Do Publishers Really Need Sensitivity Readers?
There was a post not long ago about publishers using “sensitivity readers.” I wasn’t familiar with this title before, but it’s very real, and it drew a lot of angst and anger—and some rejoicing—from the social media writer’s sites.
One woman was all for it, saying sensitivity readers would help writers “learn to characterize different cultural groups properly.” When someone claimed it was just another form of censorship and asked the woman what she meant by “properly,” she exclaimed “It means stop writing crass, insensitive stuff about people you don’t understand.”
I’m all for preventing crass, insensitive writing. I mean, just the comments alone demonstrated more crass, insensitive writing than I cared to read. But I worry about anyone having the title of “sensitivity,” especially these days when it doesn’t take much to offend somebody — even using the word “properly.”
Here’s my problem with “sensitivity readers.” First of all, “insensitive language” could mean anything. Consider the University of New Hampshire’s Bias-Free Language Guide that lists “senior citizens” as an offensive term, preferring instead, “old person,” or “codger” if you’re being funny.
Secondly, it gives inordinate powers to someone with no specific training. After scouring the curriculums and degree courses at twenty universities and colleges, I found nothing even closely resembling “sensitivity training” (except a veterinary course on how to keep cows calm during artificial insemination, a good idea since I wouldn’t be calm if I got artificially inseminated).
Thirdly, like anything else, it’s terribly arbitrary and, at times, hypocritical. Take the case at Bowdoin College, where students were put on “social probation” for having a tequila party with sombreros. Ironically, the same night, a Cold War party was approved, where guests showed up wearing fur hats.
Maybe it was the hats that bothered the university. It still shows how silly things can get when student councils and administration decide to be sensitive.
As humans, we like to complain, and it seems we also like to show we’re easily offended. Human resource departments are now full of complaints — and not just sexual advances or corporate bullying. Today it’s about perceived intent, meaning someone thought they were being offended.
This is a big problem for human resources today since they don’t have “sensitivity” degrees, either, and half the time don’t have a clue what the complaining employee is talking about in the first place.
Since we’re now talking perceived intent as opposed to actual intent, we’re dealing with a broader landscape. Without real qualifications, and perception being so widely characterized, where do “sensitivity readers” draw the line?
I decided to ask a publisher, figuring I might as well hear it from the horse’s mouth (which will probably get me in trouble for calling the publisher a horse). “’Sensitivity readers’ would only be used if something concerns us legally or ethically,” the publisher said. I told him that covered a lot of ground. “Just stay away from stuff people find objectionable,” he said.
Boy, it sounds easy, doesn’t it? Only that isn’t how most of us write. There’s always one character who decides to shift his or her thinking, and suddenly you’ve got a Buddhist Democrat on your hands. That’s just begging to have a “sensitivity reader” breathing down your neck. Far better to keep politics out of the book altogether but, then again, what do you do with the Buddhist Democrat — and what does the “sensitivity reader” do with you?
The point is, some characters are characters because they don’t conform to unobjectionable rules. If Ignatius J. Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces wasn’t the deplorable individual he was, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest, most original characters in literature. Ignatius is entirely believable because he’s so unbelievable. That’s what makes literature unique. Same goes for Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley — even Gigi.
Keep in mind, when these books were first published, there was an uproar. In D.H. Lawrence’s case, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for years. The book survived because it ignored convention. That’s not to say Lawrence, Flaubert, or Colette were trying to upset societal norms. They simply did what every self-respecting writer does. They allowed the characters to be themselves. Unless you’re ready to teach Madame Bovary morality before the book even starts, you kinda have to accept she’s a bit of a Runaround Sue.
We can’t turn characters into puppets, we can’t censor who they are and what they do. Some characters — my own included — are simply flawed individuals. Removing those flaws is like putting Ignatius J. Reilly on a diet and giving him etiquette lessons. You simply don’t have the same character, and pretty soon you don’t have literature, either.
One writer in that social media discussion summed it up by saying “How can one person have the power to decide what’s okay and what isn’t?” That brought howls of indignation, with that first woman saying “If you read the article, you’ll notice the person is called a “sensitivity reader” not an “editor.”
How that makes a difference is beyond me. Whether you’re a “reader” or an “editor,” if the publisher is worried about ethical or legal concerns, the offending words or characters — or even the plot — is going to get seriously debated and likely changed. That’s where literature becomes pulp.
Admittedly, publishers have every reason to be worried these days, especially as more young readers are coming out of “sensitivity-enforced” universities. Will the day come when books are wrapped in plastic with the words “Some language and situations may be offensive to some readers”?
And will “man” one day be banned because it represents a domineering tradition made worse by the subjects eating food with their fingers?
Before my first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” was printed, the publisher worried about my main character being male (even though the heroes are female). He pointed out that 70 percent of book buyers are female, meaning male protagonists are risky unless they’re amazing husbands, self-proclaimed feminists, or so rich they use money for toilet paper.
It’s a tough game trying to please the marketplace these days. And let’s not forget how publishers complain about large overhead expenses. Add “sensitivity readers” to the staff, and you have more expense and even less going to the writers themselves. I’m surprised this never came up in any discussion, although one writer admitted he was broke.
According to another publisher, the idea of “sensitivity readers” is simply to “detect words and statements that may be offensive to some people.” I thought publishers had people who did this already — you know, editors.
Maybe I’m being overly sensitive here, but it seems to me we’re worrying over words. Words can’t hurt you, and they don’t go away. You ban some, others take their place. It’s a continuum that’s been playing out for centuries.
Some words are obviously better than others, just as some writers are better than others. We can censor and belittle words, but they win out in the end. Like one poetess said about Charles Bukowski: “The man’s a raving chauvinist, sexist and an alcoholic. But I can’t find a writer who writes more bravely.”
I think the operative word here is “bravely.” It sounds a lot better than “properly,” which is just someone telling us how to do things. Would you have read “Brave New World” if it was titled “Proper New World”?
It’s one thing to respect the needs and emotions of others, another to restrict creativity to the point where we bore ourselves to death. Maybe we all need to be a bit more brave and a little less concerned about sensitivities. Otherwise, we could end up with a lot of lousy book titles.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist, journalist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details. Coming soon (hopefully), a collection of short stories called “Would You Mind Not Talking to Me.”