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'Sensitivity readers': when progressive fiction writers invite censorship

Are you a fiction writer who fears that your work may not be politically correct? Well, consult a “sensitivity reader” to find out. From Slate:

And so before her manuscript went to print, she reached out to a group of “sensitivity readers.” These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create “outside of [their] experiences.” In April of last year, Ireland built a public database where freelance sensitivity readers can list their name, contact information, and “expertise.” These areas of special knowledge are generally rooted in identity (“queer woman,” “bisexual mixed race,” “East Asian, “Muslim”) as well as in personal histories of mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.

As a push for diversity in fiction reshapes the publishing landscape, the emergence of sensitivity readers seems almost inevitable. A flowering sense of social conscience, not to mention a strong market incentive, is elevating stories that richly reflect the variety of human experience. America—specifically young America—is currently more diverse than ever. As writers attempt to reflect these realities in their fiction, they often must step outside of their intimate knowledge. And in a cultural climate newly attuned to the complexities of representation, many authors face anxiety at the prospect of backlash, especially when social media leaves both book sales and literary reputations more vulnerable than ever to criticism. Enter the sensitivity reader: one more line of defense against writers’ tone-deaf, unthinking mistakes.

Well, what’s a “tone-deaf, unthinking mistake”? Is something that offends a Marginalized™ censor a “mistake”? That’s an extraordinary amount of power to give to someone over the creation of your art. More:

Even these readers acknowledge the risks of overpolicing artists if the practice were to be taken to the extreme. “Of course that’s a danger,” Roderick said. “Art is a mode of free expression, and if you put constraints on it, it can become stilted and contrived.” The hassle and potential discomfort of soliciting such feedback could theoretically have a chilling effect on writers working up the courage to venture outside themselves. “If authors are frightened of offending members of a diverse group, and having to deal with the horrible outrage that can ensue in those situations,” she said, “then they’re definitely going to shy away from writing diverse characters.”

Ya think? I’m old enough to remember a time when secularists made fun of Evangelicals for producing art that was bad because it featured arguments masquerading as characters, and narratives constrained by religious ideology. And now look.

Read the whole thing. 

I don’t think this is entirely wrong-headed. For example, I shared drafts of The Benedict Option with Evangelical readers because I wanted to gauge their reactions to the claims and propositions I was making in the book. In some cases, they made me rethink my position, and in others, their commentary helped me rewrite a passage to make my meaning more clear to Evangelical readers. This was tremendously helpful.

But I did not seek their counsel to avoid offending Evangelicals. Some of the material in the book will challenge them, and some will not agree with it. But it’s not offensive, or at least I intend no offense at all. I wanted Evangelicals to read it not so much for “sensitivity,” but for accuracy (about their own beliefs) and to help me understand if I was making my arguments in ways that made sense to Evangelicals.

I wonder if the “sensitivity readers” of these novels are able to tolerate a character or plot point that is anything but laudatory or otherwise positive about their particular demographic group. It’s hard to imagine a work of fiction getting better for its author having submitted it to the Politically Correct Review Board before sending it to its publisher — or the publisher doing so before going to print.

A “sensitivity reader” would be useful if he judged a work of fiction by whether or not it was realistic in its presentation of certain characters or scenarios. He might hate the fact that the villain of a particular novel is black/gay/disabled/whatever, but if the author has created a credible character and a credible setting, then he should have no objection.

UPDATE: Reader Kansan comments:

This post brings to mind a passage from the Dark Mountain Manifesto, which I got around to reading after Rod’s post on Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Ecology a few weeks ago:

“Yet as the myth of civilisation deepened its grip on our thinking, borrowing the guise of science and reason, we began to deny the role of stories, to dismiss their power as something primitive, childish, outgrown. The old tales by which generations had made sense of life’s subtleties and strangenesses were bowdlerised and packed off to the nursery. Religion, that bag of myths and mysteries, birthplace of the theatre, was straightened out into a framework of universal laws and moral account-keeping. The dream visions of the Middle Ages became the nonsense stories of Victorian childhood. In the age of the novel, stories were no longer the way to approach the deep truths of the world, so much as a way to pass time on a train journey.”

I think you’d want a sensitivity check if you were aiming to sell books that pass time on a train journey more than if you were trying to approach the deep truths of the world.