WASHINGTON - It’s a profession that is increasingly under the spotlight as the culture wars rumble on: “Sensitivity readers” – editors who identify insensitivities or stereotypes in manuscripts – are becoming a lightning rod for the publishing industry.
Such readers have worked in the wings of the Western literary world for years now, though they were largely confined to children’s literature.
But amid social reckonings such as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, sensitivity readers are becoming prominent in contemporary fiction publishing also – and not everyone is pleased about it.
Publishers “are doing a damn good job, trying to ruin our books, and to ruin our fun as readers”, Lionel Shriver, the American author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, complained on ultra-conservative British channel GB News in February.
Sensitivity readers have recently been pilloried again with the announcement that books by children’s writer Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, were being republished to be more adapted to current sensibilities.
In Dahl’s books, for example, some characters are no longer identified as “fat” or “crazy”. Fleming’s books were being reissued with racial references, including the N-word, removed.
Accusations of censorship began flying almost immediately from observers who fear sanitised literature could whitewash the past, as well as the present.
“People say that, but I don’t feel that they understand the process,” Ms Patrice Williams Marks, a Los Angeles-based sensitivity reader, told Agence France-Presse.
“If you’re writing about a people or community that you’re unfamiliar with, and you want it to be authentic... then you find somebody who’s a sensitivity reader who’s part of that community and ask for their opinions,” she explained.
“I always let them know that they don’t have to accept the changes that I suggest,” says Ms Lola Isabel Gonzalez, another sensitivity reader, also based in Los Angeles.
So who are “sensitivity readers”?
Mostly, they are freelance editors, often paid by the word or number of pages – and with strict confidentiality clauses, of course – by authors or publishers concerned about the accuracy of their manuscripts.
Or, as critics charge, to avoid at all costs the disaster of being cancelled in a social media storm over a faux pas.
The proofreaders often list their areas of expertise: “child of immigrants”, “bisexual”, “autistic”, “hijabi”, “deaf”, “expertise in both mainland Chinese and Hong Kong culture”, and so on.
“There are good reasons for regulating children’s reading: It is foundational and formational,” British author Kate Clanchy wrote in 2022.
But she is much more circumspect when it comes to adults.
Adults “are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas,” argues Ms Clanchy, who was herself at the centre of a sensitivity reader controversy when her memoir was accused of being racist and insensitive.
For Shriver, who has long complained about such readers, they are nothing less than “sensitivity police”.
“At the keyboard, unrelenting anguish about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and constipates creativity,” she wrote in The Guardian newspaper in 2017.
In France, a country widely resistant to this type of revisionism, the essayist Raphael Enthoven in 2020 denounced these “modern censors” as “the vanguard of the Identity Plague”.
But many other writers are in favour of readers – like the American Adele Holmes, who called on Ms Marks’s services for her first book, Winter’s Reckoning.
“Patrice was able to point out some areas of white privilege and the white saviour role,” Holmes said.
And, more prosaically, for the character of a Black woman described as having “silky” hair, Ms Marks suggested using the word “coil” instead, to make it more realistic.
Holmes feels that the proofreader helped her “immensely”.
As for the criticisms, she argues they come from people who feel “threatened” by minorities, in a publishing world long known to be predominantly white.
For her part, Ms Marks dates the renewed interest in her profession to the 2020 killing of Mr George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The murder ignited protests and a social reckoning on modern racism in the United States and around the world.
Since then, authors have “become more conscious of the lens that they’re looking through”, Ms Marks said.
Ms Gonzalez also sees this increased care as reflecting social evolution.
“I don’t think I could have done it professionally in any other decade,” she said of her job, welcoming the fact that “Generation Z” is challenging established social narratives.
Those younger generations understand the importance of sensitivity reading, she argued, as opposed to their elders, who might “have a harder time seeing it as progress”. AFP