The problem of “sensitivity readers” in publishing

I managed to put a post together that I started before I found the sick duck, and writing this helped take my mind off its death. It may not be as fluent or coherent as usual, but so be it.

As you may recall, many publishers, especially those of young adult and children’s books, tend to use “sensitivity readers” to make sure that everything is culturally correct and positive. I have, for instance, recounted the story of Laura Moriarty, whose book American Heart was first given a starred review by Kirkus (important for sales to libraries and schools), but then the star was withdrawn because a vetter who was “an observant Muslim person of color” decided that the book was seen through a white protagonist “filter”, and projected a “white savior narrative.” Other people who hadn’t read the book also applied pressure to Kirkus.

[UPDATE: Ms. Moriarty has posted a comment below explaining the situation, which is even more bizarre than I describe above. Have a look!]

It doesn’t take a reviewing site to vet a book; books can be changed or even banned by social-media mobs, even before the book has appeared.

To avoid this, and to boost sales, publishers are employing readers who make sure books are ideologically correct, and project only positive images of minorities. This is discussed in the following Guardian article (click on screenshot).

Is there any value to such readers, given that their main job seems not to ensure that a group or culture is portrayed accurately, but rather that it’s portrayed positively? I can see only one bit of value in vetting, which I’ve bolded in the Guardian extract below.

While some sensitivity readers charge by the hour, fees start at about $250 (£180) a manuscript. Demand is clearly high: a search on Twitter finds dozens of authors over the last few days alone looking for the service. “I am in need of a black Muslim sensitivity reader ASAP,” says one writer. “I’m seeking Japanese and Japanese-American sensitivity readers,” says another.

Anna Hecker, whose young adult novel When the Beat Drops is published in May, says she first contacted sensitivity readers after two rounds of edits with her publisher. Her protagonist, Mira, is mixed-race – half Caucasian, half African-American – and Hecker is not.

She hired three sensitivity readers, who all gave feedback. Hecker did not describe race in her initial draft, something she was told was typical for white writers. As a person of colour, it was suggested that Mira would make note of white characters’ ethnicities, in the way a white character would make note of black or Latino characters. One reader queried how Mira’s white mother learned how to braid her daughter’s mixed-race hair. Another encouraged Hecker to be more creative with descriptions, saying her initial description of “light brown skin, a wide nose, and kinky dark hair” was both cliched and boring – feedback Hecker described as “fair”.

But beyond the fact that if you describe ethnicity of some characters, you should do it for others, I don’t see the point of changing words to avoid offending people. That ultimately puts all books on the same bland level, even if the words used do offend some. It is the job of an editor to edit the book, not ideologues who want all cultures portrayed positively. The fact is that some aspects of some cultures are offensive (what about the mass slaughter of prisoners by Aztecs, or the treatment of Native Americans by U.S. settlers), and of course many people in every culture are not wonderful folks.  Ultimately, the use of “sensitivity readers” produces a bland, homogeneous, and inoffensive literature in which “everyone shall have prizes” and nobody gets offended. But if literature loses the power to offend, it loses its rationale. For offense leads to thought and discussion, and many books considered “offensive” have turned out to be classics of world literature.

So, for example, I have no problem with someone republishing “Mein Kampf” or, for that matter, “Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”—books that many schools have tried to ban. None of these would pass a sensitivity reader, and even if “Mein Kampf” isn’t suitable for young adults or children, the other two books are. Imagine how many great works of literature would be purified into valuelessness by “sensitivity readers”!

This page gives a list of books that have been banned or challenged, and it includes even great works by black writers—books like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Even “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” was challenged because its topic, the extermination of Native Americans by whites, was “controversial.” Make no mistake: “sensitivity readers” don’t just want to purge negativity about anyone in a minority group, but also want to purge controversy per se. “Sensitivity readers” are Pecksniffs, censors, and thought police.

So let us have good editors, for all authors need a good editor, but let us also forget about “sensitivity readers,” whose very job is to turn literature into pablum.

I brought up this topic with a friend who reads a lot, and was happy to see that zhe agreed with me:

As you know, I’m a complete Stalinist for free expression – I take no prisoners, people can say what they damn please; the point is to inoculate the weaklings so they’re not wounded by others’ words, not wrap them in cotton wool and pad all the corners of the world. The point isn’t to publish defensively (make sure you offend no one) and you have to rely on your own smarts to avoid the oafish. If there had been sensitivity monitors, we’d probably not have any books by Hemingway, Mailer, Trollope, Shaw, Austen (all those terrible things she says about clerics), Atwood, Twain, or Shakespeare.

h/t: BJ

77 Comments

  1. mikeyc
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    “Stalinist for free expression”. I like it.

  2. ladyatheist
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    “Ultimately, the use of “sensitivity readers” produces a bland, homogeneous, and inoffensive literature in which “everyone shall have prizes” and nobody gets offended”

    If publishers are trying to reach target markets, having members of those markets preview the books seems like a good idea, especially for kids’ books. I don’t see how that could result in homogeneous books, rather the opposite – books that portray diversity in ways that the “diverse” market would want.

    • mikeyc
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Ok, so what would you have done to, say, “Beloved” to make it acceptable?

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        That’s not a children’s book.

        • mikeyc
          Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          So you would only do this for children’s books? What about the case cited – Laura Moriarty- since she wrote for young adults, do you approve of what befell her?

        • Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

          I read beloved in 7th or 8th grade. I was a child then. I’m very glad i read it, and equally glad it hadn’t been steam cleaned.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Sensitivity readers aren’t the target market.

      A very, very small minority of readers read books with the intention of finding something to be offended by.

      • Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        In cattle work, it is always the nervou ones who start the stampede.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Does it mean though that all the baddies have to be white men, or at least white? I don’t like that idea either. People are the same whatever their race, religion, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, sexual identity etc.: there is a spectrum of behaviour from really nice to really nasty, and no one is all good or all bad. People are complicated.

      There’s a place for sensitivity readers, but to me they should know their place. They’re there to help, not to re-write the characters.

      • Craw
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Any sensitive sensitivity reader would be rendered insensible by “they should know their place”.

        I’m not sure if I am joking here or not. The phrase might even be a micro aggression.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        In “The Color Purple” there are no white people at all.

        I’m not sure about all people being the same. There’s the human condition, and there’s what your social group does to or for you. Every novel portrays people who belong or defy a social group. A black woman majoring in physics in 1960s would have a different college experience than a white man majoring in physics in the 1910s or 2010s.

      • Posted May 23, 2018 at 5:06 am | Permalink

        Dont be absurd. Its well known that Baddies have to be English, or possibly German. It is also acceptable to be a hybrid of both as exemplified by Alan Rickman in Die Hard

        • John Ottaway
          Posted May 23, 2018 at 7:00 am | Permalink

          Surely they should have just cast a German actor rather than have Rickman, “culturally appropriate” the accent?

          I’ve also heard that Bruce Wills isn’t even a real police officer…

        • rickflick
          Posted May 23, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink

          Stereotypes seem to be a common plot device. All authors use them to some extent, it seems. Sometimes the use of stereotypes is just a cheap trick. “What ethnicity can we use for the bad guy?” Other times it’s justifiable. It’s hard to tell which so I don’t see how you could give an author advice let alone police them.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 23, 2018 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

          Hans Gruber is the best, especially because he has a Classical education.

    • KD33
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I think the issue is contained in your last sentence: “I don’t see how that could result in homogeneous books, rather the opposite – books that portray diversity in ways that the “diverse” market would want.” If the goal is to produce books that generate maximum sales in a target market, then sure, subject them to “sensitivity” reviewers and revise them accordingly. But this will in fact make them more homogeneous since you are containing the result within to the intersection of the non-offensible tastes of people within a demographic.
      But is this what you want in literature?? Great writers are artists, and some of their work will, and should, cause discomfort among some or all, no matter what their demographic. As Heather Hastie notes below, there are good/bad/other people of every race, gender, nationality, or creed. They all need to appear in good literature, no matter who writes it or whether someone may be made uncomfortable by it.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

        This is a quality issue, but opposite from what you think. Would Gatsby speak with a twang?

        It’s not about eliminating people from books based on whatever. It’s about authenticity.

        Not every book will be considered great literature. Most books are rather mediocre, and inauthentic portrayals of characters and milieus makes them worse.

        Would you want to read a book that puts every white person in L.L. Bean clothes, has a trust fund, and drives a Mercedes?

        • BJ
          Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

          What does “authentic” mean? Which sensitivity reader is right about what is an “authentic” protrayal of something or someone? As seen even in the few examples given in the article, multiple people from the pool from which sensitivity readers are taken disagree on what is and isn’t OK. So how, exactly, are you going to figure any of this out?

        • Taz
          Posted May 22, 2018 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

          I disagree that it’s about authenticity. I think Dr. Coyne put it very well:

          their main job seems not to ensure that a group or culture is portrayed accurately, but rather that it’s portrayed positively

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I think I said something like this before, but I think there’s a profound problem between books (etc.) and readers, and that problem has something to do with viewing a book as something like a recipe or set of instructions to illustrate something like proper behavior…. in other words, like micro bibles.

    Instead of books having a more important role in life as a means to reflect, to challenge, or otherwise stimulate the intellect – including moral stuff and behavior.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      The difference between an author and a hack is that an author is driven to express themselves and a hack just tells people what they want to hear.

      There are many great authors. There aren’t any great hacks.

    • mikeyc
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Well put.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      What readers look at novels that way? Most read just for entertainment.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        It seems evident if you look at what franchises are taken up by schools, towns, libraries.

        And it is fact that there are books read like instruction manuals for life – like the Koran, the Hadith, the Bible, etc.

        It also seems evident that there would be overlap between secular and non secular readerships in any community.

        The comment system is so slow – iPhone, chrome. I have to stop. Takes forever to backspace

        • KiwiInOz
          Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

          Didn’t Jefferson do a sensitivity edit on the Bible?

          • Mikeyc
            Posted May 22, 2018 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

            Hah! Good point!

    • Posted May 24, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I think it was Pascal Boyer who pointed out that religions who have scripture tend to be much more dogmatic than ones which are non-literate. Similarly, Plato in the Philebus seems to complain that a danger of writing is that one cannot interrogate (Socratically question) the author – yet it is useful to write all the same.

      The question would then be: why does externalizing our thoughts like we do here have that effect?

  4. Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Triggered!

  5. Craw
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Should a Japanese author, writing in Japanese, publishing in Japan, who is writing a historical novel about the arrival of the first whites in Japan really spend time and words on the ethnicity of his Japanese characters?

    • Rasmo Carenna
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Exactly, that’s why I don’t even agree with the assertion that “if you describe ethnicity of some characters, you should do it for others”. It is a mater of context.If in some places 95% of the people belong to a given ethnicity I don’t see why the author should specify it for every single character. You assume the statistically “normal” or most frequent contextually. IMHO.

  6. phar84
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Publishers and authors hire sensitivity readers to try to boost their bottom line, so what’s wrong with that?

    If the model doesn’t work out, it would be in their interest to change.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      I’ve never heard of an author hiring a sensitivity reader. Do you have any examples?

      • mikeyc
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        ?

        An author was cited in the Guardian piece mentioned by Dr PCCE above….

        “Anna Hecker, whose young adult novel When the Beat Drops is published in May, says she first contacted sensitivity readers after two rounds of edits with her publisher.”

        • Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          So basically pushed into it by an editor?

          Not some writer thinking, you know what would make this book great? Checking it won’t trigger a hissy-fit.

          • phar84
            Posted May 22, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

            Some people we know double down when wrong.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I think that if the model spawns boring texts, we must make it sure it doesn’t work out.
      To be fair, it worked with Euripides’ Hippolytus, but that was a very different society.

    • BJ
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      Is it something they need to boost their bottom line because there are actually enough readers who care about this stuff to make a difference, or because self-appointed activists and busy-bodies (and the review sites and other places they influence and infect) will attempt to destroy their books if they don’t go down this road? Is it the buying public who they’re courting with these changes, or is it the people who are trying to act as censors?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        +1 there.

        To hell with ‘sensitivity’. I want to read what the author said.

        Obviously every author can use a good editor, to catch errors, suggest trimming passages that are boring, point out glaring inconsistencies, etc etc. But that should be the limit of it.

        (I am currently re-reading Damon Runyon’s Broadway stories, and a great read they are, at that. Number of pages that would pass a sensitivity reader? – oh, about zero.

        I wonder how Catch-22 would fare? )

        cr

  7. DrBrydon
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I think we’re coming to a real problem, where much of what is published, either in print or online, is being censored, in effect. Look at the stories about Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, and how they are imposing filters on content that the government could not otherwise force them to do, based on a private actor’s sense of what is right. Mark Zuckerberg told Congress he wants Facebook to be a force for good, but I don’t recall him defining good. He and other content providers are applying their standards for what’s acceptable. All things being equal, I would support that as part and parcel of free enterprise. (I remember when cities routinely had both a conservative and a liberal daily newspaper.) With the consolidation of the traditional publishing industry and the huge market share the biggest tech companies have, they represent an overwhelming presence that may be able to stiffle moderate dissent.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      “Good” for Mark Zuckerberg appears to be “what is good for Mark Zuckerberg”, or, more broadly “what is good for Facebook” – though it’s a little difficult to separate the second from the first.

    • Craw
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      The case for anti-trust.
      These corporations have in some cases a larger share than Standard Oil had.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Last night I was watching some monologue by Bill Maher in which he talked about the “hemophilia” of the current Left.
    (That’s the disease where you bleed to death from even a small wound due to the inability of your blood to clot.)

    A good analogy.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, excellent analogy.

    • TJR
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      We need a new Rasputin to cure it!

  9. Posted May 22, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Good writing = sustainable growth
    Sensitivity readers = sterility

  10. rom
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    zhe?
    Perhaps we will see a resurgence in gender sensitive nouns as well?

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 12:42 am | Permalink

      I was wondering if that was a typo, a joke, or deference to an request made by the subject. Whatever, an apt post for it to appear in. 😉

      • rom
        Posted May 23, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        Well esses and zeds are next to each other on the key board.

        But my point remains if we have gender sensitive pronouns, why not nouns?

        • Diane Garlick
          Posted May 24, 2018 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          That blew right by me. Thanks for pointing it out. Yes, by all means, lets get as gender sensitive as possible! /s

  11. Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    One of the obvious problems with sensitivity readers is the assumption that what will pass today will still pass tomorrow (Twain would obviously have got passed sensitivity readers of his time), and that what won’t pass today won’t find a receptive audience in the future.

    We are always discovering classics that were unable to get published during the writer’s lifetime because of content that would have been unacceptable at the time.

    • Harrison
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I would say “the assumption that what will pass today will still pass tomorrow” is at the heart of regressivism and every other puritanical cultural movement. They think they’re the first people in the history of the world who have got it right on every issue. The thought that future generations will consider anything they said or did or thought insufficiently “woke” by their standards is unthinkable.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      … and there are thousands or maybe millions of old books that got published which are painful to read because of their racism or sexism. For every Mark Twain book that survives despite frequent use of the word “nigger” there are a jillion that will never be read by casual readers in the present or future.

    • Posted May 23, 2018 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Belatedly reading what I missed yesterday.

      Some writers (such as Borges) withdrew books written earlier that they no longer thought worthy of publication and distribution. Some writers’ families served as “sensitivity editors” by prevention the publication of certain works (Mark Twain’s family did this, for example.)

      I do not feel the need to have “sensitivity readers” vet a book before I read it as I prefer the pipeline from author to reader to be more direct. I don’t want anyone to interpret before I read something, or bowdlerize it.

      I have a kept the list of banned books with the intent (hopefully) of reading them all. I’ve read quite a few, but not all yet. I should live so long!

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    By the way

    Bill Maher has a great editorial on how there is old literature, music, etc. that does not stand the test of time, and … well, you’ll have to peruse the YouTube selections at this point ..,

  13. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    There was a recent discussion on NPR about a very important Latino author (sorry, I forget the name) who recently got into trouble because of multiple allegations that he had a history of mis-treating women. As a reaction college instructors who taught liturature and culture from the Latino perspective and had used his books for years were suddenly rather adrift because obviously now they could not use his material at all.
    I was rather mystified. His work, apparently, was regarded as a rare and insightful voice in that world. But suddenly it was completely unacceptable.
    I don’t really understand it.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      Junot Diaz. He won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Hell, I doubt any of the great bildungsromane since the days of Tristam Shandy and Tom Jones and Candide on could’ve survived a pass by sensitivity readers.

    • BJ
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      *Tristram

      Sorry, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to correct the great K.K. on a question of literature 🙂

      Even if it was likely just a typo…

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        Attaboy, BJ; keep me honest! 🙂

  15. Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate the stand against what’s happening in publishing and censorship right now, and the mention of what happened with my own novel. However, I should clear up a misunderstanding, as the truth, in my opinion, is even weirder that what is reported above. It was, in fact, a Muslim woman of color who first gave my novel American Heart a starred review, and it was only under pressure from the Kirkus editors, who were under pressure from a group made up almost entirely of people who had not read the book (and almost entirely of people who not Muslim), that she changed the review, allowing Kirkus to take back the star. Given that the editor of Kirkus admitted that the decision was made to change the review before they even talked to the reviewer, it would be an error to say she ‘decided’ much of anything. Here’s the statement from Kirkus before they altered the review. The twists in logic are acrobatic.

    (Also, before I sign off, I want to say I was sorry to read about the duck.)

    From Kirkus: It is a policy of Kirkus Reviews that books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers—writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts. Our assignment of the review of American Heart was no exception to this rule and was reviewed by an observant Muslim person of color (facts shared with her permission). Our reviewer is an expert in children’s & YA literature and well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives. She found that American Heart offers a useful warning about the direction we’re headed in as far as racial enmity is concerned.

    The issue of diversity in children’s and teen literature is of paramount importance to Kirkus, and we appreciate the power language wields in discussion of the problems. As a result, we’ve removed the starred review from kirkus.com after determining that, while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve. The editors are evaluating the review and will make a determination about correction or retraction after careful consideration in collaboration with the reviewer.

    At Kirkus Reviews, we will continue to evaluate editorial solutions for better reflecting the expertise of our reviewers and their uniform appreciation for responsible portrayals of marginalized groups. We appreciate the discussion of these issues and celebrate the free exchange of opinions and ideas.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      If I read that aright, Kirkus censored *their own reviewer* because she didn’t say what they expected her to say?

      Un-fricken-believable!

      “while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve.” – and this was a Muslim woman of color.

      Words fail me. Printable ones, at least.

      cr

      • Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        I would say that is almost right. Kirkus censored their own ‘own voices’ reviewer after a mob of people (99% hadn’t read the book) protested online that her positive review upheld white supremacy. They were hoping to appease the mob.

        Believe me, I was gobsmacked as well.

  16. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Then what is the point of art and writing at all? If someone remakes it to suit them, it loses its whole point. I say ban all art if it’s so offensive. Let’s live in a beige world.

    • Christopher
      Posted May 22, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Ha! I should have read your post before making my own just below it. We are indeed heading into the Beige Ages.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 22, 2018 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

        Haha! There has to already be a dystopian novel or Dark Mirror Episode out there!

    • TJR
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      I find beige deeply offensive.

      • Christopher
        Posted May 23, 2018 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry. I shall rescind my culturally inappropriate suggestion of labeling our current era as the Beige Ages out of sensitivity to the lives experiences of dull people everywhere.

        How ‘bout we settle on Milquetoast Millennium instead? 🧐

  17. notsecurelyanchored
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    What West Hunter said. That is, assign more Flashman.

  18. Christopher
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    We survived the Dark Ages, I imagine we can survive this Beige Age as well…

  19. ladyatheist
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Just an FYI… I have read a LOT of children’s and young adult literature for a previous job.

    I have also read the article, and I think a lot of comments here are of the straw man variety.

    First, Harlequin is the publisher of cheesy romance novels. All this talk of art and classics and Shakespeare just doesn’t apply. This is mass-market material, and trying to appeal to the masses without turning some off is just good business. I applaud them for raising the quality of their novels by eliminating stereotypes. Stereotypes per se are a mark of a lazy writer.

    Second, the sensitivity readers don’t have veto power, so this is not an issue of censorship or homogenizing.

    Third, publishers have no obligation to the future of literature to ensure that their authors’ implicit biases are reflected in their writing. The internet outrage machine doesn’t care if a publisher asks someone knowledgeable in ship-building whether the ship-building subplot in a book makes sense. If someone who is not a ship-builder writes a ship-building story, it’s logical to think they may get a few things wrong. Likewise, if a white middle-class person wants to portray a character living on a reservation in Oklahoma, they may well get some things wrong. If they’re trying to reach out to people who would spot that, it seems like a good idea to check in with them.

    Fourth, literature that uses outdated stereotypes is still to be found, and if the writer can’t find a publisher, there are many self-publishing outlets. All this handwringing about the arts being under attack is really beneath the readers of this site. Some of the comments here read like Fox News’s “War on Christmas.”

    Publishers know their audiences, and considering all the dead authors cited here, youse guyse ain’t it.

    As a white, middle-class woman, if I wanted to write a book featuring characters out of my personal sphere of experiences, I would certainly value the input of people who did come from those other subcultures. The first rule of writing is to write about something you know. A person who is humble enough to know what they don’t know is likely to produce a pretty good book if they do their homework.

    • Christopher
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      I think you may have missed the point. Did you read the author Laura Moriarty’s post above? It’s not about writing “what you know”, it’s about who is allowed to write what they know.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted May 23, 2018 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        Everybody is allowed to write anything. If a publisher disapproves of something you write, they have the option of rejecting your book. You have the option of finding another publisher or self-publishing.

        • Posted May 24, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Christopher asked you specifically about my case, so I’m not following what you’re saying here. My case had nothing to do with a publisher disapproving of what I wrote. My case was that Kirkus allowed the opinions of a group ostensibly committed to ‘own voices’ to censor the words of a reviewer who read my book and liked my book (and who happened to be Muslim). So her words, her opinions, were censored. That her words were censored by a group of people allegedly committed to hearing from ‘own voices’ is of course ironic.

          I was never in any need of another publisher. I had a publisher from the start. But generally speaking, to suggest that censored authors (I am not one) simply find another publisher or look to self-publishing sounds a lot like telling an NFL player forbidden to kneel that he has all his rights, as he can just find another league or start his own. It ignores the reality of the situation; it makes a disingenuous defense of corporate silencing.
          And are you saying that the Muslim reviewer for my book should have just “self-published” her original review of my book after Kirkus decided it wasn’t sensitive enough and yanked her review after it was already published online? I guess she could self-published it, on Amazon or Goodreads, but the Kirkus name is what gives those reviews their weight and reach, as Kirkus is supposed to hire (and respect) careful, neutral readers who can honestly review a book. Not everyone has to agree with them, and people are free to write opposing reviews, but this was the first time (that we know of) a reviewer’s words were altered because of pressure from a crowd. I add “that we know of” because Kirkus editor-in-chief Claiborne Smith went on record as saying that in the future, he will have more ‘pairs of eyes’ on reviews before they’re published. That means that Kirkus will continue to politically edit reviews whether they were written by ‘own voices’ reviewers or not. The difference is that now the general publish won’t know when a review has been altered to appease this group-we’ll never see the original review.

          And having gone back and forth with sensitivity readers myself, I can say that in my experience at least, the process had little to do with authenticity, and everything to do with what Dr. Coyne wrote: only portraying a certain group in a positive light, to the point that there could be no nuance, no narrative irony, and very little room for individual characterization (as every human individual is flawed). Before I sold my novel to the publisher, I asked Muslim friends, Iranian-American friends, and a Muslim woman I didn’t know to read drafts to let me know if the Muslim character seemed authentic to them. They all felt that she did, and my conversations with each reader led me to add details to her character. But the publisher-hired sensitivity readers, once they got a hold of it, found the book offensive–not misinformed, just offensive, while the Muslim readers who read drafts who weren’t sensitivity readers were not offended at all. (And after publication, the director of a local group for Muslim-American advocacy read it and liked it enough he asked me to sign a copy for his mom, which does lend weight to the idea that perhaps sensitivity readers have a vested interest in or predilection to being *very* sensitive, more sensitive that many people of the group they allegedly represent). So I’m glad that I was able to reject the advice of the sensitivity readers for my book, who, in my opinion, would have gutted it. My publisher, anxious as they were, gave me that freedom as a writer. But given what happened to the Kirkus reviewer after publication, I don’t know that future authors will have that freedom, and that worries me.

  20. SusanD
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    Well I think it’s all a bunch of c**p. When will all this PC garbage stop? And is it just the US where this happens? Does it happen in the UK, Australia or Europe? Anyone know?

  21. abram
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    I must take exception to the notion that all writers need editors; not only do I not need one, the very idea is impossible.

    NB: I write palindromes, and one in particular.

  22. Posted July 8, 2018 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Sensitivity readers strike me as one of the worst things to happen to the literary world. First off, I believe in common courtesy and kindness, but I hate how they have taken this virtue and turned it into an extreme. Say one writes about a group of people, whether they be a religious group, a political group, a different race, a different ethnicity, and so on and so forth. How does one know that this one sensitive reader from this group of people they are writing about speaks for everyone in their group? It’s presumptions to say that everyone from a group of people say and think the same things. To elucidate, I watched a youtube video from an African-American that said whites couldn’t have dreads. I was perplexed, so I watched other videos. I learned quickly enough that there were many African-Americans on Youtube who didn’t have any problems with whites having dreads. I took it further. I very politely asked African-Americans in person if it was okay for whites to have dreads. A few said it wasn’t okay, but most said it was absolutely acceptable and not a problem. Now take that experience about hairstyles I used and apply it to sensitivity readers. Just like there are different opinions in this group of people about who can and can’t have dreads, aren’t different sensitivity readers from the varying groups of people they represent going to have different opinions about what’s offensive to write about and what’s not offensive to write about for their group? To say that everyone in a group of people thinks and feels the same way is very condescending and overly simplistic. I am sure that you could write about a certain group of people and give it to numerous readers from said group, only to receive so many different opinions and feedback. One person from the same group may have a problem with everything you wrote, another from the same group may not have any problems at all with what you wrote.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is very distasteful writing out there. I can’t stand racism. I can’t stand sexism. I can’t stand hatred towards different groups of people. But there is a fine line in fighting against inequality vs. hiring a reader who is looking for offense. To look for offense is a recipe for disaster.


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