Sunday, May 5, 2019


From Craig DeLancey's 5-5-19 Quillette article entitled "Policing the Creative Imagination," which analyzes the growing trend of book publishers employing "sensitivity readers":

While it is true that employing a sensitivity reader does not amount to censorship in the strictest sense, this claim is also irrelevant. Writers understand that they are individuals entering into a contractual arrangement with a private business, and that publishers are not censoring when they make editorial decisions prior to publication. Nevertheless, writers are now routinely required to clear an extra hurdle if they wish to see their books in print, and doing so can directly impact their aesthetic choices, even though a sensitivity reader is unlikely to be a professional writer. Serious authors spend decades honing their craft, and can spend years on a book. They will be understandably nervous about an amateur evaluating their work with a red pen and recommending political changes that flatten nuance and character complexity and have nothing to do with creative intention or coherence. For the same reason, screenwriters typically loathe “notes” from executives who are not writers.

Are sensitivity readings always voluntary? We do not have reliable information about how often, and under what circumstances, sensitivity readers are employed. In some cases, they are hired by writers who want to vet their book (or who want to be able to say they vetted their book) before self-publishing or submitting the manuscript to an agent or editor. Some of the authors I spoke to employ a sensitivity reader on their own initiative, believing that it might help them escape accusations of insensitivity. Some editors, and perhaps some agents, recommend using a sensitivity reader, especially in Young Adult, middle grade, and genre fiction. If an editor makes such a request, agreement is voluntary only in the narrow sense that a person is not forced to obey their office boss because they have the freedom to quit. In such a situation, most writers feel compelled to follow the advice of an editor lest their publication deal disappear. For the same reason, writers will understand that they are expected to follow at least some of the advice offered by the sensitivity reader, whatever its merits.

But sometimes the use of sensitivity readers is explicitly mandatory. One writer I interviewed (who asked not to be identified) currently has a manuscript in the hands of a sensitivity reader tasked with checking that a secondary character—a heroic Native American scientist—has been portrayed in a sufficiently sympathetic light. The contract the author signed with the publisher stipulated that both publication and payment would be contingent upon approval by a sensitivity reader. In the event of a mob denunciation, the publisher explained, they could at least counter that the book had been vetted by a Native American. The reader has apparently been slow, which has delayed publication for months. The novel’s author, meanwhile, is established, widely respected, and the recipient of multiple prestigious awards. If a sensitivity reading can be imposed on this writer, it can be imposed on anyone.

Should we care if the use of sensitivity readers becomes widespread and mandatory? Some art forms are, after all, created by committee—writing for television, for instance, is almost always a group effort. But the novel is a form better suited to the expression of a single creator’s unique vision. Sensitivity readers are an affront to that autonomy. The novelist who understands that the representation of diverse characters could sabotage a book deal might reconsider whether it is worth writing about such people at all. The very existence of sensitivity readers may lead them to shy away from writing such characters, since so many in the industry believe they can’t do it. If sensitivity readers become a publishing institution, they will only incentivize more cautious, conservative, and ideologically homogenous books, as authors seek to avoid controversy, costs, and loss of control that will arise from more daring and morally ambivalent fiction.

But it is the claim that sensitivity readers are merely fact checkers that is most troubling. Defenders of sensitivity readers often claim that hiring someone to evaluate the permissibility of a novel’s character is analogous to hiring a scientist to check scientific claims or a historian to check historical events. But this is simply a category error, which disappears the vital distinction between fact and value—what is and what ought to be. There is a fundamental difference between telling an author that Miami is not the capital of Florida, and opining that the portrayal of this-or-that character is morally objectionable.

To read DeLancey's entire article, click HERE.

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