Is My Novel Offensive?

How “sensitivity readers” are changing the publishing ecosystem—and raising new questions about what makes a great book.

Lisa Larson-Walker

When Becky Albertalli published her first young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, with the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray in 2015, she never expected it to be controversial. She’d worked for years as a clinical psychologist specializing in gender nonconforming children and LGBTQ teens and adults.* Yet her book—about a closeted gay kid whose love notes to a classmate fall into the wrong hands—contained a moment that rubbed readers the wrong way: Simon, the sweet but clueless protagonist, muses that girls have an easier time coming out than boys, because their lesbianism strikes others as alluring. At a book signing, several people approached Albertalli to complain that the scene played too readily into a narrative they’d heard many times before. Online, commenters condemned the “fetishization of queer girls” in the book as “offensive.” Albertalli hadn’t originally given the passage a second thought: the character was obviously unworldly; elsewhere, he asserts that all Jews come from Israel. But in the latter exchange, readers pointed out, Simon’s Jewish friend immediately corrects him. The lesbian line, a snippet from the narrator’s interior monologue, receives no such rebuttal.

Albertalli felt crushed that her book had alienated members of the exact community she had hoped to reach. When she began to craft her second novel, The Upside of Unrequited, about twin sisters navigating the shoals of high school romance, she was determined not to make the same mistake. And so before her manuscript went to print, she reached out to a group of “sensitivity readers.” These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create “outside of [their] experiences.” In April of last year, Ireland built a public database where freelance sensitivity readers can list their name, contact information, and “expertise.” These areas of special knowledge are generally rooted in identity (“queer woman,” “bisexual mixed race,” “East Asian, “Muslim”) as well as in personal histories of mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.

As a push for diversity in fiction reshapes the publishing landscape, the emergence of sensitivity readers seems almost inevitable. A flowering sense of social conscience, not to mention a strong market incentive, is elevating stories that richly reflect the variety of human experience. America—specifically young America—is currently more diverse than ever. As writers attempt to reflect these realities in their fiction, they often must step outside of their intimate knowledge. And in a cultural climate newly attuned to the complexities of representation, many authors face anxiety at the prospect of backlash, especially when social media leaves both book sales and literary reputations more vulnerable than ever to criticism. Enter the sensitivity reader: one more line of defense against writers’ tone-deaf, unthinking mistakes.

In one draft, Albertalli—who totaled 12 sensitivity reads for her second novel on LGBTQ, black, Korean American, anxiety, obesity, and Jewish representation issues, among others—had described a character’s older sibling, a black college student, as a “bro,” the kind of frat boy she’d gone to school with in Connecticut. “In my head, he was part of that culture,” she says. But the two women of color reading the manuscript whipped out their red pens. “Without consulting each other, they were both independently like, ‘Nope. That’s not a thing,’ ” Albertalli recalls. Historically black colleges have a wildly different conception of Greek life, with fraternity members resembling superstar athletes more than dudes doing keg stands. “So, yeah,” Albertalli (who characterizes herself as “white, chubby, Jewish, anxious”) finished sheepishly, “I definitely had to rethink that character.”

Removing the “frat boy” brushwork from Albertalli’s draft turned out to be a simple fix. But sensitivity reading often raises more delicate tonal questions. There are issues of framing to consider: Is the book about the girl struggling with her weight too much about a girl, well, struggling with her weight? Does a character’s reference to his “shrink” denigrate therapy? The author Nic Stone, who is currently penning a novel about a girl with bipolar disorder (and who herself served as a sensitivity reader on race issues for Jodi Picoult), stressed that her sensitivity readers “completely changed the scope” of her book. She’d realized, she said, “in my attempts to de-stigmatize the illness by getting as much of its manifestations on the page [as I could], I’d wound up making the book more about the illness than about the girl living with it.”

Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) By the time Whitman started at Lee & Low in 2010, she told me, seeking input from reviewers with firsthand knowledge of minority traditions and experiences had already become standard practice at the company.

Authors and publishers may send off manuscripts for sensitivity reads at different stages in the writing and editing process. Early on, according to Albertalli, a writer might seek out feedback on her broader concept; as the project advances, particular phrases or details come under inspection. Albertalli cites the Nazi-Jewish refugee love story in one 2014 romance novel as an example of a premise that she believes should have been swiftly kiboshed. Lower-level gaucheries can be weeded out later. The timing “is tricky,” she said. “You don’t want to submit your draft too late and find out that your entire concept is problematic, but if you solicit the reading too early, you risk publishing a book full of microaggressions.”

Sensitivity readers, Ireland insists on her website, “are NOT a guarantee against making a mistake.” The vetters are individuals—they cannot comprehensively sum up the meaning of a group identity for a curious author. One Iraqi woman might be charmed by allusions to a character’s “almond-shaped eyes”; her friend might find the phrase clichéd and exoticizing. There’s danger, too, that majority writers might grow too comfortable outsourcing the task of representation to advisers from marginalized groups. (“I’ve written a book. You fix it,” this boogeyman scribbler declares.) Indeed, for the readers themselves, it can be grueling work. Angel Cruz, who advises on Filipino culture, the diaspora, and Catholicism, described sensitivity reading as “emotional/mental labor.” As the first line of defense against writers’ unexamined prejudice, she said, “you do take one for the team” in absorbing visceral blows that can land close to home. Freelance sensitivity reader Elizabeth Roderick, who concentrates on bipolar disorder, PTSD, and psychosis—“I’m here to show the world that I’m not, in fact, wearing a tinfoil hat,” she joked—takes aim at language that paints mentally ill characters “as violent, completely unbalanced, and with evil motives.”

Roderick has had a largely positive experience as a sensitivity reader. But authors, she said, can “sometimes get slightly defensive.” Evaluating one manuscript about a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who escaped from an institution and went on a murder spree, she felt that this was not only cliché; it wasn’t a good representation of what schizophrenic people are like. “The character didn’t ring true or deep to me,” Roderick said. She recommended changes to both the sick woman and the diagnosis. The author protested: “If the story didn’t have an antagonist, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

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It’s not hard to imagine why sensitivity readers could potentially put authors in a difficult position. After all, where would we be if these experts had subjected our occasionally outrageous and irredeemable canonMoby Dick or Lolita or any other classic, old, anachronistic book—to their scrutiny? Plenty of fiction—Portnoy’s Complaint, or Martin Amis’ Money—is defined in part by a narrator’s fevered misogyny. Novels like Huckleberry Finn derive some of their intrigue and complexity from the imperfections of their social vision. In Portnoy, for instance, Philip Roth wanted the objectifying gaze of his protagonist—which by default becomes our gaze, since we apprehend the world through him—to make us uncomfortable. Perhaps he even wanted us to use the dubious precepts expressed in the novel to clarify our own beliefs.

Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author. If Lolita had been written from Dolores’ point of view, Ireland said, “it might be useful to have an advocate of children’s rights, a childhood sexual assault survivor, or a psychologist read the manuscript and give critique”; but since it was told from the perspective of a pedophile—not regarded as a marginalized group—that wasn’t necessary. Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?

Even these readers acknowledge the risks of overpolicing artists if the practice were to be taken to the extreme. “Of course that’s a danger,” Roderick said. “Art is a mode of free expression, and if you put constraints on it, it can become stilted and contrived.” The hassle and potential discomfort of soliciting such feedback could theoretically have a chilling effect on writers working up the courage to venture outside themselves. “If authors are frightened of offending members of a diverse group, and having to deal with the horrible outrage that can ensue in those situations,” she said, “then they’re definitely going to shy away from writing diverse characters.”

But the fact remains that stories about straight, able-bodied (not to mention attractive, financially secure) teenagers far outnumber the alternatives. Though authors from all backgrounds use sensitivity readers, the stomach-churning image of a white person wafted down the path to literary achievement by invisible minorities remains. That’s one reason that many of the same stakeholders eager to standardize sensitivity readings as an industry norm are also fervent supporters of “own voices” work. (Named for a hashtag created by YA author Corinne Duyvis, this label applies to literature that both concerns and is produced by members of sidelined populations.) The idea behind sensitivity reading is not to strong-arm novelists or force their imaginations into preapproved play zones, Stone explained; it’s to smooth the process of representing otherness. An “authentic” book, she said, “isn’t the same as [a politically] correct” one. In her opinion, the goals of sensitivity reading actually align with those of good art—to create a layered and truthful portrait, whether or not it ruffles some sensibilities. Who could object, she suggests, to a procession of To Kill a Mockingbirds that evince a bit more alertness to the nuances of minority experience?

In Albertalli’s case, a sensitivity reader’s note ultimately produced a bright spot in her novel. The Upside of Unrequited features a queer teenager named Cassie who happens to have two mothers. While the reader, a bisexual woman, assured Albertalli that her treatment of the character hadn’t hit any sour notes, she saw an opening for an interesting confrontation—a challenge to one of society’s more maddening myths about gay parents. On her advice, Albertalli had a student named Evan, “this really douche-y guy,” suggest to Cassie that her family had raised her to be queer. When he makes the comment, he’s met by awkward silence; it’s clear that the other characters firmly disapprove. Albertalli was happy to orchestrate the teachable moment. And in the end, she realized it wasn’t just a socially conscious improvement but a narrative one: Personally, she said, “I loved that moment in the book.”

*Correction, Feb. 8, 2017: This piece originally misstated that Becky Albertalli worked with gender-fluid teens in her therapy practice. She worked with gender nonconforming kids and LGBTQ teens and adults. (Return.)