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Publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’ to flag potentially offensive content

17 February 2017

From The Chicago Tribune:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

. . . .

Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.

Last year, for instance, J.K. Rowling was strongly criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in the 2016 story “History of Magic in North America.” Young-adult author Keira Drake was forced to revise her fantasy novel “The Continent” after an online uproar over its portrayal of people of color and Native backgrounds. More recently, author Veronica Roth – of “Divergent” fame – came under fire for her new novel, “Carve the Mark.” In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.

. . . .

Clayton, who is black, sees her role as a vital one. “Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they’re supposed to be escapist and fun,” she says. They’re not supposed to be a place where readers “encounter harmful versions” and stereotypes of people like them.

. . . .

“Even if authors mean well, even if the intention is good, it doesn’t change the impact,” Ireland said. “It’s nice to be that line of defense before it gets to readers, especially since the bulk of people who come to me write for children.” Fees for a sensitivity readers generally start at $250 per manuscript.

Link to the rest at The Chicago Tribune and thanks to Abel for the tip.

Big Publishing, Writing Advice

92 Comments to “Publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’ to flag potentially offensive content”

  1. I’m so old I remember when it was offensive, racist and otherizing for white authors to hesitate about writing non-white characters. “Just write us like anyone else”, they said, “we’re just normal people, you don’t need a special manual to understand us.”

    Ah but that was the halcyon days of just a little bit ago. I’m not going to worry about it though, because by the time I finish my current book, I predict it will again be racist to hire special editors just for black characters.

    • “I’m so old I remember when it was offensive, racist and otherizing for white authors to hesitate about writing non-white characters.”

      That was last year, wasn’t it? I remember discussion threads about it on writing forums not long ago. I also remember saying I avoided doing so because the S*** would attack me for it, and was told that was a silly idea, and would never happen.

      How much difference a few months makes, eh?

  2. VThey’re trying to be all things to all people.
    With SF I think that if you don’t at least annoy somebody you’re probably not doing it right. 😉

    I still rememver the critic who hated the original Foundation Trilogy because the “bad guys” won.

    The best SF brings dangerous thoughts.

  3. The criticism against Veronica Roth is frankly ridiculous.
    Here is an example Of what I mean although I will warn you that you might need some eye bleach once you are finished reading it.

    • Great article, and loved the comments.

      I also have constant, often debilitating pain. It never ends. No one believes it’s physical, therefore I need sleeping pills and antidepressants (without a psychological evaluation, mind you). I told that doctor he could keep the suicide kit, I could handle that on my own, thank you.

      What was that woman thinking, to make that a “gift”? Although, from what I read of her books, I shouldn’t be surprised. Ugh.

  4. The criticism against Veronica Roth is frankly ridiculous.
    Here is an example Of what I mean although I will warn you that you might need some eye bleach once you are finished reading it.

  5. I’m all for not intentionally offending people, but it’s so easy to go overboard. I fear political correctness will suck all the fun out of life

  6. I know a lot of people doing this mean well and are trying to do right by groups that have historically been treated badly by the majority culture. However, I can think of multiple instances, including with USAF and Jamie here in this comment section, where people have been told they just “don’t understand” or “obviously don’t know what they’re talking about” when they are speaking from their own experiences, simply because their opinion doesn’t fit with the “right” opinion. Where does it end if people who are part of an affected group are told they are thinking wrong?

    I don’t know what the solution is, if there even is one, but I don’t think hiring people to speak for a group is it, any more than crucifying someone for not getting it “right” based on the opinion flavor of the day is.

    • I follow a few people who are trans, black, ectect, and get called horrible, racist things because they don’t have the “right” opinion.

      • Yeah, and then when they defend themselves they are told that by expressing their opinion they are damaging other people in the group they are part of, so they should shut up and let the people who think the “right” things have a say. It’s scary every time it happens.

      • Ectect?

        Whups. Just realized it was a typo. Never mind me…

    • I would only edit your first sentence to say that *some* people doing this mean well. For others, it is an act of political activism or corporate cowardice.

      Meanwhile, it is just one more reason – as if we needed one – to avoid traditional publishing, like the plague it has become.

      • Fair enough, but I stand by my original statement. A lot of the people using sensitivity readers aren’t the ones shouting from the rooftops and attacking others, they are quietly doing the best they can.

        Even the people who take it too far often seem to mean well, they just fall flat in execution. That doesn’t make what they are doing right, and you know what they say about the road that is paved with good intentions, but that doesn’t make my statement inaccurate.

    • Beth, What are you talking about?Give me the quotes in context, otherwise you are dreaming

      While youre at it, Id like to see your quotes in context from Jamie who is currently not here to see this.

      • It was this exchange that I was thinking about: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/2014/05/we-need-diverse-books-calls-for-more-representative-writing-for-children/#comment-203576

        It has stuck in my mind ever since, because I have always respected your thoughts, and this person tried to tell you that you couldn’t be who you are and still think what you think. To me that kind of forgetting that all people are individuals with their own individual perspective is one of the dangers of this emphasis on dividing people into discrete groups.

        • And I am looking for the conversation I was thinking about that Jamie was involved in and I am having trouble finding it. I will keep looking, but I wanted to let you know I am trying. I apologize for mentioning both of you without the context in the first place, I should have kept my comment more general.

          • not a problem Beth. I see where youre coming from. Frankly Im here becauze the company is often so good and I learn.

            David TPG puts up intelligent articles across a spectrum, that most often actually have depth, unlike the one inch deep ‘news’ elsewhere. Also most of the commenters here are passionate and serious and have good humor, which is to me, a gifted combo. Be well.

      • This is the conversation I was thinking about that Jamie was involved in: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/2016/08/the-unkind-publishing-industry/#comment-367911

        Again, I’m sorry for not providing the context at the beginning. Both instances are things that have stuck in my mind ever since, since both of you are commenters whose thoughts I respect, so I didn’t think about the fact that they wouldn’t necessarily have been as memorable to others.

        • That’s very kind of you, Beth. I was startled to see my name mentioned here (as I always am in real life when I find out people have talked about me. Cuz I’m very boring.)

          Anyway, I increasingly believe it’s not a good idea to give in to the idea that there’s an “archetype” of different demographics. There’s no quintessential white woman, black man, Chinese kid, and it’s not possible to be “insensitive” by having a character “deviate” from whatever the rule is supposed to be.

          It’s annoying enough in real life to deal with someone who thinks I’m doing “black” wrong or “woman” wrong or something. I just prefer the very concept should die. It’s very mystifying why writers would embrace it — are we really only supposed to write about people who are exactly like us? Doesn’t that mean only memoirs are allowed? Think it through, people…

          • “It’s very mystifying why writers would embrace it”

            Because the gatekeepers say they must.

            More and more publishers seem to be run by S***, so anyone who submits stories to them has to write S** stories if they want to be published.

            The goal seems to be to create the modern Soviet Socialist Realism, where only politically-approved stories are published. But the rebels went and knocked down the wall, and all that’s left is a gate with a gatekeeper hoping that no-one notices they can just walk around xer.

            • Some modern aspiring gatekeepers don’t even have gates to keep. They have an opinion and a soap box and a determination that no one should publish anything unapproved. They have no power to enforce their strictures. They rely on shaming authors to self-censor. Some authors acquiesce. Some show the middle finger.

    • This “sensitivity editor” thing is ridiculous — you don’t reduce stereotyping by having all your minority characters get run by an editor, that’ll just make them more and more similar to each other. They’ll all be edited by the same band of like-minded editors who will make them sound more and more like each other. If you don’t want stereotypes, you should be encouraging authors to use far-flung and wildly off-base depictions of minority characters.

    • Any tyranny can be created by those who “mean well.” And someone who acts tyrannical in order to appease his or her conscience isn’t bothered by qualms of guilt over it.

  7. The thing about sensitivity readers is that they would have caught things like this:

    Kate Elliott recently wrote an excellent article, “The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze Through Female Eyes.” So much of how Stephanie relates to her own body, and to the bodies of her female peers, is mediated through such a clearly objectifying lens (and one which appears to equate, at least on a subconscious level, teenage sexuality with moral hazard) that it’s hard not to see an adult male gaze at work.

    We were teenage girls once, and it’s not so long ago that we can’t remember—quite clearly—how it felt. (And I got enough female socialisation in all-girls-school that I’ve some idea how a wide variety of girls bemoan their bodies – LB.) (Likewise, in an all-women college – JK.) Very little of Stephanie’s thoughts about breasts, and body types, and her peers’ bodies, feels authentic.


    • Let me get this straight.

      Jane Lindskold, a feminist writer who has written a lot of young female characters, fails to write womanly enough for tor.com. Because All Women Are the Same As My Friends, even in another culture on a future planet.

      And David Weber is not allowed to write a teenaged male who is detached or even slightly asexual, because All Boys Are the Same.

      Should anyone pay any attention to tor.com? At this point, it is not even providing clickbait. It is more like opening Bedlam to sightseers.

      • “Should anyone pay any attention to tor.com?”

        Not if the supposedly real excerpt from John ‘Million-Dollar’ Scalzi’s new book that I read this morning is anything to go by. It made ‘Redshirts’ look like a legitimate Hugo winner.

      • And a recently colonized, low population planet at that.
        Like, what kind of culture did they expect? 20th Century megapolis Human Zoo culture?

      • It took me the longest time to wrap my head around your comment, but eventually I realized that you are arguing that Jane’s work should be judged on their politics rather than the work itself.

        I have no idea how to respond to that; it is clearly a logical fallacy of some kind (and so is the David Weber crack – a straw man fallacy), but I don’t know which.

        In any case, you are wrong – twice – on a fundamental level.

  8. Oh, for f***’s sake.

  9. I actually do see the benefit in seeking out someone who knows more about a disability and stuff like that. I did it for a character who had Tourettes because I knew it wasn’t done often and I knew very little about it––even with research––so I wanted someone who knew more, and had someone whose wife had it and he read my story for me.

    But when the blow up over The Continent happened, the author stated she HAD sensitivity readers and the people yelling at her gave excuses like ‘oh they might not have told the truth because they didn’t want to get you mad at them or because they worried about losing their job’ (WHAT THE HECK ARE THEY HIRED FOR IF NOT TO BE HONEST?) It wasn’t enough to appease.

    • I followed the link Anon gave above to a complaint about Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark.

      I don’t know how Roth’s friends with endometriosis feel about their pain being appropriated to make Roth, an already famous and successful author, more money. I don’t care to know because their opinions don’t represent every person suffering from chronic pain and won’t excuse the harm Roth has caused by depicting chronic pain as a “gift.”

      That right there is why it will never be enough to appease. Even when campaigners of a certain stripe acknowledge that people in similar circumstances have different experiences and different opinions, they immediately dismiss all other opinions as not representing every person in that circumstance. Unlike their own opinion which presumably does represent everyone in that circumstance, including those they just admitted have different experiences and opinions.

      You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and some people you can’t ever please.

      • Not to mention after this blew up on Roth, she came out as suffering herself from chronic pain. But then she was accused of lying to cover her butt.

        • I’ve had characters die in my books before. It’s pretty insensitive of me to exploit death to make money.

          • Or to exploit life. Or to exploit the very existence of the human race.

            Shame on us!

          • I have two serial killer books. Got trashed by a group of women because the killer’s victims were usually women. I wonder if it would have been okay if they’d been men…

            Years ago, it wasn’t a sensitivity reader who objected to an abortion that took place in the pages of a book. It was my editor, concerned that it would offend the pro-life folks. Had to take it out.

          • How dare you make death a part of your work! I’ve known people who’ve died, and I don’t like it. If you ever met someone who died, you’d know that they don’t like it either. Can’t we just all have books where no one stands out and everyone lives forever? Books without tension or drama or a Grade-A stamp from everyone in every subgroup ever portrayed(I once got a sunburn, and I think it’s insensitive for any writer to portray the sun in their books – it triggers me) are culturally boorish and tactless.

            Ban all things!

        • Anyway, if you say that pain cannot be a gift, or an offering, or be made to be of use in any way, you are going against basic Christian theology.

          So am I supposed to be offended by other people being offended?

      • As I see it, some people believe that their experience and opinion are more worth than others, and object when writers share their experiences and opinions if those don’t align with theirs.

        It’s their entitlement and sense of importance that makes them downplay other experiences and force their narrative on others, and society should have stop indulging them and call their behaviour for what it is: the special snowflakes syndrome.

  10. Political correctness…, but still not as good as toilet paper. Ooops, that was not political correct of me.

  11. We write fiction… has this gone this far that even the note of it being FICTION, something that is not true, is not enough to clear us from the charge of racism or insensitivity? This is sad. Are people so sensitive now, so afraid of being offended that we no longer can just make stuff up?

    • I know someone who has been branded a racist for saying she thinks it’s okay for authors to make up characters of different colors than they are. Sooooo, yup.

    • Sure you can.
      As long as you only make up stuff that validates and endorses what they think.

      Heaven help you if you have an idea of your own.
      Or worse, personal first hand experiences that falsify their axiomatic, unfounded, quasi-religious beliefs.

      Been there.

    • In fact, ‘the note of it being fiction’ only attracts accusations and abuse. You see, if you make up a story yourself, you have no excuse to include anything that might fall afoul of the all-important standards of any given random activist for any given random cause. Reality (as even most activists still acknowledge) is permitted to contain politically incorrect things. Stories aren’t.

  12. Fees for a sensitivity readers generally start at $250 per manuscript.

    Explains everything. “I want you to feel guilty so you’ll pay me for a service you don’t need.”

    • Uh, David Weber could have used this service.

      • Why? I recognize the name, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his books.

        • He writes 21st century Space Opera: larger than life characters facing larger than life threats. Space wars where skirmishes involve hundreds of ships, full battles millions of missiles.

          EMPIRE FROM THE ASHES is a lot of fun and the first volume, MUTINEERS MOON, should be at the BAEN FREE LIBRARY. It’s a “small” story about an astronaut who gets conscripted by an AI to serve on a derelict starship from a long gone galactic empire. The ship has been under repair for millenia, masquerading as the moon. 🙂

          He is a bit more noted for his Honor Harrington novels based on the Star Kingdom of Manticore. 14 novels and counting. The first two or three are fine reads and free.

          The book in question, FIRE SEASON is a YA derivative dealing with an ancestress of Harrington co-written with Jane Lindskold. Who might have some memories of being female and teen. Maybe.

      • If you think Weber was in any way attempting to portray his characters as anything other than over the top, then you’re not reading it right.

        • More: Weber didn’t write that series by himself.
          Weber created the world and characters but most of the prose was by Jane Lindskold.

      • Or, uh, folks who don’t care for it don’t have to read David Weber.

    • “I want you to feel guilty so you’ll pay me for a service you don’t need.”

      I’m tempted to send them ‘Man-Eating Lesbian Pirates’ when it’s finished, and ask them if there’s any part they don’t find offensive, so I can spice it up a bit. The strong, female, human/bear hybrid would probably be OK, except when she’s complaining that she can’t find a good man.

  13. Well now I’ve GOT to read Carve the Mark, and I HATED Divergent.

    The first book anyway, I didn’t bother to read the rest, so Roth might be as heavy-handed with this as portraying the Eeeeevil Erudites (who were the real heroes of the book in my opinion: the only ones in that stagnant society doing useful work or evidencing the ambition to movie forward. From my perspective, Erudite’s big mistake was bothering with the rest of the factions at all. Just pack up and leave!)

  14. Time to leave this rock.

  15. I could throw up. Here’s the deal: writers write. readers read. I promise you no one will love everything every one writes.

    Many times when this subject comes up, I point out the One World imprint which was to be for ‘people of color’ but as it turned out, only certain kinds of people of color. And. Only certain colors apparently. That was Randy Penguin’s imprint. It’s hard to imagine, from the inside of big publishing, that there was ever a time when favorites were not played by those in power toward those they wish, right or wrong, to crown.

    Last time we spoke about this just a few weeks ago, I spoke about how the issue may not be cultural ‘sensitivity’ at all in essence, but the money making by those who are not connect to the group they write about. That envidia plays a huge part not only for some parts of some groups, but for authors as well… from all backgrounds. That hostility often comes from those who have not yet been rewarded as they either wish or think they ought be. Hostility that attacks not the source of the issue: money granting.

    I think often of my old friend Tony [Hillerman] how honored he was with his Joe Leaphorn series, so so many books on the Diné, they befriended him and honored him, as he did them, in friendship and in his books. Sometimes it is far to simpleminded to project on persons unknown to oneself.

    Tony did a great job. And there are others, such as Willa Cather, and Way of the Hopi author, and many more who have walked onward now, and in their day were cared for and they cared face-to-face about the groups theywrote about. BUT, in the current climate, have been called out also.

    I dont know where it ends as long as people want to go nah nah nah, you, no you, no you, no you.

    I like what my friend Nat said {hentoff] the iconic writer from Rolling Stone, said. The screeching of those who have whatever opinions [doesnt matter what it is] actually want to silence others from having opinions they dont like. That’s not reverence for free speech. Free speech allows critique and allows others to critique in debate. But then Nat was civil, which is often missing from the nah nah nah circular firing squads by those in defense of their pique. Nat wrote a great book: It’s called Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee. I recommend it, especially to those who care about civil discourse

    • Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee

      I feel dreadfully uneducated: I honestly thought that was just an expression. Thanks for the pointer.

      • sure Jamie.Happy to help.

        One of the most valuable parts of Nat’s work was [first of all, he was pretty old when he walked onward, and had seen so so much, including pre civil rights legislation 60s surveillance by fbi for all protesters late 60s, attempts to silence women’s claims of abuse, attempts to demonize men who wanted to be COs during Nam, the mc carthy ‘hearings’ or ‘lack of hearing’ as one might characterize them, of the 50s] is/ that he tells how interpretation of the first amendment has changed over the decades, how the pendulum swings back and forth depending on who is top dog in power. He also talks about how the amendment to the Constitution came about, it’s intent, and its many unintended consequences.

    • The thing about Tony Hillerman (and how awesome you know him) is that he didn’t make his characters stereotypes. They were real people with issues we all have, and also things related to their culture.

      I think that’s what many people have problems with, not so much that writers are daring to write characters not like themselves, but that they don’t bother to learn about them. It’s only being courteous and respectful to try to learn about the characters you develop that are outside your own life experiences.

      People like to bemoan “political correctness”, but if we respected and loved each other, the government wouldn’t have to force us to treat each other right. It’s a danged pity we have to have laws to help minorities, the disabled, the differently-gendered, the disadvantaged. We should just be doing all of that because it’s the right thing.

      • It’s only being courteous and respectful to try to learn about the characters you develop that are outside your own life experiences.

        The only one who knows about an author’s fictional character is the author. The character has no existence outside the author’s imagination and the pages of his book.

      • I understand what you mean Sheila about knowing the culture, thereby the character building can have far more depth. Long ago, ethnology and folkloric studies and archeo and anthro depts just sort of took and took wholesale the stories, dances, songs without finding out context. Since about 1980, it is an ethnic now to not do that anymore. In part to give depth to research, in part to respect what are called ‘the informants.’

  16. Lee & Low Books has a companywide policy to use sensitivity readers. Stacy Whitman, publisher and editorial director of Lee & Low’s middle-grade imprint Tu Books, said she will even request a sensitivity reader before she chooses to acquire a book to publish.

    With all due respect, this is crazy. Is this publisher even in business to make money?

  17. PG, please hire a sensitivity reader for the blog. All of the above comments offended me.

    • I’m offended that you’re offended.

      Hey, someone had to say it.

      • Im offended youre offended he’s offended.

        • I’m so offended, I can’t even keep it straight who I’m supposed to be offended for. Or about. Or something.

          Man, that migraine is gonna hurt.

          • Dark chocolate helps with migraines.
            Of course, Dark Chocolate helps with anything.

            • Looks like we need the government to force us to treat each other right.

            • Why are you singling out dark chocolate? Don’t you think that milk chocolate might feel left out? And what about caramel? Just because you like dark chocolate, that doesn’t mean I should have to hear about it unless you also include marginalized sweets like nougat and cinnamon.

              • But you see, dark chocolate has just the right tinge of bitterness. Have to stay on-topic, after all, and bitterness is intrinsic to the sensitivity crusaders.

                • Whoa, whoa, whoa – all chocolate matters.

                • Joking aside, there really are differences:

                  “A 2015 study that looked at participants with Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure compared the addition of dark chocolate (from 83 percent cocoa chocolate bars) to white chocolate bars in their diets showed that people who ate dark chocolate saw a reduction in their blood pressure compared to the people who ate white chocolate.

                  The authors attribute this difference to the high polyphenol content of the dark chocolate.”

                  The blood pressure reduction is why it helps migraines.

  18. Thing is, the Permanently Offended Community exists to be offended. If we get too sensitive, they won’t have anything to be offended by, and that would rob them of their life’s purpose, which would of course be…offensive.

    The Bloom County link says it all. Thanks, Tom Simon.

    • I started engaging on places like TPV and Facebook in order to get better at interacting online without getting pissed and going nuclear on people.

      Years later, I still suck at it. I can still be an angry little brat. So lame. I still have work to do.

      Some people, however, love to be angry. It’s their thing. Their sport. They’ll always find something, Anne. Always.

      EDIT: Yes I love that comic strip. I read it awhile back. Still funny today, maybe even moreso than in the past. Or maybe it’s sadder now? I dunno. Thanks for the post.

  19. He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.

    –Brigham Young

  20. I just *knew* who was going to post on this one.

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