Alberto Gullaba Jr. is a first-generation college grad from a working-class background, who was set to publish his debut novel when his publisher made an eleventh-hour discovery that could have only happened in the age of remote work: Though the book featured a black protagonist, Gullaba himself is Filipino.
"And the agent said, wait a minute, we thought you were black," recounts novelist and culture writer Kat Rosenfield. "And everything fell apart from there." After this discovery, not only was Gullaba asked to make changes, but the agent also hired a black "sensitivity reader" to give the book a careful read.* Though authors rarely talk about this process publicly, sensitivity reading is a growing phenomenon among publishers and writers fearful of social media mobs.
Rosenfield has firsthand experience with the process: She was once brought in to read the novel of a male author to verify that he had accurately portrayed the female experience.
"I had to imagine myself in the position of a much more sensitive, much more easily offended person, the kind of person who reads a book looking for something to get mad at," she says.
"It's sort of ironic that the idea behind sensitivity reading is that if you don't share certain identity characteristics with your characters, that it's morally wrong, essentially, to try to imagine their interior lives."
Rosenfield wrote about this phenomenon in "Sensitivity Readers Are the New Literary Gatekeepers," which appears in the August/September 2022 issue of Reason magazine.
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Written and narrated by Natalie Dowzicky; edited by Danielle Thompson; graphics edited by Regan Taylor.
*CORRECTION: The video incorrectly states that Alberto Gullaba Jr.'s publisher hired a sensitivity reader to give the book a careful read. It was his agent.