Why a Quebec author’s use of a ‘sensitivity reader’ is making international waves

Quebec author Kevin Lambert wanted to avoid stereotypes and not write anything “stupid” when he enlisted what is known as a sensitivity reader to review the manuscript of his latest novel.

But since his Que notre joie demeure was nominated this month for a prestigious French literary prize, Lambert has found himself at the centre of a debate in France, where the practice of hiring someone to screen for offensive content is unfamiliar.

Toronto-based editor Ronan Sadler said sensitivity reading is a process in which a consultant examines a book’s representations of characters with marginalized identities, such as visible minorities, before publication.

Sensitivity readers, Sadler explained in an interview, try to identify shortfalls of characterization that may not have been apparent to an author who does not share those identities.

Lambert, who consulted a sensitivity reader to scrutinize his depiction of a character of Haitian descent, was open about the practice in a statement this month on social media.

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“Even though I also do research on stereotypes linked to minority characters in fiction, I don’t have a compass in my eye, and I can always be wrong,” Lambert said in a Sept. 4 statement posted to the Instagram page of his French publisher, Le Nouvel Attila. The reader, Lambert said, “made sure that I didn’t say too many stupid things, that I didn’t fall into certain traps in the representation of Black people by white authors.”

He added: “Sensitive reading, contrary to what reactionaries say, is not censorship.”

The avowal led to controversy in France after Que notre joie demeure was named to the long list of nominees for the Prix Goncourt on Sept. 5. (This week it also made the long list for another French literary award, the Prix Médicis.)

The debate sprang from a critical Instagram post by 2018 Prix Goncourt winner Nicolas Mathieu, who wrote he was wary of the influence of “professionals of sensitivities, experts of stereotypes, specialists of what is accepted” over writers’ work.

“To brag about it is amusing at best, pitiful at worst,” Mathieu continued. “Writers, we owe it to ourselves to work, and to take our chances, without tutelage or police.”

In a subsequent Instagram post, Mathieu said he’s “not hostile” to sensitivity reading but rather to “those who advocate their use, who tend to regard anyone who doesn’t subscribe to them as a bastard-in-the-making who deliberately participates in unacceptable iniquities.”

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Lambert did not respond to an interview request from The Canadian Press. The sensitivity reader who worked on his nominated novel, writer and Queen’s University French literature professor Chloé Savoie-Bernard, declined to comment for this story.

But Sadler, who freelances as a sensitivity reader, takes issue with the characterization of the role as a creativity police.

“At its most basic, sensitivity reading is about not wanting to say anything offensive. But I think that is sort of an undersell of the process,” said Sadler. “What it actually is about is helping an author understand what they’re trying to say and help them say it better, like any editorial process.”

Sadler rejects the notion that sensitivity readers — many of whom work as freelancers on limited-term contracts — can overrule authors. “The idea that sensitivity readers are exercising some sort of nefarious control over people’s creative output is just not true,” Sadler said without addressing Mathieu’s comment directly.

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Travis Croken, co-chair of the Canadian Authors Association, sees sensitivity readers as a resource that can strengthen writers’ art, not undermine it.

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“If I’m writing a book about … open heart surgery, from a surgeon’s perspective — I’m not a surgeon, I’ve never done open heart surgery — so I will talk to surgeons and get their opinion,” Croken said in an interview.

“So if I’m talking about life from the perspective of a trans youth, or I’m talking about life from a perspective of another culture that I’m not a part of and I’m not familiar with, why would I not talk to an expert in that culture? It isn’t stifling creativity, it’s doing your due diligence.”

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Both Sadler and Croken say they have seen an increase in demand for sensitivity readers among authors and publishers in Canada in recent years amid what Sadler called “a greater push for understanding the ways that cultural representations of marginalized people affect marginalized people.”

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But sensitivity reading has yet to catch on as a dedicated procedure in French publishing houses, according to Julien Bisson, literary journalist and editor-in-chief of Paris-based magazine Le 1.

Though sensitivity reading has stoked debate in France, the fundamental concept is not that alien, Bisson said, since editors already work to “ensure writers don’t write just anything” and authors regularly seek the advice of experts in subjects with which they’re not familiar.

Bisson doesn’t think the debate surrounding Lambert’s novel will affect his chances of becoming a Goncourt finalist or of winning the coveted prize on Nov. 7.

But he does believe a win for Lambert could further the conversation about sensitivity reading in France.

“It’s certain,” he said, “if ever Kevin Lambert were to claim the Goncourt, it could generate a greater reflection on this question.”

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