How sensitivity readers corrupt literature

From UnHerd:

What did the sensitivity readers say? And did I care? Of all the aspects of the recent attempt to cancel my work, the one that seems to fascinate most people is the moment when my publishers sent my Orwell Prize-winning memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, to be assessed by experts who would detect and reform its problematic racism and ableism.

Of course I cared. I’m horrified that people found prejudice and cruelty in my book. And I went into the process willingly: I’ve always enjoyed and benefited from editing and saw this as an extension. I did an initial rewrite — there were many things I was eager to change — in the autumn of 2021 and sent it off full of interest and optimism. I received the reports on it before Christmas. They were never formally used and I share the content here — anonymously, of course — because sensitivity reads are being used more and more widely, and mine gives a valuable insight into how they might work with non-fiction and memoir.

There are several reports — Picador did a thorough job — and they are varied. The novelty of the whole field is reflected in the fact that the Readers use different titles — sensitivity and authenticity — and different methods, too. Some write A4 reports, others use the comment button on Microsoft Word or an Excel sheet, still another presents a simple list of headings, done very possibly with a word search. More than one grades infractions, 1-3. They have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement.

Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2).

Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Given this diversity, it seems reasonable to start with areas of agreement. These mostly occur in the first part of my book, which is set in the Nineties. Perhaps this is because all of the Readers seem to be experts on sexuality and gender, and resisting homophobia is one of my themes. There is even a particular passage, the only one in the book, on which the whole Reader crowd comments and concurs.

The setting is London, 1992. After end-of-term drinks, a favourite student, Liam, comes out to me and then asks me to take him to G.A.Y — because, he says, no one else in his world would know where it was. I was very worried about doing this at the time; even though Liam had just left school, I still felt like his teacher, and I worry even more now, when teachers no longer take 18-year-olds to the pub and are much more aware of influence and consent.

None of these sensitive issues, though — raised at length in the book — worry the Readers. They are concerned, rather, that I might be boasting about helping a young gay person: “Straight white saviour trope”, suggests Wordsearch List, “could be problematic”. And they set up a chorus about what I feel and say after Liam hits the dance floor and I note:

… a new kind of pain, a physical, chesty anxiety that I was not to experience again until I watched my own children walk along ledges or cross a busy road. What would happen to Liam among all those strong bodies? What would happen to his body? He was too young to understand you only got one. Fortunately, it was only twenty minutes or so before he came back out of the crowd and grasped his beer.

‘Liam,’ I said, ‘I love you. You have to promise me to always use a condom and never get AIDS.’ 

I make, my Readers agree, a “reductive” and “rogue” remark. The preceding passage “comes across as homophobic” and is an LGBTQ infraction Level 2. But in 1992, people were still dying in large numbers from AIDS, and I would have urged all young people to use condoms. Excel Reader is kind enough to acknowledge this — “the author has chosen to reproduce contemporary dialogue which may not … reflect brilliantly on her” — but the other Readers seem to concur that the past should match an idealised present, in the same way that Anne of Green Gables, say, got a gay best friend when she went on Netflix.

There are similar injunctions throughout the text. I am enjoined not to quote from My Ántonia by Willa Cather, as it is “an old novel”; nor to state that homosexuality has historically been taboo in Nepal, as homophobia comes from colonialism; nor to mention that the Taliban were terrorists. Extending the principle of sunny improvement into the present, Wordsearch List breaks out of their list to make the helpful suggestion that I should remove references to terrorism from across the book, as it “over-sensationalises such a heavy topic, especially with minors involved”.

. . . .

But Some Kids isn’t a novel, nor written for children. Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be. I think adults can endure bings being compared to boils. I also believe that physical human beauty empirically exists, is enormously important for adolescents, and that I can observe its currency and often destructive power, especially for young women, in the classroom. I make an explicit argument about this, which readers may disagree with.

. . . .

I struggle with all this. I baulk, besides, perhaps snobbishly, at their language: the imprecision of phrases such as “feels like the kind of saying that could be deemed insensitive these days”, or “white knight tone/verve” (verve?). I snarl when Excel helpfully suggests I have made a typo with e. e. cummings, and lost his capital letters. It upsets me in particular, when so many of their criticisms depend on it, that none of the Readers deploy the word “irony”, but use “sarcasm”, “jocular aside” and “subtlety” instead, always as negatives. Comment Button condemns my entire chapter on Prizes as “it shows none of the adults involved in a good light”. Indeed it doesn’t. They are being satirised, even though one of them was me.

Link to the rest at UnHerd

The OP gave PG an idea for another standard paragraph writers should put into their publishing contracts:

Phony Provision for Sensitivity Review

Publisher will not utilize “sensitivity readers” to review and comment on Author’s Work without the prior written consent of Author. In the event that Publisher desires to have one or more sensitivity readers review and comment on Author’s work and Author consents, Publisher shall immediately pay Author an additional sum equal to the advance Publisher paid Author at the time Author executed the Publishing Agreement with Publisher.

The purpose of this additional payment is to compensate Author for the additional time that Author will require to review the comments and recommendations of the sensitivity readers.

Author can reject some or all of the recommendations or make some or no modifications as suggested by all, some or none of the sensitivity readers.

In the event Publisher is not satisfied with Author’s response to the comments and suggestions of the sensitivity readers, either Publisher or Author may terminate this Agreement. Upon such termination, Author shall repay the advance received from the Publisher but shall be permitted to retain the additional payment received due to the use of sensitivity readers as described above. Upon receipt of Author’s returned Advance payment, Publisher shall give Author a document executed by an officer of Publisher, certifying that Publisher has relinquished all rights to Author’s Work.

Without the advance written consent of Author, Publisher shall not disclose the reason why the Publishing Agreement with Author was terminated nor any information regarding the sensitivity analysis, its findings and/or recommendations nor shall Publisher reveal the identities of any of the sensitivity readers to any third parties or, by acting or failing to act, reveal any information about the sensitivity analysis to any third party without Author’s advance written consent in writing in each case.

Publisher shall require that each employee, agent or representative of Publisher who has or had any information about the sensitivity analysis of Author’s Work to sign an an agreement to keep this information confidential under the same terms and conditions which limit Publisher’s disclosures above.

In the event that Publisher or any employee, agent or representative of Publisher discloses any information that it or they have agreed to keep confidential, the parties agree that the discovery, calculation and/or proof of the amount of damages incurred by Author will be difficult or impossible for Author to fully discover and prove.

Accordingly, in the event of any breach of the provisions of this Sensitivity Review provision by Publisher or anyone who is under obligation to maintain the information relating to the Sensitivity Review as described described above, Author shall be entitled to liquidated damages for such breach in the amount of Author’s Advance multiplied by ten. By way of example and not limitation, if Author’s advance for the Work is $10,000, the amount of liquidated damages Publisher shall pay to Author for breach of this agreement shall be $100,000.

In the event that Publisher refuses to promptly pay liquidated damages as provided herein and Author hires legal counsel to enforce Publisher’s obligations under this Agreement, Author shall be entitled to recover Author’s reasonable legal expenses and costs from Publisher in addition to the Liquidated Damages to which Author is entitled under this agreement.

NOTE: This is purely an exercise by PG to demonstrate how a Sensitivity Review provision might be constructed. PG has not conducted any research to determine whether such a provision would be enforceable under US or state laws or the laws of any other country in the world.

THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

You obtain legal advice by consulting an attorney, not by reading a blog post. PG is not your lawyer.

If you want to try to accomplish something that is similar to what is described in PG’s fanciful Sensitivity Review, you really and truly need to hire a competent attorney to advise you. Failure to do so could result in a giant legal mess, a huge bill and untold sleepless nights.

8 thoughts on “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature”

  1. Love how people with absolutely no sense of history beyond the last four years or so {and I’m being generous here} attempt to pompously dictate what can and can’t be said in a book of NON-FICTION.

    Reminds of a recent Reddit video I saw where this guy’s friend wanted a “maternity” test on his girlfriend {a waitress} to make sure the baby she was carrying was hers, and no amount of explaining by his friend {a med student} could change his mind.

    Sorry, but that level of competence should not be in positions of power in the publishing industry.

    • I read that thread. I like to think it was fake, because I am not able to comprehend the level of stupidity required for it to be true.

      • You’d be amazed at the level of stupidity one can encounter anywhere. After dealing with guv’ment employees on an hourly basis for the better part of 25 years, I lean towards believing there are nuggets of truth embedded in those threads.

  2. Thank-you so much for this. I’ve been following this writer, and what has happened to her, over the past few weeks and it is unconscionable. Sadly, I have other writer friends here in the UK who have suffered a similar fate. One of them – a close friend – has given up on a successful YA fiction career – she was essentially ‘cancelled’ – and has retrained as an HGV driver, working in the Highlands of Scotland. She tells me that she has encountered far less misogyny, sexism and immaturity in that industry than she ever did in publishing. I hope she goes back to writing some day, publishing her own work, because she’s a fine writer – but for the present, she is recovering her equilibrium.

    • I agree with her.
      Better to leave than to put up with that kind of idiotic abuse for the crappy terms tradpub offers. (As always, cue up Rick Nelson’s GARDEN PARTY.)
      Also, yes, she should return as an Indie, under her existing brand; her fans will find her.

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