The push for more diversity in publishing can sometimes be at odds with the “write what you know” dictum. Writers who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right, which is why authors looking to self-publish might consider engaging sensitivity readers.

Publishers are hiring “sensitivity readers” to review books and flag potentially offensive content. Authors like Veronica Roth and J. K. Rowling have been criticized by groups who were concerned over the authors’ portrayals of minorities. Keira Drake had the publication of The Continent delayed due to online reviewers declaring her book as “racist trash.” Those reviews caused the publisher to hire two sensitivity readers, and Drake spent six months rewriting the book, which is due out this month. These incidents have sparked a proactive approach by publishers to head off potential issues in the future.

One organization, Writing in the Margins, has assembled a database to make it easy for authors and publishers to contact sensitivity readers. As posted on the Writing in the Margins website, “Sensitivity readers can help you identify problematic language and internalized bias on the page when writing outside of your experiences. This is not a guarantee that others will not have issues with your work. But it is a way to attempt to catch and correct high level issues prior to submission or publication.” The database includes readers’ qualifications, areas of expertise, contact info, and fees. Prices seem to run about $250 for a full-length novel, though some are priced according to word count. The database is free to view, and it currently contains 199 readers.

Of course, in today’s hyper-reactionary climate, anything having to do with people getting upset over something makes other people upset, so this whole notion of sensitivity readers has sparked a heated debate.

It’s one thing for authors to seek out sensitivity readers of their own volition. After all, there is a huge (and justifiable) push for more diversity in publishing, and that can sometimes be at odds with the old dictum, “write what you know.” Authors who want to make their books more diverse want to get it right.

Children’s book author Kate Messner is quoted in a recent Chicago Tribune article. She often writes about poverty, abuse, and race, and she regularly hires sensitivity readers. Messner said, “I wouldn’t dream of sending those books out into the world without getting help to make sure I’m representing those issues in a way that’s realistic and sensitive.”

For that very reason, authors looking to self-publish may want to hire a sensitivity reader if they are writing about people and issues that are outside their own experience.

But the notion of publishers running all their books by sensitivity readers as a matter of company policy has some crying censorship. Many of the books that are today considered to be masterpieces shocked and disturbed readers when first published. Some, like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continue to spark discussion and healthy debate precisely because of their objectionable content. People are concerned that by preemptively removing such content they are neutering literature, producing meek books.

Kafka would probably not have been a fan. He once famously wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Then again, there’s a difference between books that are intentionally challenging and/or offensive and those which were written by authors who may have been unaware they were causing offense.

Sensitivity readers aren’t new, and they aren’t necessarily limited to publishing. Scholastic hired readers for just this purpose over 30 years ago for their “Baby-Sitters Club” series, which often dealt with sensitive issues. Sesame Street regularly employed psychologists to go over content to make sure they were addressing troubling issues in proper fashion. Hollywood has used test screeners for decades. In Hollywood’s case, test screenings are used primarily to predict how successful a movie will be, however, studios have changed things their test audiences didn’t like, for various reasons, including material audiences found questionable. Then again, what test screen audiences find objectionable doesn’t necessarily jibe with what the rest of the world thinks, and stories abound of movies being altered for the worse due to poor test scores.

Another issue is the notion that sensitivity readers are exacerbating the problems of cultural appropriation. “On the one hand,” writes Everdeen Mason in the Tribune article, “they help a writer create the experience of a marginalized group more authentically. On the other, they legitimize the mimicking of marginalized voices by non-marginalized writers. Why not just publish more books by black people, Latinos, Native Americans and others?”

Of course we want more books by diverse writers, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of accidentally writing offensive material. After all, shouldn’t a Latina writer also be able to include characters who are different from her?

All you authors looking to self-publish: the choice is yours. You can choose to hire a sensitivity reader or not. Should you hire one, you can even choose to disregard his or her advice. But if you’re seeking a more traditional publishing experience, be aware that your book may go through this extra step along the way.

What are your thoughts on all of this?

 

BookBaby Editing Services

 

Related Posts
Getting good feedback from beta readers
How to be a good beta reader
Your Story Needs A Good Straight Man
Writing three-dimensional characters
You Cannot Overedit

 

Scott McCormick

About Scott McCormick

Scott McCormick has written 12 posts in this blog.

Scott McCormick is the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors. Photo credit Karen Cooley.

60 thoughts on “Publishers Are Hiring Sensitivity Readers … Should You?

  1. S. Willow says:

    And this is why I stopped writing for the overly sensitive, hyper-reactionary, immature millennial market. No, I do NOT think we should be running our work pass ‘sensitivity’ readers. Books will end up like movies, boring, safe and all the same because no one will dare write anything that might offend someone somewhere. I pity the writers who have committed themselves to writing for this demographic because it will be like painting by numbers or in this case writing by safe, tidy little numbers that no one can squawk about.

    As a writer I do not think you should allow a loud, shouty minority of social media bullies (because that is what these people are) to dictate the stories you write. By asking their permission to green light your book is simply Orwellian.

    1. Lizzy says:

      Just aother ridiculous idea from the most ridiculous of the ridiculous — liberals.

    2. Chris says:

      HEAR HEAR!… Is nothing sacred?… Isn’t even literature safe from the nanny interference of the PC brigade?

      Who are we supposed to be saving from our horrible offensive and nasty little words?… When I was a kid, I had the old adage drummed into me:

      “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”

      OK… as a young smartarse, I questioned the truth of this oft repeated saying.

      “But words can be hurtful.” I said, smugly… and I got an answer.

      “Only if you let them, son.”

      Isn’t it the place… even the duty… of writers to challenge and occasionally offend? If you don’t like my characters, and how they speak, put the book down and read something else.

      One of my regular characters… an old time copper, who missed the point of all the diversity courses his superiors sent him on, is often less than PC in his language, but he’s one of the good guys. It’s a part of the man’s character, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna change him, because my readers like him, and I like writing him.

      I’ve got other regular characters from the gay community, and various ethnic groups, on both sides of the ‘good guy, bad guy’ spectrum in my novels… likewise, I don’t mind risking offending various religious groups in my stories. That’s what writing for grown ups is about.

      All this talk of ‘diversity readers’ is the thin end of the wedge… Why am I not surprised that it originated in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’. Now that’s what I call irony.

    3. Randy says:

      It’s impossible not to offend someone these days with an increasingly oversensitive population. If someone gets offended by a story, then that person should not read anything further by that author, and end it there. This coddling needs to end. Otherwise, we potentially miss out on what many others might consider a great piece of fiction (or non-fiction), and we go down a horrible road. Call it “sensitivity” if you want but that’s just a fluffy word for censorship.

    4. Judy Mortkowitz says:

      I agree with you completely Time for the whinny kids to grow up–even if they are 40 years old.

    5. Phil says:

      The people who are complaining are not all bullies – in fact, some of them have been the victims of bullies and believe that people who have not suffered the same abuse cannot understand it. I don’t agree, but I can understand their feelings. If I can imagine something painful in a way that causes me pain, then I am closer to being able to bring others to the same understanding.
      Do we need sensitivity readers? Only if we don’t trust ourselves (and those we share our unborn books with) to be sensitive – which may mean we aren’t writing as well as we can.

      1. Marianne Edwards says:

        Brilliant! Finally a comment that shows some compassion… and isn’t stamping its entitled little feet!

    6. Thanks. S. Willow. I couldn’t have said it better.

    7. Melania says:

      Well, reading this article made me realized that despite all the craziness happening in our world today, our world is changing in a better direction — whether you like it or not. I actually appreciate this article because we all have bias regardless of our backgrounds. And those biases are reflected in our writing.

      Also, please know that this is not about millennials or any groups.Let’s be smarter than that. Now, everything should be blamed on millennials? And to defend this group, it’s not like they inherited a dream world from their old folks like you. Instead, they now live in a world filled with poverty (low employment), wars (Afghanistan), domestic terrorism. Should I continue? My point is let’s stop this type of unintelligent comments online. They don’t help.

      Now, this article is about making our world a better place. If this approach is no use to you, good for you but some people actually care to live in a more decent world and they actually want to become better human beings.

    8. Sarah says:

      I don’t think “the overly sensitive, hyper-reactionary, immature millennial market” is the problem. I think the problem is a culture of social shaming online. I would even say the far left has gotten out of hand. But it’s not an entire generation of people. That’s not fair to the vast majority of pretty normal millennials who just appreciate good reads. We’re not all screaming about political correctness.

      As far as sensitivity readers go, I could see why an individual might want to hire one, but I don’t think it should be forced by publishers. That’s taking it a bit far.

      Anyway, some perspective from a pretty average adult who happens to be a millennial.

    9. phil hawkins says:

      Ditto. Well put.

    10. Jane says:

      Preach it, Bro’…

  2. Tessa says:

    Thanks Eileen x

  3. Man Daer says:

    This is article is informative and helpful for me. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Paul Clayton says:

    I love you… you love me… we’re a happy family. BARF!! COMING… The ‘Barney the Dinasaur-ization of Literature. Would Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, Wolfe and/or any honest writer worth his or her salt… successfully pass through the gantlet at a modern day NYC Publishing (whore) House? I doubt it. This new trend of making sure any book commercially published DOES NOT offend anyone is absurd and fascistic. Who gets to determine what is offensive? And who is hurt by it? This is an article not about writing ‘literature,’ but about writing ‘propaganda,’ regurgitating themes that the new PC bullies want repeated and propagated. This sick PC crap is why I could not find a commercial publisher for my socio-racial novel, Van Ripplewink. The subject matter was taboo, and the honesty therein potentially upsetting to modern Barney-like sensibilities.

    1. AC Grayson says:

      Paul Clayton – I couldn’t agree more. My novel, set in the American West in 1870, was sent back from my editor with a note suggesting that I change one of the antagonists from African/Spanish to white. Her reasoning was that it could be considered offensive to readers. I refused.

      1. Marianne Edwards says:

        1 in 4 cowboys were black. 1 in 4.

    2. Chris says:

      You echo my own reaction, Paul.

      I write a series of crime novels, and I don’t mind making minor alterations to keep my publisher happy, but he doesn’t get heavy about things.

      My first submission to him had queries fired back at me. The plot centred on two underaged schoolgirl prostitutes, so even before he’d read it he asked me if there were any sex scenes involving the girls. His rationale was that as Amazon are the biggest outlet, It wasn’t a great idea to get the book blocked. Apparently, they’re OK about most things, but depictions of underaged sex was a big no no. I re-wrote the scenes, to imply rather than describe, and the book was better for it. – As my series’ protagonist is a prostitute, sex scenes are inevitable… she’s been known to use sex to get her out of scrapes, or to get information… These books aren’t erotica, but they are for adult readers.

      From that small adjustment, I’ve gone to having just released the eighth book in the series, with another in the wings… but at no time did a ‘diversity reader’ get a look in. I like to think that the ethnic characters, and the gay characters… good or bad in both cases… are written sensitively. Islam gets a bit of stick in the most recent release, but I hope I’ve been balanced towards the ordinary Muslim. However, an evil bastard of a character is still an evil bastard, whatever diverse group he or she belongs to.

    3. Paul — I have to agree with you.

  5. M. Sorrentino says:

    “For that very reason, authors looking to self-publish may want to hire a sensitivity reader if they are writing about people and issues that are outside their own experience.” – You know authors already have a solution to this it is called research, whether that involves reading non-fiction/historical texts about the people you intend to write about, traveling to and engaging with their community for a first-hand experience or interviewing people for first-person accounts. The same goes for social issues research the topic thoroughly.

    “write what you know.” – I’d go one step further and say “write what you want”, cause if you don’t want to read it why would anyone else?

  6. D.J. McCoy says:

    Maybe when the whole world holds hands and sings girl scout songs around the campfire we writers will be able to write about that. Until then it’s a tough world. If you can’t face reality maybe shouldn’t get on the bus Buttercup! If you are going to keep your story real then you have to let your characters speak for themselves even if YOU don’t agree with them. What is this world coming to?

  7. Nikki Prince says:

    Some of the comments above are indeed why…this should be done. Thank you, for an informative article.

  8. Lola says:

    Or the publishing world could step out of its comfort zone and embrace work by more diverse writers so THEY could write what they know. Probably wouldn’t need sensitivity readers then.

  9. Dan Arnold says:

    IMHO we (as writers) should try to avoid accidently offending someone, but if we do, it must be because that person isn’t our audience. To say that every book should pass some sort of sensitivity test is ludicrous. It strikes me as odd that someone who is so sensitive to the possible accidental offense given by an author they cry “foul”, may be the same person who uses the most filthy and profane language in the presence of strangers.
    I have no desire to be offensive. I try to avoid it. That being said, I know someone may find something personally offensive in my writing, just as I on occasion will find things offensive to me in a book I’m reading. I’m not so sensitive I’ll be in any way harmed by that. Of course maybe my problem is insensitivity. I can handle the occasional offense, sometimes even when it is intended to offend me. I can also handle rejection if someone doesn’t like me or my writing. What ever happened to backbone and thick skin? Maybe we need a test for that.

  10. Wendy says:

    I can see the point of running a book that deliberately treads close to a sensitive issue past a reader who is experienced with that issue, e.g. asking a Jew to review a holocaust novel to see if the Judaica is correct. In that sense, it’s no different than say, putting a ceramics instruction book past an experienced ceramicist to see if it makes sense (something I’m actually planning).

    What concerns me this apparent trend to arbitrarily screen books for possible insults to whatever snowflake-minority is being the squeakiest wheel of the month. Harry Potter “portrayal of minorities”? Unless they had a contingent of highly offended house elves, I really don’t seen any portrayal of minorities TO be offended by. This is catering to gold-bricking organizations that are trying to pick fights to boost publicity for their causes.

    Yet another case of publishers CYA at the author’s expense, just like those contract clauses that let the publisher “settle out of court” over claims the author wants to fight and then give the author the bill.

  11. Wow, interesting article and perfect timing for me! I’m not sure how I feel about the sensitivity readers making money from the authors for something they are not comfortable with, understanding they want to be sure minorities and others are presented accurately and perhaps not in a negative light. But, I would certainly need to know their ‘expertise and education’ that allows them to provide this service for which they charge money, although I can see other points on both sides.

    I have a top-notch editor to make sure of the structure and development of my work who I pay for her professional and expert services. But I also have two professional law enforcement people who read my stories to catch any crime-related issues that may not be accurate even though I am just finishing a BS in Criminal Justice, and they do not charge me. I also have about 8 to 10 ‘beta’ readers, who are diverse, to catch other things and give their opinions on the story before it goes out and they do not charge either.

    But this does make me think about the two detectives who work together in my initial suspense, mystery, thriller, and the male I describe as a dark-skinned, mid-forties, good-looking male with light hazel eyes and about six-four. The woman I describe as a tall blonde, brown eyes, thirty-something female. I chose not to use labels like ‘African-American’ ‘Latina’ and ‘Caucasian’. But while working on the sequel to the book now, I have added an Asian woman as part of the story, a new character, and this article makes me question if I should label her Asian along with her physical appearance or just depend on my description of her looks and her last name. So I’m glad this was brought up actually. My thought also is that if a writer like myself is going to use diversity novels, which is something I believe in, should I also use ‘Caucasian’ for white people? That makes sense to me. What do you think?

  12. Erick says:

    Where is the “sensitivity” and “tolerance” for the writers who choose to write controversial – even offensive – material? It goes both ways.
    If someone can’t handle reading/watching something they disagree with, then put down the book, turn the channel, or click the ‘x’ at the top right corner of your web browser. Rational, mature adults can entertain ideas even if they disagree with it….no need for temper tantrums.
    For publishers to accept censorship masquerading as “tolerance”, “diversity”, “sensitivity”, etc., then this flood of self-publishing is what’s necessary to overcome the insanity. We need more self-publishing, self-editing, and self-marketing it appears.

  13. Trish says:

    When it comes to children’s books, I guess I can understand a bit of censorship. Though, what is the point of freedom of speech or the ability of having an imagination if we can’t freely express our writings as we feel they should be? As an aspiring writer I can understand that you have to be careful in what you write, because it may hurt or disturb others, but so what? We can’t cater to every individual on the planet without releasing a billion different copies tailored to a specific culture. The inventory alone would be staggering. If someone came along and tried to change my stories, it would interrupt the flow of how the story was intended to be. It would no longer be mine. What we think, what we feel and how we write it matters. Censoring a novel just because there is an unsavory character, would be like slapping duct tape on every unsavory person in the world, or even everyone as a whole because everyone has flaws that someone else might not agree with. We might as well become a mute and thoughtless society completely void of emotions. Comedians Definetly wouldn’t exist anymore, nor would politics. Every right that is taken away from us as human beings, will only lead to the end of our way of life as we know it. People need to stop being so sensitive. If it doesn’t physically harm you, why does it matter? History is history because it happened and we learned from it. Yesterday is history because it is another day. The things and experiences that happen to people should not be censored, nor should the fanciful things we like to make up. As long as Fiction and Non fiction are clearly divided, there is no reason to force someone to change the way they write.

  14. SPJOHNSON says:

    The people in the picture look like they’re enjoying themselves.

  15. There’s a difference between reading “the kind of books that wound and stab us,” in Kafka’s words, and reading books that wound and stab the other guy. I’m autistic and one of the readers in the database. I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in before books are published with distorted or inaccurate information (just as I wouldn’t want my historical fiction to go out with distorted or inaccurate information), or that advocate the exclusion and abuse of people like me. What I don’t like is that the money I earn from sensitivity reads is what funds my self-published work, because publishers would rather work with a neurotypical author writing autistic characters than accommodate someone like me.

  16. As an editor, I do point out things that readers might find objectionable when doing content edits. That doesn’t mean authors always take my advice, but a few times my clients had been pleased to have something highlighted as insensitive, and have thanked me. Once it was a racial epitaph that was not in dialogue or part of an interior monologue , so there was no reason for it (it didn’t reveal anything about the character, in other words). I think knowledge is power, no one can force you to make changes to your book, but a publisher can certainly refuse to publish it, and readers can choose not to read it.

  17. Tannera Kane says:

    I refuse to bow to the demands of social justice warriors. They create problems that don’t exist. There’s no need for authors to create characters with specific cultural backgrounds. For instance, “Hey, look at me I’m _____ (insert social category and pigeon hole term here) is inappropriate. Like real people, fictional characters have access to education, tools, and information to overcome obstacles. Readers can imagine backgrounds as the heroes move through a plot with motive and determination. Back story culture is irrelevant.

  18. Garman Lord says:

    I think it’s probably time for all wordsmiths of good conscience to gang up on the publishing community and laugh the idea of sensitivity editing out of court, in comments, reviews, by whatever means available. Personally, I write naturalistic fiction, in which stevedores talk like stevedores, college profs talk like college profs, and every gradation in between talks like its natural self, sensitivity snowflakes be damned. Art is not only more important than walling yourself off from reality, it’s more likely to have just the opposite function if it’s real. As far as I’m concerned, as a wordsmith myself, who has invested a lot of time and trouble in perfecting his craft, any thought cop who comes along and tries to tell me how to write is just begging for me to determine empirically how far I can slam my boot up his butt. So for the benefit of the Social Justice Warriors out there, let’s reiterate: At worst, the notion of sensitivity editing is bad art, always a lamentable load of puppy-poo to find ourselves constantly stepping in. At best, it’s a slippery slope. How long before I or any other writer who might write about a black person or a Native American learning to spell his name right, putting on a suit and tie and getting a white collar job starts getting ticketed for Depraved and Reckless Cultural Appropriation? Nope; time for the world’s Wordsmiths to line up and announce to the literocracy in numbers too big to ignore: This far and no farther; you shall not pass!

  19. The entire premise around “sensitivity readers” makes me cringe. I immediately thought of all the authors, comics and others who pushed hard against society’s then-taboos in order to communicate more honestly, to open us up to realities beyond our own small circles, and often at great personal cost. I savor authors who defy our pettiness, who challenge the status quo. But, if publishers are now hiring these “special” readers, it does not bode well for debuting authors trying to break in with edgier work. Too bad. We all suffer from such extreme homogenization.

  20. inez says:

    The premise of hiring readers to control your writing, to stop your imagination, to corner you to write for those who want to see only their thoughts written scares me. We are a diverse world, are minds are not one, therefore we should have the freedom to choose to write and to read books we want to. Next we’re going to start burning books like those burned by accident in 48 BC by Caesar, except this time it would be purposely carried out by those screaming appropriation, offensive topics, language and the list can go on and on. Good writers should know how to write about sensitive issues, how to portrait particular characters, or handle offensive language.
    Most importantly is to know who your readers are. Writers cannot please everyone in this world—we’re very diverse and so are books. Critics do not scare me, but nameless, faceless trolls lurking behind computers do.
    INEZ

  21. Amy Thompson says:

    Loved the reply’s because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost their minds. I’m never drinking the kook-aid

  22. P.B. Leehan says:

    Interestingly, the article notes that this has been done for years—by publishers like Scholastic (children/young adult titles) and TV’s Sesame Street. When your audience is children, it makes sense. If your audience is adult readers, even if they have the sensitivities of children, I think they’ll have to make their own choice as to whether they want to read your work.
    My only caveat would be the same as I use with my writing today—factual error. You always get experts to read for that prior to publication. That includes something that might be “culturally” incorrect. But how does one find an “expert” on “sensitivity?” What are the professional bona fides for that skill? I wouldn’t presume to offer myself as an expert, and therefore qualified, to charge for the service of being someone’s “sensitivity reader” for “my” race/gender/age/social/cultural demographic.
    If someone is that concerned about hurting someone’s—anyone’s—“feelings,” they need to take a look at why they want to write to begin with.
    If one’s goal is simply not to offend, and therefore sell as many books as they can, I suppose that’s a legitimate personal reason to be a writer. But, like the above mention of the quality of most of today’s movies, I think your audience will tire of it. I can’t recall anyone recommending a book to me because “it’s so inoffensive!”
    It’s important to note that, like the screening audiences used by Hollywood, publishers care about “offending” people because they care about making money: the fewer people offended, the larger the book sales will, potentially, be.
    It’s the age-old pull-and-tug of the purpose of art and/or scholarship vs. the cash flow generated by its creation.
    I don’t begrudge someone writing to sell a million copies and make a million dollars, but do begrudge a publisher insisting I turn my work into homogenized, inoffensive pap so it will sell a lot of copies and make them (and, yes, me) a lot of money. That’s not why I write. My bank balance proves that.

  23. Aaron K says:

    I’ve taken enough university literature courses to be used to this type of politically correct cultural Marxism, and to quickly realize it was pure nonsense. One of the things that makes a writer like Shakespeare so great, is that he didn’t mind offending various groups in society, and just wrote great literature. The same goes for comedians like George Carlin and Mel Brooks. If people are offended, let them be offended. Some people won’t be satisfied until all literature is heavily censored or self-censored. For those with special sensitivities, they can just try to avoid reading things that offend them. Also, there should be publishing companies and social media sites for weak or easily offended people.

  24. I wouldn’t expect to need a sensitivity reader for my main characters–I KNOW them inside out–I’ve spent decades with people like them. But when my main character (in a projected, so far only outlined middle grade novel) meets a Native American chief and his son, I want to be sure that it’s young Jon’s preconceived notions, not mine, that need challenging! I’m not sure about a professional sensitivity reader–I think the ideal would be interaction and discussion with several young people from that specific tribe, and I expect to start by contacting a community college which specializes in studies of their language and culture. In general, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire a sensitivity reader if a different perspective might broaden my understanding and improve my book. I don’t see this as being “PC” or “not offending anyone,” but as an opportunity to increase my own awareness and make a good story better–in some cases, it might make part of the story MORE offensive to some!

  25. Jen says:

    My take from the article was if you’ve created any characters of a race different than your own, then you are guilty of cultural misappropriation. But if you’ve only created characters of your own race, then you are guilty of not promoting racial diversity in fiction.

    So basically no matter what you do, you’re wrong. But in case you’re not sure, there are SJWs out there willing to take your hard earned money to read your fiction and tell you that you’re wrong.

  26. Michael says:

    “Then again, there’s a difference between books that are intentionally challenging and/or offensive and those which were written by authors who may have been unaware they were causing offense.”

    So it is OK if you *intend* to offend?

    The whole issue reminds me of my youth in the Eastern Europe in the 60s. I think this self-censorship (which is what it is by another name) is a dangerous path indeed.

  27. I hesitate to disagree with some of the comments as I might end up labelled as something unsavoury, so I will state my opinion instead – as a reader and a writer.

    Sensitivity seems to provoke conflict. Let’s call it ‘authenticity’. If I read an obvious error, I hesitate and want to go and check my facts. Hence, as a writer, I try to ensure that what I write is not inaccurate. Yes, I write freestyle. But I check my facts. I write police procedurals so run the ‘unknowns’ past a cop that knows. And my female detective is bisexual so I have a reader that can tell me when I’ve made an error with her. Same approach when I have a character from a minority group.

    Bring on my ‘authenticity readers’.

  28. Michael A. Black says:

    All this talk about “sensitivity readers” and not wanting to offend anybody reminds me of The Ministry of Truth. I’m sure Big Brother would approve.

  29. BRENT SMITH says:

    A ‘sensitivity reader’…? What madness is this? I write what I want to write and if some people don’t like it they can go elsewhere for their entertainment. I would say to these pathetic infantilists: go away and grow up but don’t ever expect someone like me to alter his writing for the sake of a few demi-literate harridans. I detest and despise these nouveau-puritans. My message to them is simple and succinct, so they can understand it:- fuck off.

  30. Margaret Davis says:

    The First Amendment has been under attack by those in the media (print, video, and social networks) for some time now, so I’m not surprised. Orwellian? Yes. Counter-creative? Yes. Dangerous- yes. These people want a ‘perfect’ world – which will never exist in a world filled with individuals going in multitudinal directions with diverse ethics and cultures. The Mr. Rogers world is not natural to this planet. Otherwise, Bambi would not be knocking baby birds out of their nests to eat them- a fact documented by farmers who saw it happen. You may be able to write a sweet book like that— but wait! Happy little boring books like that have already been written for children, right? So is that what these people want? Pablum? Or do they even care about what the ‘others’ see in the world? This is the ultimate ME generation, isn’t it?

  31. DTA says:

    Sensitivity readers = thought police. Absolutely ludicrous and, frankly, dangerous to even condone it.

  32. While this post is informative and offers reasons and examples for hiring sensitivity readers for fiction books (I presume), my reaction to it goes like this:

    Is that not what beta readers and developmental editors are for?
    Is someone rebranding something that already exists?
    I have to wonder what other writers who are long since gone who were both prolific and controversial would have to say about the current state of affairs in the world of publishing.

    The dictum to write what you know might mean deep research is part of the writing process as well as involving people who are different from us. World views get surprizingly personal in books and not all characters are likeable, nor should they be. For me as a reader, memorable books engage, cause friction, make us stop and think, and educate me and my personal views. There are books I start and don’t finish by choice. There are books I can’t put down and recommend to everyone I meet. There are books I debate with others because they made me think hard about things not in my everyday world. I appreciate them all.

    If one’s objective is to write a best seller, I suppose there is more than one way to do so.
    1. Write authentically and with heart and be potentially surprized when your work goes viral.
    2. Write strategically and with the market in mind and make choices from that perspective.
    3. Consider the market, then write what is truly yours to write, and see what comes of it.

    And, I suspect that data science and new technologies for tracking reader sentiment make it sadly more appealing for the sake of marketing and sales. It’s a slippery slope for certain.

    I write because writing feeds my souland have been doing so since I was young. If and when my writing speaks to others, I am thankful. I suspect I will never be a strategic a writer as I might need to be–to be that big of a bestseller (if ever) and I am okay with that. As one who mentors budding writers, I sure would love to hear their reactions to this new trend of publishers…and for that reason, I appreciate this post Scott. So thanks!

  33. “To Kill A Mockingbird” has made the no-fly list in many American schools, because it uses the word “nigger” in its historical context.

    ‘Nuff said.

    PS–the world is dumb enough without our having to edit out every word, expression, or portrayal that might cause someone to think.

  34. Marilyn Carvin says:

    I want a sensitivity reader for my early California novel. It takes place just prior to the Mexican/American War. Although I’ve done tons of research, there is a lot I am missing re the everyday life of Californios living in the pueblos. I want my Irish protagonist to have some good Mexican friends. Not so much afraid of “offending”, as afraid I am missing details that would enrich it, and don’t want to put something in that a knowledgable reader would consider unlikely. We might “offend” someone from Tennessee or Missouri, as the American settler tended to be rough and uneducated, although hard-working and skilled in their own way. Although we may think of “sensitivity readers” censuring, one might also consider them resource for details that would add to “world building”.

  35. TIM SCHAEFER says:

    Just go recruit on college campuses. They’ve been brainwashed by the new censorship in the guise of “sensitivity.” Thank God Huck Finn and many of the other classics came out when they did. Doesn’t look like there will be anything like them again.

  36. Mike Abrahams says:

    I see two ‘p.c.’ issues. One is what is ‘offensive’ and the other is what is ‘inclusive’. I don’t particularly want to be dictated to by either. Although I have a lot invented words in my current piece of writing and I do wonder sometimes if they are terms of abuse is some language or other.

  37. David North says:

    I’ll look for someone with an organic perspective in an area where I am unsure of how to sound authentic: having a woman read through my female dialogue, a teen through teen dialogue, etc.,etc.

    I will not hire a political correctness czar to tell me if my novel is acceptable.

    Vote with your wallet and download preferences.

    I’m not writing transgender novels or ones from the perspective of native Serbs: they aren’t my area of knowledge or expertise and unless I consider such a character as particularly relevant to my story, I’m not committing to months of research to shoe horn them into a story.

    People wanting authentic representation should write those stories and over time the rest of us can gain knowledge from them.

  38. Christopher says:

    This is simply another trend influenced by the hyper-sensitive, easily offended, censorship-loving crowd who cannot stand to hear anyone express a view that is different from their own. The publishers are simply cowing to the forces of the day in an attempt to sell more books, regardless of whether the books will be worth reading when the censors are done with them.

  39. To each his/her/its own. Like Kafka’s quote and Paul Clayton’s comment above, I despised Barney and all that oh-so-correct, Goody-Two-Shoes, and deadly boring niceness that recent generations of kid entertainment was – and probably still is – awash in. My children very early realized for themselves that the wicked, clever, hilarious, and ultimately very fair Bugs Bunny taught them far more useful life lessons.

    Besides, depicting controversial (what some might consider shockingly icky), or trigger-warning-worthy behaviors while still succeeding in making a character not just tolerable but also understandable and deeply sympathetic is one of the requirements and the many delights of being a writer. The protagonist in my HF series committed every oh-horrors-worthy behavior imaginable, but every reader ends up both loving and admiring him.

    YMMV, but count me out.

  40. Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    This is a slippery slope to elimination of our 1st Amendment Rights, I’m sick of these crybabbies, and social justice warriors being pawns for the elites who are trying to usurp our constitutional rights and create a fascist state. This is very serious. We should not take this lightly. I will not be hiring a sensitivity reader.

  41. Lewis W. Rogers says:

    This sounds like a great idea, and I’ll be sure to try it. I’ve been writing animal fantasy for a while now, hoping to publish it at some point, but I do worry about who might get offended. My roster of characters includes:

    -a bat-winged mare with a Master’s degree in a presumed-dead branch of magic.

    -a unicorn colt who got turned into a statue for a thousand years because he was born with mind control powers.

    -an asthmatic reindeer boy who got picked on and then turned himself into a little block of muscle.

    -a weak reindeer boy who got picked on and decided to defend himself using ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’-style animated toys.

    -a reindeer girl who’s too afraid to tell boys when they’re being jerks (which, for reindeer, is pretty much all the time) because her parents are doctors in a boy-oriented hospital and she’s been raised to think ‘boys have it rough.’ Also, she has issues with intimacy, because she’s a very talented brontomancer… talented enough to electrocute anyone by bopping hips with them.

    I’d be very interested to hear the opinions of any actual bat-winged mares, petrification victims, mind controllers, masters of animation magic, or girls who accidentally taser boys with their touch. Or, you know, if you’re a regular flying reindeer, your input would be appreciated, too, obviously. Gotta be inclusive with your sensitivity readers, right?

    Geez, I wonder if Disney had to hire actual Jedi when they made the last few Star Wars films… now that would make for an interesting story.

  42. I am utterly, totally against this “modern” cultural BS. I write books that, like the Joker, say, “Wait till they get a load of me.”

  43. What a moment in publishing! I’d love to be the bright mind that writes a novel about this disturbing industry trend, about the timid and fearful personalities that think this will save their behinds, and the Norman Mailer-type authors that are having none of it, and the vast public that falls asleep reading these sanitized novels, and the black-market book dealers who give the desperate public the daring stories it wants. Tom Wolfe, are you too old to take this on?

  44. Jane says:

    Why on earth would I ever want my audience to be a bunch of hypersensitive, looking-to-be-offended types? Everyone on this planet could find something to be outraged about.

    Uh un, censoring manuscripts to appeal to the sensitive whiners will never be my audience. The writer writes from his/her heart, he doesn’t measure and evaluate every word to please someone.

    Scary. Very scary. I shudder at the thought of a massive body of thought and work, self-censored to adapt to a very intolerant generation. Uniformity and conformity has no place in art.

  45. Beyond Cynicism says:

    The first target of fascism (of the Left or the Right) is the lanuage and culture of the subject nation.

    Orwell understood this all too well with his “NewSpeak” and, as in so many things, his prescience is coming frighteningly true today.

    Some words to think about in 2018:

    “liberal” means “illiberal”.
    “democrat” means “anti-democrat”
    “tolerance” means “intolerance”
    “diversity” means “uniformity”
    “creativity” means “conformity”
    “inclusivity” means “exclusitity”
    “sensitivity” means “censorship”
    “social justice” means “puritanical fascism”
    “cultural appropriation” means “I can take, borrow or adapt from your culture but you may not do the same with mine”
    “offended” means “thought control”

    The list goes on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *