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Reading manuscripts for sense and sensitivity

Sensitivity editors read a work to spot biases in representation, but Indian publishing is divided on their need

‘The Reading Room’ (1843) by Johann Peter Hasenclever
‘The Reading Room’ (1843) by Johann Peter Hasenclever (Courtesy Artvee)

In September last year, when journalist Radhika Iyengar’s book Fire On The Ganges was published, she took to social media to acknowledge those who helped shape her work. Among the three editors she thanked in the post was Shalin Maria Lawrence, her sensitivity editor. Fire On The Ganges is about the lives of Doms, a sub-caste of Dalits who traditionally performed Hindu cremation rites in Varanasi. Despite her years of reporting, Iyengar says she sought a sensitivity editor, “another set of eyes to read her work”, since she was writing about a marginalised community.

In essence, a sensitivity editor—whose qualifications boil down to lived experience combined with domain knowledge—is requested to read a manuscript and suggest changes on problematic representations with regard to caste, class, race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. It’s usually a freelance gig, with the publisher engaging the editor on a case-by-case basis, and it is often unpaid in India, while remuneration is fixed abroad. 

A fellow journalist recommended Lawrence to Iyengar and the two spoke a few times before deciding they could work together since it is imperative that the “sensitivity editor understands the project and your intentions,” says Iyengar, who describes Lawrence as “a respected, powerful voice... an established author and a Dalit rights activist”, and ideal for the role. 

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Iyengar says she was “acutely cognisant” of her position of power relative to the community about which she was writing: “I am aware that no amount of research and storytelling can replace lived Dalit experiences but as a journalist, it’s my responsibility to tell their stories with sincerity and honesty,” she says.

At the heart of requesting sensitivity checks is the acknowledgement of vastly different lived experiences. An editor who steps in to do this will end up easing two insecurities: of misappropriation and of misrepresentation. 

The process, however, isn’t that simple. “The sensitivity reader is always someone marginalised and much less socially powerful than the author, volunteering to tell them truths that are unpleasant to hear,” New York-based writer and editor Mimi Mondal explains. “For the author, too, a sensitivity read can be an unpredictably painful experience. They may discover unpleasant things about themselves or have their world-view shattered in a way that goes much deeper than just one book.” Mondal works with publishing houses in the US as a sensitivity reader on Dalit, South Asian, queer and mental health subjects.

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Not everyone in Indian publishing, however, is entirely convinced. In the international context, the buzz around sensitivity editors has intensified due to controversies. In the UK, sensitivity checks were rejected when they were applied retroactively on classics such as works by Roald Dahl. In the US, there was a call for them after non-white characters were misrepresented in a few books. In India, some publishers seem to feel that bringing in a sensitivity editor is a redundant step in the editorial process, while others see it as a problematic intervention.

Many editors say that flagging issues in depiction or style is already part of the job, and having external experts weigh in isn’t new. While she agrees that checks from a sensitivity standpoint will benefit both writer and reader, Hemali Sodhi, founder of A Suitable Agency (also Iyengar’s agents) says that “editors have for ages been pointing out obsolete or politically problematic terminology.”

When Karthika V.K., editor and publisher at Westland Books, feels the need for a fresh eye, she reaches out to experts from academia, journalism, think-tanks or other professions based on the book being edited. Most such reads are not paid gigs, while a nominal payment is made in some cases. “Editors act as sensitivity editors in the first instance,” says Karthika. Being good at one’s job would mean “being alert to questions of the law, caste, gender, shifting vocabulary, and being able to identify people who can help you fix (any further issue),” she notes.

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A recent example from the Westland list is journalist-turned-academic Somnath Batabyal’s second novel, Red River, premised on growing up during militancy and unrest in Assam of the 1980s. Its early readers included writer and columnist Nilanjana Roy, author Jerry Pinto and the former director of Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, Sanjoy Hazarika.

While their praises appear on Red River’s cover, Batabyal recalls that Roy had stylistic suggestions and Hazarika pointed out one factual change in the depiction of a historical character. The writer is convinced of the strength of this process coupled with his own research ethic. “And look,” he says, “if between a writer, two or three editors and a few blurbists, we cannot spot something that is derogatory or misrepresentative, then something must be really wrong, no?”

In the West, the process is a lot more formalised, with some agents and editors reaching out to readers across the world, with fixed remunerations in place. Saranya Francis, poet and assistant professor of English Literature at St. Paul’s College in Bengaluru, does sensitivity reads of children’s books for a fee for Ohio-based agency Sun Literary. She met the editors of Sun Literary in early 2016 and by 2018, after conversations on inclusivity in literature, she was asked to help with sensitivity checks. 

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“We are living in a litigious society, so to have a sensitivity reader is to foolproof your publishing process,” argues Francis. She reads manuscripts “in response to a set questionnaire on “self-esteem, disability, race, misappropriation and misrepresentation,” she says, adding that she ensures a country’s official map is consulted for visual representations.

When working with writers who are already mindful of such sensitivities, Mondal says the job is “fun and ends up becoming a friendly cultural chat.” However, deeper problems crop up when writers and publishers are not adequately mindful of social dynamics that muddy the waters of a work and the relationship.

Just over a year ago, the Indian division of a global publishing giant approached Dalit writer and publisher Yogesh Maitreya to do a sensitivity read for an “Indian upper-caste author’s novel featuring a Dalit writer character”. When he sent them his observations, he was asked to spare more time to help out further. He quietly quit. “I am open to having a dialogue as an equal, a friend, but in this situation, this author was going to get paid for the book, whereas my time would not (be compensated),” he says. “It is not my job to educate someone about my life—it is their own responsibility to educate themselves,” he says. Having turned down more such requests since, he says he is deeply suspicious of the need for sensitivity editors.

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At the core of this trend, he says, is insecurity in dominant caste writers, whose stories aren’t cutting it ever since “the various Scheduled Caste people have begun writing in larger numbers”. Having a sensitivity editor from the community “is just another way for them to ask us to (nominally) participate and make it seem politically correct”. If a commissioning editor is pro-justice, won’t they get people to tell their own stories and truths, he asks.

The delicacy of this alignment is made more fragile by the fact that writing is only possible with having or earning the privilege of literacy, mental and physical ability, and time. Such privilege is not just luxury; it is power. “You cannot get away from the fact that it is power that writes,” observes Batabyal, also a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, UK, adding that this is true even of a Dalit person. “Sensitivity checks will not eliminate that.”

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