howard, Mandy. “Quality Control: With Diverse Characters in Demand, the Publishing Trend of Hiring Sensitivity Readers Sparks Passionate Discourse.” Writer’s Digest, January 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/ps/i.do?p=EAIM&u=duke_perkins&id=GALE|A513759403&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1.
Interview with Sensitivity Reader Blake Flournoy [E-mail interview]. (2018, April 7).
Interview with Sensitivity Reader Kati Gardner [E-mail interview]. (2018, April 7).
Interview with Editor Esi Sogah [E-mail interview]. (2018, March 23).
Koch, Bea, and Leah Koch. “The Diversity Report.” The Ripped Bodice, www.therippedbodicela.com/state-racial-diversity-romance-publishing-report.
McCade, Xen X Cole. “On Sarah Lyons and Why I Ended My Relationship With Riptide Publishing.” XEN x COLE MCCADE, 14 Mar. 2018, blackmagicblues.com/on-sarah-lyons-and-why-i-ended-my-relationship-with-riptide-publishing/.
Milan, C. (2018, April 2). [Twitter thread about WOC, RWA, and RITA].
Northington, Jenn. “The 11 Best Things I Heard at RWA 2015.” BOOK RIOT. July 27, 2015. Accessed March 21, 2018. https://bookriot.com/2015/07/28/11-best-things-heard-rwa-2015/.
Oliveira, J. (2018, April 7). [Twitter thread about Patrica Engel and Muse ’18]. Https://twitter.com/JHelen91/status/982709640956870657.
Rodale, Maya. Dangerous Books for Girls survey (Rep.). (2014). Retrieved April 7, 2018, from http://www.dangerousbooksforgirls.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/DBGsurvey1.pdf
Shapiro, Lila. “What the Job of a Sensitivity Reader Is Really Like.” Vulture. January 05, 2018. Accessed March 21, 2018. http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/sensitivity-readers-what-the-job-is-really-like.html.
Snarly (2016, May 3). The Curious Incident of the Chocolate Love Monkey. Retrieved April 14, 2018, from http://www.sorrywatch.com/2016/05/03/the-curious-incident-of-the-chocolate-love-monkey/