During CoNZealand, a group of fans put together a set of panels, which took place outside convention hours, which would be available for free via Youtube and offer a taster of the Worldcon experience to those unable to participate in CoNZealand's programming hours, or hadn't bought a membership but were interested in the kind of content provided. The result was a set of 15 panels over 6 days, archived and available for all at www.conzealandfringe.com.
As a fringe event in the tradition of Edinburgh Fringe and other international collateral events, CoNZealand Fringe was conducted entirely outside core programming hours and spaces, and panels were not official CoNZealand programming. CoNZealand Fringe is not endorsed by CoNZealand.
Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is pleased to host the transcripts of CoNZealand Fringe panels for fans who are unable to watch the videos or prefer a written format. This is the transcript for Sensitivity Reading: What is it, who does it, who needs it?, which ran on Sunday 2 August 2020 at 4pm BST/11am EDT/8am PDT/3am NZST (next day) and is available here. Other panel transcripts are available via our transcript hub.
Sensitivity Reading: What is it, who does it, who needs it?
Panel Description: Sensitivity reading is a hot topic these days, on the one hand being seen as a must have, and on the other as part of “cancel culture”. But what does a sensitivity reader do? What skills does the job require? What should the sensitivity reader, author and publisher expect from the relationship?
Host and Moderator: Cheryl Morgan (she/her),
Panellists: Mike Carey, iori Kusano (she/they), Yvonne Lin, Corinne Duyvis (she/her)
Cheryl: Hello everybody. We are live here on this CoNZealand Fringe programme item. So, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are in the world. I'm Cheryl Morgan, I’m going to be your moderator for this panel which is going to be all about sensitivity reading. I should say, before we start that we are not affiliated in any way with CoNZealand, but they have kindly allowed us to use their name in our branding. We are very grateful for that. Some of you will probably know that I have in the past been on the WSFS Mark Protection Committee, so I can absolutely assure you we're not going to get sued over this.
However, trying to get on with the panel, and I'm delighted to say that we are covering pretty much the entire world. This is largely a European timezone thing, but we are welcoming people, all the way from Japan to California, the long way around the world. And we’re going to start off in the traditional way of inviting people to introduce themselves so let's go. Reverse clockwise. Yvonne, would you like to start.
Yvonne: Hi everyone, I’m Yvonne. I have been a sensitivity reader since 2017, I read for representations of the Asian American experience primarily, with particular knowledge in Chinese or Taiwanese American experiences, as well as for representations of China and Taiwan, which I have some knowledge in based on both having lived in both places for a bit as well as academic studies since my primary day job is as a PhD student in modern Chinese literature and media. Thank you.
Cheryl: Mike, I think you are next geographically.
Mike: I'm Mike Carey, I also write as M.R. Carey. I write novels, comics, occasional screenplays, and I've used a sensitivity reader exactly twice, and both times it was Cheryl. The first time, sort of informally just as a favour she read a short story I wrote. And then when I started to write a trilogy that was partly based on that story, we entered into a contract, which worked. It worked out really well. Well for me it did.
Cheryl: I’m glad you think so. Corinne?
Corinne: Hi, I'm Corinne Duyvis. I am an author of young adult novels, probably best known for On the Edge of Gone. And I have both hired sensitivity readers for nearly everything I've published so far and I’ve acted as a sensitivity reader particularly for portrayals of autistic characters, which is also sort of my area of expertise. I've also spent several years running the website Disability in Kidlit which specialises in all kinds of discussions of disabled characters,
Cheryl: And the creation of the Own Voices hashtag.
Corinne: Oh yes, that, I did that too. [Laughs]
Cheryl: For which you are justifiably famous.
Corinne: Yeah, I coined that a few years ago by accident. I thought it would be a one-hour Twitter chat, it extended a bit past that, it is nearly five years old now, so that's pretty great.
Cheryl: Well congratulations, and Iori?
iori: Hi, I'm iori Kusano, Clarion West class of 2017. I've been working as a sensitivity reader since 2016. I mainly read on portrayals of Japan, Japanese and Chinese diaspora in America, bisexuality and PTSD.
Cheryl: Alright. And I am Cheryl Morgan. As Mike said, I have done sensitivity reading on trans issues, I've done one more novel since Mike's and I've got a novella and another novel queued up to do. In addition to that, I am a publisher. I own Wizard's Tower press. I generally don't do the editing on the books but I do read through everything we publish, because I want to make sure that we're not going to get into any issues with offending people, or authors getting subject to social media pile-ons and that sort of stuff. So that's all of our experience that we're bringing to this panel.
The reason that I decided to do this was because a couple of weeks ago somebody on Twitter posted something fairly positive about the concept of sensitivity reading, and I was quite shocked at the responses that this got. There was one person who said basically: “So what you're going to censor my novel, then?” And another one said, “It's fiction, we make everything up.” So, I mean, it sounds to me like sensitivity reading is being seen as sort of “cancel culture” of fiction writing, which to me is, it's very sad because I think it has an enormous amount to bring to everybody involved in the process, to the publishers, the authors, the readers. And of course, it's good for sensitivity readers as well. But in order to address that, I want to first of all talk about what it is that sensitivity reading really involves because it isn't about censoring people's novels. So, let's see where we can start on that. Corinne, you've got a lot of experience, what do you see the process of sensitivity reading being all about?
Corinne: I think a large part is about not doing harm. Historically speaking, marginalised communities have often been spoken for by other groups, and that extends from everything from fiction, where characters are written by authors with zero experience being like that character, but also things like all white panels on race for example, and disability advocacy groups that are completely run by non-disabled parents of disabled children. And that has done a lot of harm.
And these things just perpetuate all kinds of misunderstandings and stereotypes and incorrect ideas, and when that is all that people see then there's all that they know. And, like for example, I am autistic but, I read numerous autistic characters and saw numerous autistic characters on TV before I was diagnosed and I never once recognised myself in any of those characters, and only in recent years have I had the opportunity to read autistic characters written by autistic authors and surprise, surprise. I actually recognise myself. There is such a tangible difference with people who actually know what they're talking about, and that can just clear up so many misconceptions and actually put some positive ideas into the world and more accurate ideas, and I feel like as authors if we're going to write about a marginalised group that, whether we're part of it or not, but especially if you're not part of it you really, really, owe it to yourself to do that group justice, because otherwise you're just profiting off them and not even caring about the real world repercussions.
Cheryl: I can certainly relate to that in terms of trans characters, up until relatively recently I could never see myself in any of the trans characters that I saw in fiction. It's got a lot better since. Iori, what about the ethnicity issue is it the same with you?
iori: So, I'm frequently employed, both by white authors and by other Asians. A sort of inter community issue for Asian authors is often: I'm talking about my experience, but my experience plays into the stereotype. Should I lie? Should I erase it in order not to further the stereotype, or should I be honest about what my life has looked like? And there can often be a lot of discussion necessary about what minimises harm versus what is an accurate acknowledgement of what one's experience looks like.
Cheryl: Mike. How is it from the author's point of view?
Mike: Well, as I indicated earlier it was hugely positive for me. I did a thing called Second Picture Syndrome a few years ago, we met one of the Pixar producers Andrew Stanton, who said if you do it properly, research *is* story. And that's how I found our collaboration, that it began basically, just me trying to get my facts straight. Making sure that I wasn't misrepresenting anything or as Corinne says unintentionally doing harm. But, it became much more than that I think, it became a kind of dialogue about, especially the, there are two trans characters in the trilogy. One of them is a trans boy and the other is a trans girl. The trans girl is far more prominent, and her story, her transitioning actually becomes more and more central to the story as it goes on. And there are a number of areas where basically I just didn't have a clue. I had very little except good intentions to go on. And when you read the first book, Cheryl you made the point that this character, Cup, is about to enter male puberty. And what that would mean for her, both physically and psychologically and you, you did two things I think: you gave me a reading list. So, you were able to sort of point me in the direction of sources that would fill the gaps in my knowledge, but also I think you became a springboard for the actual development of the story, and it took, I think it's fair to say, took a different path. Because you were involved.
Cheryl: And that's actually something that I was really pleased about, that, not only had I had the opportunity to make a better representation of a trans character but I actually felt involved in crafting the series, albeit in a relatively minor way. Yvonne, is there anything that you want to add to this?
Yvonne: Yeah. I really like what Corinne said about doing no harm, and I think to also respond to what iori said, there's… I think that we've moved past tokenizing. So, part of what sensitivity reading is, is not just telling people the right words to use or “Here's the acceptable way to represent a character from a certain background,” so you can populate your book like a 90’s kids show or something like that. But really thinking about your characters as whole people who have been influenced by various factors in their lives and also treating your audience as actual people who have their own experiences and all of these things are being brought into the novel. So, I think, for me, a lot of what sensitivity reading involves is somewhat educating people about structural thinking and thinking about writing and fiction, not only in terms of like, plot and narrative is all very important but also trying to bring a decolonial and anti-racist perspective into it. Yeah.
Cheryl: Alrighty. Now, the other side to this of course is on the one hand, you've got people saying oh it's horrible stuff, shouldn't do it, blah blah blah, but also, I've seen a number of, particularly young trans people, who are putting themselves forward as potential sensitivity readers. And, as somebody who does trans awareness training on a professional basis, the most important thing I think I've learned, is that I cannot represent the whole of the trans community by myself. I make sure I have a different trans person with me in the training, wherever possible to give some idea of the varied experiences in the community. And also, I tried to learn as much as I can about everybody else's experiences and I think that's been valuable to me in helping out Mike, and other clients. But there is that work involved, you just, you can't, I think, be a sensitivity reader simply because you have lived experience, but... what about other people. Do you think that is fair, iori?
iori: I personally wind up turning down a lot of work because people will come to me because they want an Asian perspective and I'm not always the right kind of Asian for their narrative, like someone comes to me, “Hey, I have a Vietnamese person in this story will you read this?” I'm half Japanese and half Chinese and I super can't help you there, I am so sorry. I've also noticed that when I'm doing sensitivity reads, I often wind up doing referrals down the chain like, Yes, I have read about the Asian issues in this. I've noticed in this narrative that you have some issues around, autism or trans issues, and so forth, and please go find a sensitivity reader who specialises in those to look at that.
[Pop-up from Claire Rousseau: I think of sensitivity reading as research? It’s the same as getting a scientist to check your science but because it’s identity-based, people object to it.]
Mike: I think publishers very often see it in the light of, a kind of indemnification. It's a form of insurance to get a sensitivity reader involved, they won't pay for it, but they think it's a great idea for the author to engage in there, because it kind of means that you know they're less likely to step into the more obvious holes, potholes but it’s -
Corinne: Yeah, that’s definitely…
Cheryl: Actually, could we park the publisher issue for a minute? Because it's really, really important and I want to come back to it, but does anybody else want to weigh in on how much actual effort is involved and what experience you need to have to be a sensitivity reader?
Yvonne: Actually, I found that my research and academic study has been more useful than I realised it would be when just, you know, signing up for this. I got started through Justina Ireland's database, which has since closed. But, yeah, when filling that out, I didn't really realise that there is sometimes historical knowledge that you come across, that is very, very useful and specifically because I get a lot of work that is “East Asian inflected”. So I’m not even sure whether to... I have made referrals, but sometimes it's clear that they're not really making an effort to distinguish between the different regions of East Asia. In those cases, language study has been very useful, because this is actually something that I really don't like when they just reproduce actual modern languages as fantasy languages. But having fluency in Chinese and working knowledge of Japanese has also been quite useful. So, it could be like. “Please don't do this" but also, "you're not using this language correctly, like, at all.”
iori: Yes, I've also run into a lot of times where I wind up bringing my former academic work into the picture. I used to work in pre-modern Japanese literature, which means that I find a lot of fantasy with Asian worldbuilding on my plate or straight historical fantasy even. And it's very helpful that I already sort of built that mental database of which articles are my fallback for explaining to people how certain things work. Because, definitely, I would say at least 40% of the books I’ve sensitivity read, I have had to go back to the author and ask, “Why are you calling this person a geisha when they are not doing any geisha things?”
Cheryl: Okay. Corinne.
Corinne: I've personally definitely found my experience with disability in kidlit to be very, very helpful because that required reading a lot of existing autism portrayals, also reading a lot of reviews by autistic people of these portrayals, as well as doing interviews. Editing articles, also just going out online and finding all sorts of discussions and articles, and that has helped me with autism, even though like I am autistic, seeing all these other perspectives and ideas, it's definitely just broadened my perspective of this and helped me just deepen my understanding also of all these kinds of portrayals, and also with disability in general, and I definitely think like, I was just as autistic like 15 years ago as I am now, but I would not have made a good sensitivity reader 15 years ago, because I had the same, I was exposed to all the, like the wrong portrayals basically, I was exposed to the same ideas as “autism” by these non-autistic creators. And so even though I knew that my own personal experiences were different, you don't really understand the whole framework and the scope of that. So, I definitely think that that informed me a lot as a sensitivity reader, and that was essential to me.
I've like, I won't name the book but I once, for example read a book that was an ownvoices book, by an autistic creator, and I could, like, I had the feeling that I could very clearly tell, yes this was written by an autistic person, because all these little details of his experiences and practical things of his life, and emotions rang so true. But I also have like the distinct feeling it was written by someone who had not ever actually delved into autistic representation and misrepresentation and stereotypes because a lot of the overarching tropes that were used and the way characters were described were so in line with all those portrayals that I've seen my whole life by non-autistic creators, and it was very strange to read that and just see, “I think I know where this is coming from”. And that made it so that even though I very much always want to support, ownvoices autism work, I've never been able to actually recommend that book, because it was just drenched in these ideas that I find personally problematic. Which, gets into a whole complicated thing with regards to ownvoices, but I do feel like it ties into this idea of where sensitivity readers might be coming from and what kind of knowledge you need to do this properly.
Cheryl: I could just add briefly to all that, that I found myself doing history as well in my last job. The trans representation itself, I thought, was fine but I spent a lot of time talking with the author about trans people in the past because the book was set quite a long time ago, obviously different times, different cultures, different types of medical applications and so on. But let's move back now to the question that Mike raised, about publishers, because there's this whole question here. First of all, who is your contract with? Is it with the publisher, or is it with the author? And if it is, I mean if it's with the author you could probably agree something relatively simple, but if it's with a big mainstream publisher, you will probably get a contract from their corporate lawyers and what you actually need to look out for there. I've got a story or two I could share but anybody else want to weigh in on this first?
iori: So, certainly for me, the sort of contract that happens really depends on when in the process I get something, because I frequently have authors come to me before they even got something in an editor's hands like, “I want to make sure it's clean before I even start sending it around to agents”. Honestly, I kind of prefer getting things from publishers because then I feel a little less guilty about charging for it. I hate it when it has to come out of the author's pocket, because, I mean, this is really time-consuming labour-intensive work. I want to be paid a living wage. But because I also work as an author, I know that the authors usually aren't making minimum wage. So, economically, neither of us are in a good position here to be doing this. I feel more comfortable working with a publishing house because it's easier for me to ask that I'd be paid what I feel my time is worth.
Corinne: With my most recent novel which is coming out next month, I had multiple sensitivity readers. And my plan was just to pay them out of my own pocket but at some point, I was like wait, I should really check with my publisher and I just asked them, they're like “Oh yeah we have a budget up to this amount”. So, I was able to direct two of my sensitivity readers, like “okay here's my publisher and they will pay you,” and all the other communication went through me. And the third sensitivity reader I paid out of pocket. So, it is definitely helpful on multiple levels to get the publisher involved if that is at all an option for authors.
Mike: It wasn’t an option for me... Sorry Yvonne.
Yvonne: No, no, no, I was just going to say that I primarily work with publishers these days because after the database was taken down I primarily get work through referrals within the publishing houses that already had me listed. And, on the one hand it's, it does feel more impersonal but it does also feel safer. You know, like you're not as likely to be on the end of some... personal grievances. It is way easier to be like, “Actually, I think you should pay me a couple hundred, or, you know a hundred more or something like that because you're a giant company, and you should probably be publishing more people of colour anyways”. Yeah, it does make the negotiation… I don't feel that much guilt when I ask for more money, basically. Sorry Mike.
Mike: To say it was, it wasn't it wasn't an option for me. Orbit were absolutely overjoyed when I said I was asking Cheryl to be a sensitivity reader probably, but there was no budget to be had. There was no contract either, was there, we had to, you had to, to find a template for a contract. Orbit were just not involved in that process at all.
Cheryl: Yeah, that's, I mean, I don't know what the rest of you, where you're working, but obviously I'm doing a fair amount of my work in the UK. And the UK publishing industry appears to be fairly clueless about the subject of sensitivity reading and Mike says that, you know Orbit weren't aware of it. The other job that I've done was with a different British publisher, and they’d never had a sensitivity reader before. Now, that contract was with the publisher, but they sent me their standard subcontractor contract, which included in it, a clause where I would indemnify them against any harm arising for the work that I did on the book.
Corinne: [Shakes head and winces]
Cheryl: You can imagine, I was unimpressed with that, not only because I would have had to guarantee that my sensitivity reading was perfect. But also, I would potentially be guaranteeing them against, for example being sued by an anti-trans organisation that was upset about having a trans character in there. So there was no way that I was going to do that and I'm very pleased to say that the editor went in to bat against the corporate lawyers on my behalf. And I'm very grateful because of that. So, that it's certainly something that you, you have to be aware of, but I'm interested in this mention of the get out of jail free card because this morning I was watching the Mythology panel from CoNZealand and Navah Wolfe was on that and they got on to mentioning sensitivity reading because of the issue of cultural appropriation that can happen with books that involve mythology, and Navah said very clearly that this sort of thing should have multiple sensitivity readers and should not be used as a publisher get out of jail free card, or indeed an author get out of jail free card but the sensitivity readers will do their jobs as best they can. But the buck stops with the publisher and the author not with the sensitivity reader. I think we'd all agree on that. Mike?
Mike: I just wanted to say, I don't want to suggest that Orbit were unaware of the importance of sensitivity readers, they were broadly supportive, they just didn't have a budget or sort of plan for it, really.
Cheryl: Yeah, but I mean you would have thought there ought to be a budget for it because if something goes badly wrong, and there's a huge fuss in social media, it gets into the newspapers and whatever, and you end up having to pulp the initial run of the book, then that's a big economic loss there. So really people ought to be trying to get it right if they possibly can.
So yeah, that's the publisher side of it. And yes, Mike, you're absolutely right. We had no contract, we had to write one between ourselves and, as a result of that of course, you know we spent a lot of time thinking about it. One of the things that I did was I went to SFWA. I asked, it was Cat Rambo actually at the time because they hadn’t then had the election. I asked Cat whether they had a model contract for sensitivity reading, and they didn’t have one, which astonished me. So, I ended up talking to various author friends who’d employed sensitivity readers before and we cobbled together something on that basis. But, iori, Yvonne, Corinne, what experience have you had with contracts and do you actually have a contract you could recommend?
[Pop-up from Russell Smith: Wow, Cheryl, that’s terrifying. Is it even *posisble* to have perfect sensitivity reading?]
iori: I use contracts supplied by publishing houses when I work with publishers. I simply am not in a position where these contracts can protect me because I'm working across international lines. It's very hard to determine venue if I'm working with an author on a one to one basis. If, for some reason, something went wrong with a publishing house, they have a set venue for the court noted in their contract. It's not one that I really could attend, because I'm just not in a financial position to pick up and fly to America for any kind of trial. So, really, if anything goes wrong at any point, I have very little recourse. And that's just I think the nature of freelancing across country boundaries.
Corinne: Yeah, I'm from the Netherlands and, well, not a lot of the publishers or authors that I deal with are from the Netherlands, so I'm in a similar situation. But even if you leave aside the legal issues, I do think a contract or an agreement is very beneficial because it does help clear up every party's understanding of what you're actually doing, and who's responsible for what, so it will prevent sensitivity readers from talking about the book or issues about the book before it's out for example, which if you're still fixing things as an author, that's pretty important. It will also help protect sensitivity readers, because otherwise authors might like blame any issues on them, or try to use them as that get out of jail free card where authors really are just looking for a stamp of approval so they can say, “Oh, I had a sensitivity reader look at this” and not actually engage with their feedback meaningfully. So, like those kinds of agreements are, even if you can't legally enforce them I do think it makes a big difference in clearing up these potential misunderstandings, before they might happen. I've personally not actually worked with them, not out of any personal preference, just like, we ended up talking and it just ended up happening but I would have very much been open to setting up an agreement like that and just making sure, outlining everybody's tasks and understanding of the situation.
iori: Absolutely. I lay out things like turnaround time and confidentiality when I begin work with someone, but we don't usually sign anything because it's not enforceable. I've never really spoken about anything I've done on social media and authors don't name me even when they go to publication, I don't even get into the acknowledgments about 90% of the time. But as a self-protective measure I have saved every report that I sent to the authors in PDF so that if I was being used as the “Well the sensitivity reader said such and such was okay”. I can pull the unedited version of my comments, if I need to, and be like, you're taking that out of context, pal!
Mike: That was a specific provision of outcomes, wasn’t it Cheryl? If you didn't like the finished work you had the right to take your name off it and I couldn't use your name in connection with it. Again, you sort of hold you up against the world as a kind of shield.
Cheryl: Sure. And I put that clause in the contract specifically for the sort of situation that iori is putting in there. So, yeah, that's, Yvonne, Anything to add on?
Yvonne: I mean, I, like I said, primarily work with publishing houses now. I like the anonymity because I like being able to keep the different things I do relatively separate. And, I do think that what Corinne said is a really good idea though, so if I am able to work with independent authors in the future I think it would be really nice to be able to set up a meeting, and just sort of talk out expectations and get on the same page about what you want, what's okay, whether you do want your name associated with this project or whether you'd prefer to not have it associated with it. Like iori, I mostly have just focused on the sort of project management or business side of things like turnaround time, pay, contact whatever methods, but I think it would actually be a really great part of the process to incorporate something a little more general.
Cheryl: Okay. We have a couple of questions in the comments now, but I've a couple of other things that I want to come to first. Something that we've been discussing on the private chat is do we actually see the work, after we have done the sensitivity reading, you know, you do your report, you send it off to the author. Do you then get the book back? And I know that Mike has very kindly had copies of both books that have come out thus far sent to me, but what about the rest of you?
iori: I almost never do. I think I've done about 20 plus books now in the last four years. An author, or sorry, an author's editor sent me ARCs for her duology. And one other author went out of her way to send me her book, because I'd done extensive revisions on it. So, three out of like 20 is my hit rate for ever seeing something after I've had my hands in it.
Corinne: I haven't done a lot of sensitivity reading so far. For one trilogy that I did, I got the first book sent to me after it was published. But aside from that, I haven't gotten the work.
Yvonne: Yeah, I've only gotten the first book in a series when I was asked to read the second book, and I asked, I actually asked them for the first book because I would not, I felt like I would not be able to do a good job without seeing how that all panned out.
Cheryl: Shout out to David Barnett who sent me a copy of his novel, even though I’d only worked on a couple of pages of it, that was very kind of him. Okay, So! Final question before we come to audience stuff. What are the upsides and downsides of the job? I mean, obviously you get paid. You might not get a free book but at least you get to read the book, in some format. But are you opening yourself up to a lot of emotional labour here?
Corinne: I definitely think there is a risk of that. For me the upside, aside from the money is also knowing that I am at least, possibly subjectively, but like helping, doing my part and preventing that harm, and trying to, I primarily work in children's literature, so it is just helping, making sure kids get respectful and positive portrayals of autistic characters, which I think is pretty important, so that definitely makes me feel good knowing that I'm a part of that and may have been able to prevent some little bit of harm in that way. The downside is definitely the emotional labour, because it can be very, very difficult.
I've, so far, had a fairly easy job of that but I've definitely known readers, particularly when reading for very sensitive topics, that just dealt with PTSD, while reading the book because it was so triggering, and so difficult. And so personal. And that is also something that I think should be in those agreements that a sensitivity reader can absolutely drop out at any point, because, yeah, it is a very, very gruelling task in certain situations and it's important to be respectful of that.
Yvonne: Yeah. So I think there are a fair number of pros, for me, like one is I always sort of fantasised about going into publishing but then didn't because I could not do an unpaid internship in college because, you know, I had to make money and stuff like that. So, this has kind of been a sort of fun way to be on the periphery of that world. And I really enjoy that. Another pro is, I think, you're taking on the work of education but I also hope that the people who are receiving my reviews are reading them seriously and that is a way to get the ear of people who normally wouldn't listen to me or come across me in any way, so for me I really want to leverage those opportunities like I said earlier, in a way, in sort of like anti-racist education and there is just so much in our world that doesn't teach us to see how power structures work. So, I really tried to bring that into those reviews.
I also actually think it’s great practice as an educator, to be able to explain complicated ideas to an intelligent audience that isn't constantly steeped in Foucault. So, those are both pros and, I think, a major con is, like everyone said, it's emotional labour, it can be, on a bad day, it can be kind of painful to think, like, “Oh, well, this is what other, how other people still see you. And this is what all the sort of institutional powers have decided is totally fine.” And that they are willing to publish this when lots of other authors are languishing in, you know, anonymity and poverty, because I don't know, various reasons, may be because they're not white. So, that can be rough, and I think for anyone who wants to get into sensitivity reading, it's really important to think about what you're willing to read and how you don't have to parcel out all of your traumas, to - like it's really tempting to think “What are all of the ways I marginalise, what are all of the things I can read for?” but there is this sort of cost benefit analysis that I really recommend people do.
iori: I would agree with what everyone's been saying about emotional labour. I've been very lucky though in my interactions and something I've been trying to keep in mind is, when someone brings a book to me it's because they're invested in doing it right. Even if there's something going on structurally where it's like, oh, yikes, that's … problematic. Like, “Your descriptions here are definitely leaning on racial stereotypes”, or “I think you've watched a lot of TV shows that have the dramatic sweaty fear with night terrors part of PTSD and less of the low-level tooth grinding background anxiety aspect of it.” But people wouldn't be paying me if they didn't care about getting it right. And that's pretty comforting. I think even the most problematic thing I've read, is still a long way from a lot of the actually published stuff I read as a child, where I'd be going through a book that had an Asian character in it and I just be doing the “almond eyes” tally in the corner of the page like “how many times you gonna say it?”
Cheryl: Oh dear, yeah. Mike? Do feel free to say if there are any downsides of working with me.
Mike: I was just thinking, going back to what Yvonne was saying earlier about how you feel safer when you're dealing with the publisher than you do when you're dealing directly with the writer, is that partly because there's a kind of emotional buffer? That you do not have to deal with the writer’s sort of immediate unfiltered responses to what you are saying, it doesn't get ugly. Because from my point of view I think it was, I'm really glad the contract was between me and Cheryl and that the publisher wasn’t involved because we had an organic conversation rather than her simply delivering a report and then me taking the report away and doing something with it.
Yvonne: Yeah, I should say like that is part of it but it's also kind of my own tendency to overthink things, you know, I think that, I've had a really pleasant - I have only had pleasant interactions with authors themselves and I think a lot of the, what iori said about, the plus sides of knowing that someone is coming to you because they want to be better is lost when you are really only working with a publisher, because then it just feels like, well they're covering their bases. They want to be able to… It's like there's some sort of fallout they just want to be able to say “Oh we got someone to look at it so I don't know what you are all complaining about”. So, yeah, I think just like pros and cons right, so I think that there's a lot to be gained from an organic relationship as well.
Corinne: I think that also very much depends, my interactions with - I did work for Harper Collins, and, you know, huge company and the editor I worked with was so personal and so very clearly invested in like “We want to do this right, and we want to do this book justice” and you know, that was, I felt like I got a lot of the positives of working that I would get if I were to work with the author such as that personal contact, and the investment. But I still had that filter, and knowing that I could be fairly honest, without worrying about hurting the author's feelings. I do wonder if there would have been more back and forth on my feedback if I have worked directly with the author because it is very much like, you send your feedback and then it disappears into the void. But yeah, it definitely depends, I really enjoyed working with the publisher in that case.
Cheryl: I've been fairly fortunate thus far in pretty much everything I've done has been with authors who have been personal friends. Now, of course that's rather easier for me because I've been in the, you know, book blogging business for 25 years now. I've got to know a lot of people along the process but I do very much enjoy working with authors that I am friends with and I think I might find it quite different if I was working with an author I've never met. For me, obviously because I’m in trans education, the opportunity to show good examples of trans characters in books is enormously pleasing. But there is also a downside in the trans community: it's very varied, it can be quite fractious. I’m thinking back to the reaction to the attack helicopter story in Clarkesworld for example where there were trans people on both sides of the social media war. So, when I do something like this, I am always really quite nervous that when the book gets out there, there will be some trans person somewhere, they would find that it's an inauthentic representation of their experience. And therefore, I must have done it wrong. So, there's always that risk, I think.
But let's have a look at some questions from the audience now. First of all we’ve got Heather Rose Jones.
[Pop-up from Heather Rose Jones: Question: what do you advise in cases where finding a sensitivity reader for a specific intersection of identities is difficult. I mean, multiple readers, obviously, but what would you prioritise?]
Cheryl: So, if you've got multiple interactions, multiple readers, obviously, but is there anything that you will particularly prioritise? I suspect that might be from where we're coming from but Mike, I think, possibly you could answer this first because, you know, you're liable to have more than one thing in there, in a book.
Mike: Yes. And it occurs to me now that it would have been really, really useful to get a sensitivity reader, in respect of Winona. There is a character in the book, who is an artificial intelligence, based on a dead Japanese pop star. And I kind of, I kind of wrote…She starts off speaking in a very stereotypical way, because that's what the programming calls for, and then she kind of breaks free of it in the course of the story. But I just went blithely sailing into that, without taking any soundings from anybody else. I think if I were starting the trilogy again, I probably would use another reader, or at least try to seek out another reader.
Cheryl: Well now you know iori, so…
Mike: Yep, and Yvonne.
Cheryl: Anybody else want to come back on that question?
Yvonne: I'm not really sure how to respond to the question of like, prioritising something over the other. But I suppose one, in terms of where to find people, we, like we've said, we do referrals among each other. So, that could be something to ask for.
Corinne: If you are an author with some sort of platform. It's always nice to be able to work via referrals because then you know who you're dealing with and that's trustworthy, but honestly, I've seen plenty of authors put out a call on Twitter, especially at the large following, or if it's being boosted by people with a large following, you can definitely find people who you might not have been able to find via any official list of sensitivity readers.
I've had people as sensitivity readers who have not done any prior work as sensitivity readers, but because I knew that they were still clever, insightful readers with this particular area of expertise, I still knew that they would do a great job, and I would prefer someone with no official experience in that area, over people who maybe have that experience, but didn't quite fit the specific identity I was describing, and getting multiple readers is always a good idea. And yes, especially so, if you're dealing with intersecting identities, but you do always, like if you can't find someone with those specific intersecting identities, it is very tricky, because these identities inform each other, my, you know, I am autistic but I'm also very white, and the experience of autistic people of colour can be very, very different from mine. So, it's pretty important to try as hard as you can, and putting it out via all sorts of different channels to find people who do have that same experience.
[Pop-up from WorldsinInk: This might only be tangentially connected, but what do you think about the need for trigger warnings in books? Wouldn’t that also be part of doing no harm by giving readers an informed choice?]
Cheryl: We have another question that is coming in from WorldsinInk. It might be tangentially connected but do you think about the need for trigger warnings in books? So, I mean is that something that as a sensitivity reader you would recommend to put in?
iori: I always appreciate when people have them.
Corinne: I put them on my website, because I can continually update them that way. Because I've often found that I didn't really realise the need for certain warnings until after the book was published. And I like being able to just update that and refer people to that. So, yeah, I definitely recommend people do that as much as possible because, you know, the more information people have the better. I know that it may contain spoilers but I'd rather people spoil themselves but still know that they can read the book, or should avoid the book, or should be careful with it than that they just go into it without any warning, and then end up… Yeah, hurt by it, or triggered, or anything.
iori: I'd like to say that I think a lot of the discussion about if I use a trigger warning that spoils such and such is frequently overblown because putting “content warning: sexual assault”, “content warning: racism”, on your book doesn't actually give me any spoilers.I don't know what characters it's happening to, I don't know how it fits into the larger plot it, just lets me know hey there might be a couple pages you want to skip later.
Corinne: Yeah, I tend to give fairly specific warnings I think, also in conversations with friends of mine who have PTSD where I know I can say like, “oh warning violence” but like the specific violence would matter very much, or people who've had experiences with, like, near drowning, for example, so I tend to get reasonably specific with warnings and sometimes it gets spoilery but I would rather have that than the alternative. But yeah, most of the time it is something that authors are worried about, but it does not, yeah. It's either not relevant or it doesn't weigh up to the possible harm that you can avoid.
Cheryl: Mike, have you ever put trigger warnings on your books?
Mike: No, never. Within discussion around the books, I’ll frequently mention potentially problematic things about the content, but it's never been in the jacket or on the blurb or anything, I don't think.
Cheryl: I have to admit that with a book set in a prison, I think the trigger warnings are pretty much there already for you, but yeah.
Yvonne: Yeah, I guess I'm not in publishing so I don't know where it would… I've actually been listening to you guys I'm trying to think where it would go in a physical book, but definitely when I teach, when I make recommendations, I try to let people know if there's something that could possibly be triggering and I think that's, I don't know, it's, I think there's been a lot in higher education in particular, about the dangers of trigger warnings and like, snowflakes and the youth, millennials, etcetera etcetera. But I think everyone's always kind of done this for a really long time, especially in teaching, the concept is not really anything new, and I guess I see a comment I want to agree with. Claire Rousseau has written “If the narrative is ruined by knowing one thing that happens, then it should have been written better.” Yeah, I very much agree!
[Pop-up from Claire Rousseau: Also if the narrative is ruined by knowing one thing that happens, then it should have been writteen better. It usually means that the author has used something traumatic as a cheap twist.]
Mike: It's strange. It's strange how the conventions of different media diverge isn't it? Because in movies you just take it for granted that you're going to get a very, very detailed and circumstantial list at the start of any problematic content, and in novels, it barely exists.
Cheryl: What about comics, Mike? Because you've written those as well.
Mike: Well comics, Vertigo - I’m wearing a Vertigo tee-shirt at the moment - Vertigo used to have the “for mature readers” strap across the top, which I guess was a sort of general warning of inappropriate content, but that was as far as it ever got, really, and that was considered controversial. There were some creators like Alan Moore who came out against it. Because they thought it was infantilizing.
[Pop-up from Russell Smith: CW/TWs are done on most television streaming as well with no spoilers ever being an issue, so they’ve very, very commonplace now, dunno why anyone would have a problem with it.]
[Pop-up from Claire Rousseau: I’ve seen content/trigger warnings at the end of the book, with a note at the beginning, that way it’s easy to look at if you want, and avoid it if you don’t]
Cheryl: Interesting comment here from Claire that there really is, I mean I suppose you can look at the end of the book if you want, but it seems to be a bit silly to put the trigger warning at the end of the book where people might not read it until it’s too late.
iori: I think that would work more easily perhaps, on paper books than Kindle. Frequently Kindle is very bad about hyperlinking and making sure the hyperlinks go in the correct places and so forth, where, if you're holding a paper one you can flip to it right.
[Pop-up from The Book Finch: Dark Horse does the parental advisory and r-rated on content like Berserk and such.]
[Pop-up from WorldsinInk: Most trigger warnings are found on 3rd party sites. Publishers are very weary to add them to the physical books.]
Cheryl: Sorry, interesting comment from WorldsinInk here. Obviously some review sites are liable to tell you things, but you won't necessarily know to look there. Publishers, is that our experience that publishers are wary of putting them in physical books?
Mike: I think that this is an obvious downside for the publisher restricting potential audiences, which may feed into their reluctance to do it.
[Pop-up from Tansura: I’ve begun seeing tw/cw at the beginning of romance novels but primarily mlm ones]
Cheryl: I mean I'm thinking about that now because I've got a book coming out which is essentially dark fantasy. And a lot of it is set in past times which are fairly brutal, there are a couple of scenes of sexual assault which we did a bit of sensitivity reading on because the author is a man. And doesn't actually have much experience of being raped so he was very good about working with us on that. So, I'm certainly thinking about putting something both on the company website and in the book to note that these things happen. Interesting that romance novels are starting to do them.
Mike: What does “tw/cw” mean?
iori: Trigger warning or content warning.
Mike: Okay, thank you.
Cheryl: Okay, we have a new question here. How do you start as a sensitivity reader, how do you find authors and how do you market yourself?
[Pop-up from Els: I would love some advice on how to start as a sensitivity reader. How do you find authors? How do you start of “marketing” yourself?]
Corinne: In my case, a lot of it, stemmed from disability kidlit and talking about autistic representation on Twitter all the time. So, I was just sort of became the go-to person for autism for a little while. And I'm very glad that there are more and more authors and readers out there for that topic now. But yeah, talking about representation and being involved in these discussions will definitely help, I think, in making some connections. I know that there was that resource of Justina Ireland’s that Yvonne mentioned, I'm sure there are also resources out there now but I'm not personally familiar with them.
iori: I also got started via Justina Ireland’s Writing at the Margins database. Now that that is mostly closed, I do understand that there are plans for someone else to manage it. I believe that's in coordination with the Writing the Other workshop but don't quote me on that. Now that the database is closed, I get the majority of my work as referrals. But I also boost my availability on Twitter, when I have extra time on my hands and can take on more projects.
Corinne: I've definitely seen a lot of sensitivity readers put out a call for their availability on Twitter and occasionally I mark them as favourites, in case I need to go back to that later if there's something that makes me like “Oh I might need this for a future book”. So, like even if it doesn't seem like people are taking you up on it, it might just not be the right time for a book and you might suddenly get an email two years later, like “oh by the way, is this still a thing?” So just try and get your name out there, I guess.
Yvonne: Yeah, I have to say I haven't tried super hard to get my name out there. I have, I enjoy getting the work as it floats over to me, but I haven't really hustled, I guess, at least in this respect.
Cheryl: I think from my point of view, I'm pretty well known in the industry as an openly trans person. So, you know, I shout a lot about trans rights on social media so I think people would have known that I was somebody that they could potentially come to. Now we only have about three minutes left so it is time to wrap up. So, thank you everybody for being a wonderful panel and also thank you to the audience for your comments. I haven't had time to get all of them in there but has anybody got any final comments they would like to make? iori, can we start with you?
iori: I would say that if you were an author, looking for a sensitivity reader, it is generally best to do so once you have a completed draft. Sometimes people want me to look at their synopses and I understand why you don't want to necessarily invest the work before you've had it vetted, but in practice, I've only ever worked with one book where I would have been able to find the errors, at the structural synopsis level. Usually, the things that could use work are throwaways within narrative and dialogue. And that's not something I'll see in your outline. So, just have your book ready to go.
Corinne: I personally agree with that but I've also seen a lot of discussions who suggest the opposite because sometimes it is very much in the actual concept that is problematic. And so I think just like not necessarily a full synopsis but just running the idea specifically as it pertains to that character by some people first just to make sure, is a good idea if you're in that position and otherwise yeah, the moment you have a full draft, don't wait too long because the further into the process the book is, the harder it will be to make major changes that might be required. And sometimes you get authors who ask to have their book read when it's, like basically in copy edits, and that is clearly just wanting that stamp of approval. But if you're doing it at the drafting stage, then you can actually make comprehensive changes, and that will, yeah that just benefits everybody involved. It also allows the sensitivity reader more time to read it. So, definitely don't do it too late, either.
Mike: I guess I would just say that I probably went into our collaboration wanting the sort of reassurance that wasn't messing anything up, I wasn’t getting anything factually wrong, or placing the emotional beats wrong. And actually I got much, much more out of it than I expected. And therefore, speaking as an author, I would hugely recommend sensitivity readers as being an essential part of research.
Cheryl: And Yvonne.
Yvonne: I suppose… As a final word, one way to think about getting a sensitivity reader or engaging, or like, getting a sensitivity reader is it's a good way to learn someone else's perspective in an informed way to a degree that you often wouldn't in casual interactions. And I do think that people should take advantage of that. It's a really good way, it’s just a great way to go about in the world, knowing more about the people around you.
[Pop-up from Claire Rousseau: I think of sensitivity reading as research? It’s the same as getting a scientist to check your science but because it’s identity-based, people object to it.]
Cheryl: My point I want to come back to this comment that Claire made, which is sensitivity reading is research. In science fiction we think nothing of going to consult an astronaut or a physicist or a chemist to make sure that our science and whatever is right. And this is exactly the same except it's dealing with sociology, and if you've got a good person helping you to get a better result out of the end, which is good for the author, good for the publisher and good for the reader, and therefore it's absolutely worth doing.
So, with that, thank you ever so much everybody for being with us on this panel, and thank you everybody as well who's joined us on the live feed for comments whatever and just being there to listen.
Thank you, and good night.
Yvonne: Thank you!
Mike: Yes, thank you.
Special thanks to Amy Brennan for drafting this transcript with https://otter.ai, and to C for proofreading. Final responsibility for the text lies with Adri Joy- for any corrections or comments, please get in touch via Twitter.