Books, Fiction, Free Speech, Literature, Politics, recent

Policing the Creative Imagination

At a time when activist displeasure can sweep through social media and destabilize reputations and nascent careers overnight, publishers are taking unprecedented steps in an effort to mitigate the risks. Among these is the use of sensitivity readers—individuals tasked with reading a work of fiction prior to publication in an effort to determine whether or not offense is likely to be caused by an author’s portrayal of characters from demographics considered marginalised or historically oppressed. Many readers, I suspect, will have become aware of this emerging trend following a series of nasty controversies in the world of Young Adult publishing.

Kosoko Jackson (Pic: Twitter)

In 2017, a fantasy novel by Kiera Drake entitled The Continent was attacked for its allegedly racist portrayal of Native Americans. The novel was hastily rewritten following guidance from sensitivity readers. In January of this year, Amelie Zhao’s debut novel Blood Heir, set in a fantastical version of medieval Russia, was denounced online because its portrayal of chattel slavery was deemed insufficiently sensitive to America’s own racist history. In response, Zhao thanked her persecutors profusely (a dismayingly common response) and explained that she would be withdrawing her novel from publication indefinitely. Like Drake, Zhao “sought feedback from scholars and sensitivity readers,” made changes, and a new publication date for her novel has just been announced. Weeks after Zhao withdrew her book, A Place for Wolves, written by sensitivity reader Kosoko Jackson, was also withdrawn by its author following criticisms of his portrayal of an Albanian Muslim villain. It did not go unnoticed that Jackson had participated in the attacks on Zhao“The schadenfreude,” one Twitter user observed, “is delicious.”

If the use of sensitivity readers is intended to prevent ignominious crises like these, it is almost certainly a futile exercise—many of those vandalizing Goodreads pages with vitriolic reviews make no secret of the fact that they have not read the book in question and do not intend to do so. Furthermore, a stamp of approval from two Muslim sensitivity readers was not enough to spare Laura Moriarty’s American Heart accusations of bigotry. Nevertheless, publishers are increasingly relying on sensitivity readers, if only to show willing and as an insurance policy. There are not, as far as I can tell, any qualifications required to become a sensitivity reader, other than membership of the relevant demographic. I asked a number of authors how they or their editors had selected such readers, and the answer invariably turned out to be that they searched for a representative of the group in question who hopefully had some additional interest in writing or reading.

This reveals a distressingly reductive essentialism—it suggests that African Americans, gays, women, transgender people, and so on possess some vaguely conceived but determinative essence which enables them to speak for their group, and to evaluate a text in its name. The logic of this essentialism, however, is at odds with the very idea of sensitivity readers, since it leads to a situation in which no-one may write about anyone’s experiences but their own. Nine months before his debut novel fell afoul of his own exacting sectarian standards, Kosoko Jackson issued this intemperate public announcement on Twitter:

Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?

I’m tired of women profiting off of gay male stories. I’m tired of women profiting off of gay pain. I’m fucking sick of it.

No, we (gay men) don’t own gay stories. But some things are off limits. I don’t understand why this is so god damn hard or fucking complex. There are millions of ideas. Leave us our pain and identities and don’t fucking profit from them. Respect us enough to do that.

Jackson’s reasoning may be valid, but it is not sound—if human experiences are socially constructed by membership of an identity group, and each group is opaque to anyone outside the group, then any attempt to write about people outside of one’s group is certain to end in failure, and perhaps even ethical violation. As the novelist Lionel Shriver and others have pointed out, this doctrine convicts writers of the sin of empathy and throttles creativity and imagination. If an author wants to avoid trouble, they would do well to restrict the characters they create to people of their own sex, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnic group.

Theoretically, the sensitivity reader offers a way out of this collision between the demands of identity politics and the demands of creative writing. Supporters of the use of sensitivity readers tend to marshal three additional claims in defense of the practice: (1) The use of sensitivity readers is not censorship, (2) it is always voluntary and does not affect publishing decisions and, most importantly, (3) it is merely a form of fact checking. The first of these claims is a red herring and the remaining two are false.

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

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

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

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

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

Presumably, sensitivity readers also perform some basic fact checks. But the goal of warding off moral offense requires ethical evaluation. Consider the following hypothetical: An author who is neither African American nor female writes a novel in which an African American woman expressed regret for her multiple abortions. The sensitivity reader may be offended by abortion, and so will be sanguine about this narrative. Alternatively, the sensitivity reader may be offended by attempts to make abortion illegal, and so take great exception to this portrait of remorse. Is the book portraying women as flippant in their reproductive choices, or is it intended as a comment on African American attitudes to abortion and parenthood? Or is it neither? In any such case, the sensitivity reader will be invited to judge a complicated ethical issue in a work of fiction, and to render a judgment through a crude lens of bias detection.

Defenders of sensitivity readers may object that professionalism can prevent readers from projecting their own ethical values onto someone else’s work, beyond specific matters relating to the representation of a particular group. As the hypothetical above is meant to illustrate, it is very difficult to draw such a clear line. But, even if it were theoretically possible to do so, sensitivity readers need have no training, so one cannot expect them to have well-defined professional standards. It is therefore hard to judge whether or not a sensitivity reader has performed their job competently. A copy editor may be evaluated by the number of typos that creep into a book. A fact checker may be evaluated by a subsequent verification of a novel’s historical facts and claims. By what measure or standard are we to assess the work of the sensitivity reader if we cannot agree about challenging questions of ethics? Is a single objection by an aggrieved party disqualifying? Ten objections? Twenty?

There is a backhanded compliment lurking within these struggles for control over literature. People from diverse ideological perspectives appear to share the belief that fiction is important. But this belief has helped create a contradiction. The sensitivity reader is expected to evaluate norms that are often highly contentious—questions about the conflicting duties of the individual and society, about how different groups should live together, and about how individuals and groups should understand their own identities and histories. Questions like these have vexed us for centuries. For this reason, they are precisely the questions we expect literature to explore. Indeed, it is because literature explores these questions that it is so important. And literature cannot perform this vital task if it is first filtered through sensitivity readers who we believe already have all the answers—not because of what they know, but because of who they happen to be.


Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. You can follow him on Twitter @CraigDeLancey

128 Comments

  1. Cynical Old Biologist says

    Sounds like there will be a growing market niche for a publisher that declares it does not use sensitivity readers and does not require its authors to be mindful of identity politics. That is where the interesting and challenging literature will be. It may take a while, but I hope that this censorship problem will be one that solves itself – a little like Quillette arising to publish the commentary that others will not.

    • E. Olson says

      COB – I agree that a gutsy publisher could probably take the industry by storm if it announced a no tolerance for political correctness policy for evaluating submitted works. Perhaps they might really go crazy and announce they were interested in publishing good stories and evaluating manuscripts based on story quality and likely profitability.

      • David of Kirkland says

        This is likely to work as well as movies wanting to get an X rating for their niche market.

      • Boycott Pansy Publishers says

        Whoa there partner. Let’s not get carried away with this rational, thought-based approach of building a publishing business and reputation on stuff like story quality and marketability.

        Seriously though, the phenomenon this article describes is DISGUSTING. Talk about something that is offensive to a thinking person. Really? We need the publisher to literally… not figuratlively… literally hire a team of literary nannies to go through all the books we might read one day, scan them for every little thing that might offend some random person… so the author can go back and sanitize and dumb down the prose that came from their hearts and minds. And give us, the reading public — let’s face it — a dumbed down or degraded product.

        The great irony here is this whole effort is ostensibly to avoid literature that somehow marginalizes arleady marginalized groups*, and then they do this direclty insulting our intelligence and our abitlity to separate fact from fiction, hyperbole from hate, etc.

        *Actually it’s not about that it all. This is about publishers having zero spine and being afraid of the random lawsuit. Gutless. Just absolutely GUTLESS. Anyone who works with one of these nanny teams ought to be ashamed of themselves. You know when people say America and/or liberty will die by 1000 cuts / one little intrusion at a time? This is that. Except somehow the publishers decided to do it on their own, not at some government weenie’s request.

        Congratulations morons, you have performed literary castration on yourself and your authors. When the time comes, Big Brother will definitely approve. Double plus nanny-good!

        • Cary Cotterman says

          Pansy Publishers, indeed. I’m glad I’m not a huge fan of 21st-century novels, anyway. There’s still plenty of superior fiction from the 20th, 19th, and earlier centuries to keep me going indefinitely. I think (and hope) self-publishing will grow as a remedy to the current idiotic phenomenon of sensitivity readers,.

      • E. Olson says

        Thanks for the link Curious – this is just another example of get woke go broke.

    • There already is. It’s called fan-fiction, and this policing is just one of the reasons it’s more interesting and more popular than what you’ll find in a bookstore.

  2. Andrew Scott says

    “This reveals a distressingly reductive essentialism—it suggests that African Americans, gays, women, transgender people, and so on possess some vaguely conceived but determinative essence which enables them to speak for their group, and to evaluate a text in its name.”

    That’s something to actually be offended over. I can’t imagine someone recommending a pointless change to a book and saying that they did so because they represent me, and having others believe that the individual really does represent me. Sharing a minority classification with me is not a license to offer opinions on my behalf.

    • David of Kirkland says

      You state they are part of a group, but deny that a group has any cohesion because not every individual in the group is identical. That’s nonsense and means all writings fail because no writing can address everything for everyone.

      • Andrew Scott says

        Sorry, that was so confusing that I’m not sure what you meant or what you thought I meant. It’s probably me.

      • northernobserver says

        Literature is written by individuals Dave, not by committee. Although in the brave new socialist future you are obviously agitating for, I suppose literature will be created by committee to reify class itself and legitimate those class divisions and the interpretations of those divisions so that they serve the purpose of The Party and The Program.
        Congratulations on doing your part in making dystopia our lived reality.
        Bravo, you red/black zombie.

      • No, he didn’t deny that a group has any cohesion. You’re using Boolean thinking–as if a group could be either all identical, or have nothing in common at all, not anything in-between.

    • It’s impossible for contemporary progressives to think other than in essentialist terms, because they have a Platonist ontology. This is their intellectual ancestry: Plato -> Plotinus -> Catholicism -> Calvinism -> Puritanism -> Old Lights -> Unitarianism.

    • Contemporary progressives think in terms of group essences because they have a Platonist metaphysics. Contemporary progressivism emanates from universities founded by Puritans or Calvinists, notably Harvard, Yale, Princeton, U. of Chicago, & most of our other “top” universities. This isn’t a matter of left vs. right; both left and right in the US are Platonists. Note that Trump is the first US President since Reagan not to come from Harvard or Yale. (In fact, Trump attended U Penn, the first US university /not/ founded to teach theology.)

      The intellectual geneology of progressives today is: Plato -> Plotinus -> Catholicism -> Calvin -> Puritanism -> {Old Lights -> Unitarianism, or else New Lights, e.g., Princeton} -> Atheist progressivism. All these sects shared the basic Platonic-Aristotelian belief that reasoning is “rational”, done by (unquantified Boolean) logical operations over members of discrete categories in the world, which are defined by a set of necessary & sufficient conditions. Under this ontology, it’s impossible for members of a group to differ in any but what Aristotle called “accidental” properties, or else they would by definition not be a category.

      This also explains why progressives call it “diversity” when they collect people with different skin colors who all think alike. If thoughts and values were important, they would be essential properties, and then race-based groups must either all think alike, or not be true categories. Also, no one could critique a group for its thoughts and values, since your virtue (Aristotle said) is measured by how well you match your category’s essential properties.

      Post-modern epistemology lets them avoid this by dismissing opinions and values as either issues on which there is a social consensus (and hence everyone must accept the consensus view to be a member of society), or else issues which are indeterminate, and hence meaningless and “accidental”. So “diversity” does not concern itself with diversity of beliefs; all beliefs are either on issues of social consensus, on which deviation may not be tolerated, or on unimportant, “accidental” issues.

  3. I received an MFA in writing popular fiction, have a short story published, have a couple of poems out there, and took second place in a fairly well respected contest. Because the market is so toxic now, my writing will never see the light of day. One day, in the not-too-distant future, I’m going print everything I’ve written, wipe my hard drive, grab some matches, and play Kafka with the stack.

    Seriously, from a trained writer’s perspective, it’s bad to the point of inducing severe depression.

    • Cynthia Ford says

      And this singularly depressing trend presumes that writing fiction and imagining in general are wholly conscious processes. When imagination is tormented and suppressed, as it was under Stalin and Mao, what happens?
      My friend’s characters used to come to him in his dreams and speak, and I have heard story after story from writers about experiences like this. I once heard Anthony Burgess speak at the University of Iowa about how he had chose a name for his protagonist, R. Innis (or maybe Ennis?) because of the semantic meaning “island.” A reader wrote him and told him the whole novel could be interpreted in light of the fact that the protagonist’s name, backwards, was “sinner.” He was astounded. He was not conscious of creating that symbolism!
      I have thought about starting a publishing company and perhaps a writing school for works freely imagined, but I’m from the Jurassic and growing too old to be doxxed, but someone should! I had thought about calling it GORGEOUS FORTITUDE PUBLISHING from the Wallace Stevens poem “Imago”. Who knows, it might be lucrative!

      "I am against any dictatorship, right or left, terrestrial or celestial, white, grey or black, pink, red or purple..." Vladimir Nabokov

      • Victor says

        Spot on, Cynthia. The variations in character, plot, and setting are often unconsciously inspired. Demanding they be changed is to demand control over the inner world which, by its very nature, can not be controlled.

    • johnhenry says

      Respect, Victor, but please reflect further on the life of Kafka who never achieved literary fame and fortune in his lifetime, but is now revered as a great man (second class).

      Even Shakespeare – especially Shakespeare – would find it very hard to be published today. Indeed, I don’t recall him ever having a publisher in his lifetime. He was self-published, was he not?

      Are we (speaking rhetorically) in it for fame and fortune or because we have important things to say?

      • Kristina says

        Shakespeare was not published because in that time, no one would ever think to print copies of plays to read them. Shakespeare wrote plays for the theater company to which he belonged, and they performed them. At the time, he would not have believed he was making art for posterity (except maybe with the sonnets). He would have been trying to make the best possible experience for his audience and actors–some drama, some love, some sex jokes, fabulous rhythm, and language rich and interesting enough to keep illiterate peasants occupied for four hours.

        • johnhenry says

          Kristina, thank you for your intelligent reply, but it is not entirely correct. Plays were published back then to be read as well as to be performed. Not Shakespeare or Marlowe plays (that I know of) but Ben Jonson – the first (albeit unofficial) poet laureate of England – wrote the comedy Volpone or the Foxe which was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1606 and published just one year later, thirty years before Jonson’s death.

          • Andrew Roddy says

            Shakespeare was widely published in his life time. I don’t think he was ever a direct party to publication and never profited from it.
            He has also to been subject to have his scripts amended to suit the ‘sentivities’ of different times and cultures. Notably some Victorian editions excised passages or vocabulary that was considered vulgar.

        • JC says

          What? Lol. Wow. No. Shakeapeare had his first folio published in 1623. A few years after his death, granted, but all of his works were published very early on as were the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights.

          • johnhenry says

            JC says: “What? Lol. Wow. No.”

            Do give us some credit. The discussion above concerns Shakespeare plays that may have been published during his lifetime and read by fireside readers in their country houses. There is no record of any except the pirated ones mentioned by Andrew Roddy.

      • Victor says

        The reference to Kafka was to the great stack of work he burned before allowing others to read it.

      • AM says

        Shakespeare wrote for performance, not publication, at a time when nothing like the modern publishing industry existed and plays were seen as ephemeral not serious literature. His friends decided to posthumously put a collection of his plays together and have them printed.

    • Annie Paper says

      @Victor I feel the same way about my work and the visual art world. It’s horrible.

    • Cary Cotterman says

      Victor–self publishing is growing in quality and gaining more respect. It’s no longer just “fan fiction”. I hope writers like you will be able to dodge the “sensitivity reader” phenomenon.

  4. E. Olson says

    Evaluations of fiction by readers is typically based in large part on the the plausibility of the plot and characters relative to the genre (i.e. does it reflect the “reality” as the reader believes it to be or could be in the particular context of the story of historical fiction, modern day mystery or political drama, or futuristic science fiction). Yet no matter what the genre, plausibility judgments are typically based on current value and belief systems, such that historical “victim” classes might be inaccurately portrayed as more independent, influential, and successful in a historical context than they actually were in order to appear plausible to today’s readers who have seen black US presidents, and female and gay heads of Fortune 500 companies. Plausibility judgments are also dependent on the background, knowledge, and preferences of the reader, and thus the plausibility of a certain plot or character might be judged as high or low depending on the reader’s race, education, gender, sexual preferences, religion, age, etc.

    Successful authors are typically people who can write stories that appeal to their audience because the story elements are deemed favorably plausible by the audience. Thus if the target audience is middle-aged white males, the gay, Muslim, black, or female characters should appeal to that audience’s values, beliefs, and preferences with regards to demographic plausibility, which might be very different from the demographic plausibility judgments of a book targeting female or Muslim audiences. Thus sensitivity readers who are by their very nature not likely to be demographically similar to the author or targeted readers are not going to do anything but make the story less plausible and attractive to most target audiences, and it isn’t even clear from this article that they will make books less likely to be protested by social justice non-readers.

    The only exception to this plausibility rule is likely to be books where the target audience isn’t the reader of the book, but the selector of the book, such as books targeted as assigned readings in school curriculum where school administration or teachers choose the book for their students. In such cases the selector’s are very likely to not want plausibly accurate reflections of reality, but a story that reflects the desired narrative of the selectors – i.e. toxic male characters, saintly and successful victim class characters, plots that de-emphasize Western contributions and/or create or exaggerate non-Western contributions, etc. Yet this article hints that sensitivity readers may also not be helpful here, because they may not have accurate insights into the desired narrative of the mostly white, elite, feminized, Leftist selectors of such books, and fiction (or even non-fiction) that deviates from the narrative are unlikely to be “saved” by saying the characters and plot were approved by “victim” class sensitivity readers.

    • allan revesz says

      Many stories by Philip K Dick are completely implausible. Yet in my opinion that is why many of his stories work…. Surreality has a place in fiction.

      • E. Olson says

        allan – Dick’s writings were futuristic science fiction (at least the works I am familiar with), which gives more leeway on plausibility, but even there it helps the plausibility of a story about interplanetary travel if it is written when real jets and rockets, and sightings of UFOs are in the news as they were in Dick’s heyday.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      “saintly and successful victim class characters”

      But the Correctness Overton window can become so narrow that it can be impossible to win. That is, one might be both condescending/patronizing and denigrating/stereotyping at one and the same time in the eyes of respective sensitivity readers. Even given the new rule that only a fat, gay, black, transwoman scientist can write about fat, gay, black, transwoman scientists, if a permitted author’s FGBTW scientist does not win the Nobel Prize, then naturally she is white privilege adjacent and has probably internalized her own oppression thus she perpetuates the false stereotype about low levels of black contribution to science. If the Nobel is won, then the author is extinguishing black oppression and perhaps guilty of drawing a Magic Negro. But the very wokest sensitivity reader would shriek that even mentioning the Nobel is perpetuating the patriarchy and privileging white ways of knowing. There really is no safe space for authors.

    • Constantin says

      @ E. Olson
      Great comment. (By the way – I always look up with interest your comments. :-))

      A few thoughts:

      a) These so called “sensitivity readers” cannot be anything else but self-selected SJW activists. If you ask a park ranger or a member of a native community to check certain facts (if your desire is to give an accurate rendition of a historical fact or hunting or religious practice), that kind of input tends to be fact specific and does not serve a narrative. By comparison, the allegedly random sensitivity vetting we are talking about is asking a very different question: to what extent the writing in question serves the “Ingsoc” narrative for indoctrination purposes? It is not – like some others hinted – that the purpose is to ensure a compatibility with the overall zeitgeist. It is about engineering and forcing into existence what they perceive as an enlightened zeitgeist (that also happens to involve the re-writing of classic literature and the banning of those novels that do not serve the “Ingsoc” narrative. You sort of hinted to it in your last paragraph but sort of allowed some room for it for the readings used for the indoctrination of children. I was like: “what?” And then, you switched the narrative by saying that, in that context, sensitivity reader activists may also draw a blank as they could not understand the desired narrative of the mostly white <> teachers. That’s where you lost me badly. I disagree with the suggestion that this group has an overarching desired narrative other than living in fear of ostracism and a nearly pathological desire to justify their existence exclusively on perceived moral superiority. The perfect mechanical puppet does not even come close to the perfect mechanical predictability of this group. I firmly believe that a reasonably astute 10 year old could learn by rote all the “right” phrases and impersonate any of them without anyone being able to tell the difference. (Think about someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her intellectual and mental maturity.)

      b) The notion that publishers need the “insurance” of being at least able to say that they used sensitivity readers before publishing anything is the most worrisome aspect of the entire affair. People get insurance to mitigate the damage if disaster strikes. The kind of disaster they are trying to keep at bay is not poor readership interest. That kind of risk is the bread and butter of that industry. Instead, they are fearful of being mobbed by the “woke” crowd and have their business and personal reputation destroyed, or worse… The author of this article beats around the bush quite a bit by philosophizing whether art by committee is appropriate for novel writing, whether the use of random ethical arbiters is not a species of unwarranted group reductive essentialism, and whether their involvement meets the precise definition of censorship.

      c) I kept reading and wondering what does it take to suggest in the same text that publishers need “insurance” and such ominous hints as:
      – “If an author wants to avoid trouble, they would do well to restrict the characters they create to people of their own sex, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnic group. ” and
      – “In the event of a mob denunciation, the publisher explained, they could at least counter that the book had been vetted by a Native American. ”
      and not zero decisively on the big, fat, pink elephant in the room: fear of the mob, at various levels induces self-censorship, the “insurance” of being able to claim that you have been given the green light, the imposition of censorship on others – downstream from you- by bringing the censor in as part of a “voluntary contract”, and so forth. All that is the result of abject fear. The land of the free has discovered at last and to some degree what those for us coming from behind the Iron Curtain experienced as a mode of living. We were also told by the Communists that it is in service of a higher moral virtue and to bring about a beautiful and just society. Watching the decay of the Western Civilization both scares and fascinates me. I look at my colleagues and marvel at the infinite ways the human mind rationalizes and tries to ignore this sad reality. I know from experience that it gets much , much worse before it gets better, and at least a couple of generations are doomed. It takes a lot of suffering to take the blinders off and understand that the safe proclaimed “do-gooders” claiming moral superiority and seeking to dismantle hard won social institutions and controls are not anybody’s friends and aim squarely to control others without limits and without compunction.

      d) I think that the social media creates a distorted and parallel universe governed by unrestricted and sometimes capricious mobs. I would have thought that a mature society would simply ignore and merely feel entertained by what is happening in that “through the mirror” universe. But this is not what has happened. Instead, publishers, politicians, and pretty much everyone else submitted to the whims of an environment that is not governed by civic institutions, where borders do not exist, and only The Good Lord knows how many in the mob taking you to task are Russian or Chinese operatives. I would have understood this if the society was one of teenagers focusing their entire existence on a parallel phantasy world. But the older (and one would have hoped wiser) crowd went for broke and started measuring its influence and status by the number of Twitter followers and “likes” on Youtube. In effect we have taken much of our civic engagement outside the realm controlled by civic institutions honed over millennia, and gave ultimate power to an undefined, globalized Internet chatter universe dominated by unemployed, woke nincompoops. While everyone else is busy working, a distinct loser minority coalesces endlessly into an Internet mob and has come to the point that they could summon at whim a violent private militia to harass, intimidate and even beat up political opponents, with total impunity. Unlike the enraged progressives, I think that the rise of the “populist movements” across the world, is an extraordinarily decent and measured response to the amount of bullying those societies have been exposed to. There is still some hope that the self-correcting mechanisms of the Western Civilization are still capable of self-correction without the need for bloodshed, but the stakes are getting pretty high.

      • E. Olson says

        Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful comment Constantin. Most writers have a desire to share a story and perhaps gain some fame and fortune, while most fiction readers just want to be entertained. In contrast, social justice do-gooders see every story as an opportunity to promote their woke narrative, which as you suggest means “correcting” non-PC authors and publishers with protests and the threat of career/economic ruin. The problem is that sensitivity readers don’t guarantee that the story will ever be “woke enough” to satisfy all the SJ mobs, even as their “corrections” make the stories less compelling and marketable to the readers who just want entertainment not a grievance study lesson.

        For markets where the reader doesn’t select the story, there often becomes a competition between the SJ mobs and the selectors to see who can create/select the wokest stories. For school students this exposure to implausible stories and characters designed to “teach” woke lessons will mean that taking a literature course will simply turn most students off from ever wanting to read fiction, and lead many to also accurately understand that most of their textbooks are also woke fiction. But the other area where woke selectors are the market for writers is TV and movies, where SJ producers, directors, and stars fall all over themselves to select/make their scripts as woke as possible. Thus we are flooded with shows where 100 lb women defeat 220 lb Navy Seals in fights without messing up their hair, illegals are all hard working and law abiding, business leaders are always criminals trying to screw customers and employees and murdering their wives and rivals, husbands and boyfriends are always screw-ups and idiots, homosexuals are always likable and monogamous, and Republicans are all greedy crooks and fascists. And almost without exception, these woke TV programs and movies are rating disasters because most of the would-be audience don’t find these stories compelling or plausible, if not downright insulting. It will be interesting to see how long Hollywood can survive as a money losing propaganda machine for the social justice narrative.

  5. GregS says

    I once wrote a short story about superman’s last day at the Daily Planet. I apologize for that. Only a superman posing as a journalist should be allowed write such a story.

    On a more serious note, in the forward to A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean makes note of the number and variety of people he asked to read his book prior to its publication in 1976. These included, locals, forest rangers, (local) Native Americans, fly-fishermen and journalists. He wanted their perspective.

    That’s how it should be done.

    • Jean Levant says

      Greg,
      You’re right but it’s not the point of the author. In your example, it’s a documentation effort, just a little more meticulous than regular writers do. In this article, it’s all about self censorship PC-induced which is the most perfect form of censorship as it was established by Big Brother and the like.

  6. allan revesz says

    Haha, it would be interesting to write a novel where none of the sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic group…..of the characters are stated, implied or inferred….only that they are all illiterate.
    Now the hunt for the illiterate sensitivity reader is on!

    • allan revesz says

      Doh, just realized it could never get published, as the author would not fit the demographic of being illiterate and thus would be condemned for appropriating.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @allan revesz

        Nice catch there Allan, but your first post is already out there and can’t be recalled. And are you mocking the illiterate? Are you privileging literacy? And are you suggesting that Identity be extinguished? That’s because you want to perpetuate your own Privilege, isn’t it? We see you. We fucking see you. You’re execution on Twitter is forthcoming. Revesz had ceased to exist. He had never existed.

        • allan revesz says

          I offer my most humble stock apology for cultural insensitivity.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @allan revesz

            That won’t save you.

  7. dmm says

    As the author halfway points out, an unelected amateur has no moral or rational authority to speak for a whole demographic. It’s an idiotic practice by cowards and borgbots.

  8. Shatterface says

    I’m currently writing a novel about a sensitivity reader who is a total cunt.

    If any sensitivity reader who identify as a total cunt is willing to check my novel and ensure I’ve represented them fairly and accurately I’d be happy to ignore their input.

    • johnhenry says

      I’m extremely offended by your book project, Shatterface. I haven’t read it yet (obviously) but that’s beside the point. Thank you.

    • Greg M says

      I willingly volunteer to be the sensitivity cunt to check your novel and be ignored for my input; I see it as my life’s work and will proudly shower my friends with evidence of my work.

  9. Frank Grenier says

    I have no desire to read any author that would alter a word of their fiction to appease a sensitivity reader and look forward to giving unadulterated copies of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “The Color Purple”, and “Of Mice and Men” to my grandchildren.

    • allan revesz says

      While this seems to be on the upswing it isn’t entirely new. When I first moved to my University town in the mid 80s I was surprised that they had taken Huck Finn out of the libraries due to its ‘problematic’ language.

      Emily Carr’s book Klee Wyck is a good example (from Wikipedia) –Originally published by the Oxford University Press’ Toronto division in 1941, the book was abridged by 2,300 words for the 1951 Clarke, Irwin & Company edition. Removed were several passages critical of the actions of European missionaries, as well as an account of a mixed race family. This version was the basis for all editions of the book until Douglas & McIntyre’s 2004 edition restored the text.

      In the 50s the missionaries were a protected class, and the mixed race family was not…fast forward to the 2000s and mixed race couples are now protected and missionaries are not.

      • Frank Grenier says

        The impulse to censor books, or in the case of sensitivity readers to preemptively “correct” them, never goes out of style. Someday I may be the dude asking a student if they want the good stuff – an original version of a modified novel.

      • scribblerg says

        Right, and this was dealt with in the “campus free speech movement” of the ’60s, maybe the only good outcome of the depraved “hippie movement”. So now that we’ve moved beyond this kind of censorious interference, we don’t need to re-implement it. Your comment seems to indicate there is some balance here, where there is none. There is human progress. The real question to ask here is whether leftists want to roll back the free speech movement? They fought tooth and nail to be able to criticize every aspect of Western society based on these ideals, but the Left behaves like fascists.

  10. John says

    If I have said it once, I have said it 1000 times:

    San Angeles of demolition man is truly and really upon us. A world that was clearly intended to be a satirical joke when it was done in the early 90s has become reality. And the people causing it are proud of themselves. So pathetic.

  11. johnhenry says

    Fahrenheit 451 and all that .

    I’ve got several thousand hardcover books, but not much fiction published after I was born (many years ago). I do have a first edition of Atwood’s Alias Grace, but I keep it hidden where no one can see.

  12. johnhenry says

    I do occasionally stroll through my second edition (Forbes & Co, Chicago, 1911) of Ben King’s Southland Melodies – although I’m shocked to recall paying $150 for it – basically a book of slave poetry with titles such as “Little Rasmus”, “Coonie in De Holler” and “De Watahmellon Splosion”.

    Needless to say, Mr King was never required to have his poems vetted by a sensitivity reader.

  13. PaulNu says

    If we can understand someone elses circumstance then we can write about it. If we cannot understand it then there’s no point in anyone writing about it since such writing can only be understood by those who already understand it.

  14. codadmin says

    Are there any white, non-leftist ‘sensitivity readers’?

    Or is this the typically hypocritical, racist posturing from the fascist left?

  15. johnhenry says

    PaulNu, what does your comment tell us about science fiction or about chick-lit written by men and consumed in vast quantities by women?

  16. as says

    If publishers have anyone make comments on a novel, it should be people with a track record of predicting how well a novel will sell. No one else can point to evidence that their judgement is valuable.

  17. johnhenry says

    “as”, those people are called book reviewers and they expect to be paid, sometimes hefty sums if they are famous. Sensitivity readers sound like (I’ve not read any of them) semi-illiterates who are unpaid, as they should be. Unpaid, that is.

    If publishers seek intelligent criticism of forthcoming books, they should send cheques with the galley proofs.

  18. Aristodemus says

    “…if human experiences are socially constructed by membership of an identity group, and each group is opaque to anyone outside the group, then any attempt to write about people outside of one’s group is certain to end in failure, and perhaps even ethical violation.” But on the other hand, a straight white male author, say, who wrote exclusively about straight white males would be condemned for exclusivity, if not flat out bigotry. There’s no winning with these people. The logical consequence of intersectional literary ethics is that members of “privileged” groups shouldn’t write at all. I predict it won’t be long before that’s openly stated.

  19. But Dr. Samuel Johnson was right! ‘He who drives fat oxen must himself be fat.’ And keep the oxen in his own lane, of course.

    I commend all those fighting for the rights of imaginary people and creatures! Non-existence is no excuse for discrimination.

    Incidentally, I’m writing an SF story. If anybody knows any alien sensitivity readers please contact me…

  20. Jess says

    Publishing is a business just like any other business. It is designed to make the publisher and author money. If employing a sensitivity reader helps to eliminate bad press coverage and ensures that the fiction will appeal to the broadest possible audience, then why not? Why wouldn’t you employ a Muslim reader if you want your product to sell in Indonesia? Or a gay man if you want your product to sell in San Francisco? But then you’re taking a risk that the product will become so bowdlerized as to bore the core audience and annoy the author, opening up the market to smaller publishing companies willing to publish edgier (politically incorrect or more controversial) content, leaving you with your big publishing pants down, much like those other bowdlerized competitors when Trump won the Republican primaries.

    In this political climate, authors need a spine if they wish to publish interesting stories. If your story is likely to offend (which will be most interesting fiction), go with a smaller publisher with better contractual terms or self publish (if you already have a dedicated fan base) or be prepared for the bowdlerizing of your work. Your best bet for sales is actually to create controversy, but you have to be prepared for the mob outside your window if you become relevant enough. It’s called risk, embrace it!

  21. johnhenry says

    Jess says: Publishing is a business just like any other business.”

    …which is true, but is writing novels just like any other business or should it be? What you’re defending is pulp fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that – there being a place in some lives for inoffensive idle entertainment , such as comic books – but that’s not what this thread is about.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Dr Johnson was also right when said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money.
      But in any case, even if writing is not a business, publishing definitely is.

  22. Declan says

    Authors will probably begin to write anonymously, using pseudonyms, using initials for their first name.

    If nobody knows anything about the author, nobody can claim that they’re writing ‘out of their lane’.

    Elena Ferrante comes to mind.

  23. johnhenry says

    Declan: As you know, pseudonyms have been used forever. George Eliot. I was profoundly moved by Middlemarch, but really, what business did she have appropriating a male name just so she could be published?

    Is there a monument to her somewhere that can be toppled?

  24. Farris says

    Art by committee is generally garbage. Which is why this statement is incorrect:
    “Some art forms are, after all, created by committee—writing for television, for instance, is almost always a group effort.”

    The above is not art by committee, it is collaboration. The collaborative members are not chosen for their race, gender or sexual orientation. In collaborative efforts the participants are chosen by their respective talents.

  25. Crazy Scribe says

    If ever there was a fantastic argument for aspiring writers and successful writers alike to self-publish on Kindle / iPad / et al, this is it. Sensitivity readers is like something I would expect to see from The Onion. I can’t believe this is actually real.

    I guess this is what happens when a generation of coddled, self-absorbed whiners slowly starts taking over the publishing industry (just by virtue of the old guard getting, well, old). Their BS values slowly start to creep in and before you know it authors who have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their work… are subjected to a bunch of under-qualified SJW types looking to parse every word and character for some element that might offend their kind.

    So sad. It’s hard to believe this is a real thing. Currently working on a fiction piece and if this is what awaits my subsmission, what awaits during the editing process, forget it. I’ll self-publish. Hell I’d rather publish my book and give it away, then allow some self-righteous half-wit to tell me how my characters can and can’t approach a specific situation or can and can’t talk a certain way in dialogs, etc. Big middle finger to the publishers on that racket.

  26. Perhaps there can be another category of morally uplifting didactic stories. Nabokov discussed this in contrasting Chekhov and Gorki:

    “…[I]nstead of making a character the medium of a lesson and instead of following up what would seem to Gorki, or to any Soviet author, a socialistic truth by making the rest of the man beautifully good (just as in an ordinary bourgeois story if you love your mother or your dog you cannot be a bad man), instead of this, Chekhov gives us a living human being without bothering about political messages or traditions of writing. Incidentally, we might note that his wise men are usually bores, just as Polonius is…”

    “…Though never concerned with providing a social or ethical message, Chekhov’s genius almost involuntarily disclosed more of the blackest realities of hungry, puzzled, servile, angry peasant Russia than a multitude of other writers, such as Gorki for instance, who flaunted their social ideas in a procession of painted dummies. I shall go further and say that the person who prefers Dostoevski or Gorki to Chekhov will never be able to grasp the essentials of Russian literature and Russian life, and, which is far more important, the essentials of universal literary art.”

    Also worth noting are Chekhov’s principles for a good story:

    Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
    total objectivity
    truthful descriptions of persons and objects
    extreme brevity
    audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
    compassion

    So apart from the external and internal censorship, such policing of the imagination usually results in poor literature. And if your mission is to write the equivalent of Sunday School lessons, why not write tracks instead of stories? Chick publications can be your inspiration: https://www.chick.com/products/tract?stk=24&ue=d

    • And don’t forget Chekhov’s Gun Rule. If you hang a gun on the wall in Act One, somebody must fire it in Act Two, preferably shooting themselves in the foot and blaming the NRA and lack of gun controls.

  27. Rando Hornswaggle says

    I’ve self published 5 books on Kindle, and make a tidy monthly income from it. I have 3 responses to those that want me to change my works for their sensibilities: A, Go fornicate yourself with an iron stick, or B, Eat a whole bag of dicks, or C, write your own books.

    Why artists roll over for these people is beyond me. And yes, I publish under my real, full name.

    • Kencathedrus says

      @Randy: Without going in to too much details, is your income from self-publishing enough to sustain you, or is it something you do on the side? I’m 250 pages into my first novel and it still needs a lot of rewriting, but even so I am looking at publication options. I’ve heard self-publishing is actually not the way to go, so that’s why I was curious about how lucrative it is. I love my current job so am not really looking to replace it with writing per se, but have a genuine professional curiosity.

  28. 370H55V says

    “But it is the claim that sensitivity readers are merely fact checkers that is most troubling.”

    Fact checkers? For works of fiction??!

    • Donald Tikkala says

      370H55V:
      I’m on your side, but yes, assiduous research is needed before writing many types of fiction. For example, historical naval adventure story writers know they will be on a lee shore if they ever mistake a mizzen topmast staysail for a mizzen topgallant staysail. Let’s not get started on spanker sails 🙂

  29. Graham says

    If ‘sensitivity readers’ had existed in the 1950s, Naked Lunch, my fave book, would never have been published. This is a disgrace. I want to be an ‘insensitivity reader.’ If I find a book is too sensitive, and PC, I will mercilessly trash it to the publisher. Wonder if there’s a niche market for me? Here’s hoping! 🙂

  30. Alex P says

    If “The Wizard of Oz” was written today, would it be to sufficient to have a tin woodman, and scarecrow, and a lion check it for sensitivity? Would a wicked witch and a munchkin also need to be involved?

  31. tarstarkas says

    Identity politics, its acolytes, enablers, and proponents need to be crushed, mutilated, smashed, driven deep into a peat bog, and when they attempt to rise given the same treatment again and again until they learn that the muck is their best friend. Who the f**k gave them the right tell me what to think and what to say and what to write? No one gave ME the right to tell them what to think or say or write. Is the acting profession next? We’ve already seen some good examples (the one that comes immediately to mind being Scarlett Johansson being forced from acting a role in an indy movie (which now probably won’t be made) about a crossdresser who was a career criminal, probably more because it would show trans in a bad light than anything else). What about role-playing games? D & D? Will dragons now be forbidden as characters because there are no real live dragons around? (Sorry, Otherkin, none of you are or can be real dragons). There can be no compromise with these lunatics. No surrender. They have to be pitilessly bullied (not shamed, they have no shame), and given the same treatment as they so delightfully dish out, until they learn to be have in a civilized fashion. If somebody doesn’t like what I write, they can NOT buy it!

  32. Mitch says

    You can’t play God without being acquainted with the Devil – Robert Ford, Westworld.

    You want to write literature and fiction that resonates with as many people as you can – or for its own sake. It’s the only realm of our being that allows for full creativity. You infringe on the very thing that makes us who we are – the story – when you begin to pick apart a story. Let it be.

  33. LOE says

    As a fiction writer and former journalist, the outrage I’m seeing here in the comments section kind of misses the nuances explored by Craig DeLancey in the article. On the one hand, publishers forcing sensitivity readers onto writers is a bad idea since it means that any forays into representing The Other become hamstrung, leading to fiction that is designed to fit the publisher’s view of what sells rather than the author’s idiosyncratic worldview. On the other hand, when a writer ventures beyond the realms of their own experience, they need to make sure that they are representing things with a sense of verisimilitude.

    A good example of the latter would be Richard Price: his novels often paint black characters as criminals within a contemporary New York milieu. However, I have yet to meet a black person who dislikes Price’s fiction, because he immerses himself in that world and writes with that audience in mind. By comparison, every black person I’ve spoken to about Kathryn Stockett feels that she failed to accurately capture the voice of a black American living through the civil rights era in “The Help”.

    Should Stockett have shown her book to a black man living on the Lower East Side? No. Should she have shown it to a retired black maid living in Mississippi? Yes.

    So the real solution lies somewhere between this temporary vogue for sensitivity readers and the more deep-seated need for writers to do their research and prize verisimilitude of characterization in their fiction. As DeLancey almost points out, this could possibly be achieved by holding sensitivity readers to more stringent standards, such as finding people with directly lived experience of the events being depicted, in the same way as technical advisers are used on films. The thing is, this needs to happen during the process of writing, not after, since a completely work of art is like a statue — so it goes back to the need for writers to do research.

    Personally, I think this is a better solution rather than simply saying people have the right to invent whatever the hell they want to, since that presupposes that all writers are also great observers and journalists like Dickens or Orwell and are capable of writing fiction that feels true to the audience it represents. In my experiences with writing workshops, this simply isn’t true. Most fiction writers would make terrible journalists because they start off with a story in mind and bend the characterization to fit their own worldview, whereas a good journalist has to do the opposite. There’s something to be said, then, for a person who essentially acts as a second editor in evaluating aspects of characterization and verisimilitude for an author who’s too lazy to do it themselves.

    Having said all this, I agree with most of the commenters that it’s important that the author have a backbone when they finally do receive their feedback. Of course, the easiest way to develop a backbone is to make sure that you’ve done the research in the first place, since it means you can present incontravertible evidence when people begin to argue the finer points of accurate representation.

    • Craig DeLancey says

      Surely it’s a good thing if authors do research. Price is a good example; he did a tremendous amount of research. And also, unsolicited advice from readers might sometimes do some good. In both kinds of cases, the author is in charge.

      My concerns were (1) the use of these readers is often required, and it is unclear what powers the writers have with respect to the resulting advice, and (2) the discussions and defenses of the practice are fundamentally confused, which obscures the potential problems.

      • scribblerg says

        Don’t take that hack seriously, Craig. He’s obviously an authoritarian who believes that writing “should” be done in a certain way and believes that publishers should use their power to bully author’s to write in that way. He wasn’t talking about “research” – all good authors do their research. But that’s the author’s choice. Loe seeks to apologize for authoritarian hacks who want political conformity.

        How much do you want to bet that Loe’s an SJW maniac who’s writing is quite politicized? I’ll bet $1,000 right now. Come on, Low, disclose. Who are you? Let’s see what you published.

        • Luke Evans says

          Yes scribblerg, I’m an SJW maniac authoritarian who’s determined to see people politically conform, and my chosen method of indoctrination involves going onto websites and politely disagreeing with the conclusions made by other writers.

          And I’m not disclosing who I am precisely because of these kind of ad-hominem attacks in the age of doxxing, even if it would put you $1,000 out of pocket.

      • Luke Evans says

        I’d agree with you on both fronts there, even if I am more agnostic regarding the overall need for sensitivity readers. Thanks for the measured response.

      • GeorgeQTyrebyter says

        Research is a good idea. However, getting permission to write about certain people is a bad idea. And requiring permission is the death of the creative imagination.

    • scribblerg says

      What a fascist you are. Truly, and I get it, you don’t see it. I’ve written two novels and worked with professional editors and an agent etc. All books get extensive reviews and notes by many people with broad experience depicting all kinds of people. The idea that this depiction must pass any particular class of person’s scrutiny is ludicrous.

      Example: My second novel depicted scenes in Recife, Brazil. I’ve never been there. In fact, I intentionally decided to write about Recife without every having been there as a writing challenge. I also wrote a main character who was much less like me. I watched every movie and bit of film I could get of life in Brazil and Recife in particular.

      My audience for this novel was Western white males who consume the vast amount of “smart thrillers” published. My concern was that these folks find my depictions plausible. I really don’t care at all if a resident of Recife found it plausible. That would be nice, but utterly unnecessary. What I needed to do was pass muster with my audience in terms of believability.

      I succeeded beyond my expectations. Everyone who read the novel asked me when I’d traveled to Recife, and were surprised when I hadn’t. I thought my job as an author was to use my imagination and express stories in compelling ways that my audience enjoys.

      But in this case? I would have a Brazilian ‘sensitivity reader’ who would likely tell me everything I got wrong. Get this – I don’t care. I’m about entertaining my audience, not meeting the political approval of some SJW hack.

      • LOE says

        Fair enough — glad to hear the novel did well, though it does sound like the success of the setting was down to the research that you did, so I guess you made that part of your job as an author even if you don’t perceive it to be something required. I’d be up for reading it, though why did you have Western white males in mind for your audience? I’m seriously asking here — smart thrillers are more popular with women in the UK, where I live, so I’m intrigued to know what it is about your novel that made you feel the need to pitch it to this particular audience. Also, why white men in specifically? Again, maybe a synopsis of the novel will make this clearer to me.

        And I’d rather you didn’t call me a fascist. It’s an insult to all the white supremacists out there who are working their asses off to bring fascism back.

      • GeorgeQTyrebyter says

        What is the name of your book? I enjoy thrillers. Never read one about Brazil.

    • ga gamba says

      On the other hand, when a writer ventures beyond the realms of their own experience, they need to make sure that they are representing things with a sense of verisimilitude.

      Appears Loe thinks a sensitivity reader is a fact checker. Editors have had them for a long time, even for works of fiction. But Loe being a former journalist likely did not come across fact checkers in his/her previous occupation where untruths are acceptable provided they are the lie by omission.

      What this does to a fictional character who gets a lot of details wrong (for a variety of reasons) remains to be seen. Perhaps the author should add several parenthetical asides explaining this from the onset rather than relying on typical exposition to reveal things, if they are to be revealed. No surprises or mystery. The fetishisation of authenticity at the expense of the author’s creativity. Kind of reminds me of those Mad Men fans who obsessed over the details of things in time and place at the expense of everything else.

      Anyway, for a successful work of fiction there’s alway the chance a Hollywood studio may come knocking, and Lord knows what sticklers for accuracy that lot is. Who can forget the Americans boarding U-571, Jon Bon Jovi capturing the Enigma cipher machine, thus altering the course of the war by making the uncrackable Nazi code decipherable.

      Most fiction writers would make terrible journalists because they start off with a story in mind and bend the characterization to fit their own worldview, whereas a good journalist has to do the opposite.

      So a journalist has worldview and then finds a story, or a story’s angle, to fit with it – just like UVA’s Jackie. Sounds right.

      • LOE says

        I do see the difference between a sensitivity reader and a fact checker, but I can also see how having sensitivity readers can run the risk of, as you said, fetishizing authenticity over plot and character. It’s a tough line to walk, and I’d agree with you about Mad Men in that regard, though I almost feel like Weiner’s exactly the kind of writer who would hire a sensitivity reader considering the number of female writers he hired. I guess it also comes down to the fact that some writers are good because they’re malleable, and other writers are good because they’re not (David Milch, for example, seems to be a genius precisely because he’s made a habit of being uncompromising). In all case, publishers should seek the author’s consent for any kind of trial by focus group rather than enforcing it to suit their own political or face-saving needs, but the way the industry’s set up means that power is placed in the wrong hands.

        Also, I appreciate that you’ve intentionally misconstrued that last bit to satirize journalists, and I’ll allow for the fact that there are many journalists who are just as agenda-led as fiction writers — it’s just that, in an ideal world, journalistic ethics are supposed to act as a safeguard against pure invention, whereas fiction is free to put forward an agenda without any mediator (shoring up both complex gems like 1984 and manifestos like Anthem or The Giver). But I guess that’s kind of outside of the scope of this article — plus, we’re largely through the looking glass in the age of social media and fake news.

      • Interesting. But ‘U-571’ is a fictional film based on the US Navy’s capture of U-505 in June 1944.

  34. Morti says

    “The logic of this essentialism, however, is at odds with the very idea of sensitivity readers, since it leads to a situation in which no-one may write about anyone’s experiences but their own. ”

    That’s one thing, another is that if you look around the world you’ll see a tremendous diversity of cultures, customs and habits. One thing may be considered appropriate or even desired in one place while being offensive and haram in another.

    So we basically come to the folly of multiculturalism which just can never work. Now, since so many people have already been brought together I see one outcome of it.

    That outcome can be read between the lines of the sentence I quoted. It’s the existence of white, black, trans, Muslim etc. literature. One can imagine separate bookstores and separate publishers for each identity group. One will be of course allowed to read other group’s books, but it’ll be exactly like reading ancient Chinese literature as a European. A great thing to do for it gives some unique perspectives and opens your mind to different ideas, but you’ve been warned.

    Maybe it’s a good thing after all. Nothing would be worse than seeing the world with only one culture left, where everyone reads, watches and listens to exactly same stuff peddled by same corporate mass media and where there’s no alternative to that.

    • Aerth says

      Successful author is not writing diverse characters: Left is screaming murder and demand diversity and inclusion.

      Successful author writes diverse characters, but is not a part of every possible identity group: Left is screaming murder, becuase he/she does do it wrong and should write only about own experience.

      Classic “damned you do, damned you don’t” scenario

  35. Alan Gore says

    One of the major reasons one reads a novel is to get an author’s viewpoint. Every author writes from the perspective of some personal identity, and as such has a viewpoint on all the other identities described in the story. Within the context of one novel, none of those other identities gets to unilaterally exclude itself from being a part of the author’s judgement – or didn’t until the idea of sensitivity readers came along.

    Here’s an easy way to demolish the whole concept. I’m sure this has never happened in the social justice world, but imagine if there were a sensitivity reader for the white male American culture. Whatever your own identity, would you bother reading a novel in which that particular sensitivity reader had bowdlerized the character to suit his own idea of what such a character should be?

  36. House of Shards says

    I used to appreciate diversity. Now I am committed to the following: I do not read books written by persons of races other than my own. After all, I could never truly understand it anyway, so why bother?

  37. the gardner says

    A few decades ago the Catholic church was criticized for banning books for its congregation. Now, it’s mainstream.

  38. Pingback: Policing the Creative Imagination – Foggytown's Micro Blog

  39. Daniel V says

    What I find really interesting with this is the focus on money. I don’t think the primary concern is so much around the stories not being told correctly or not and is more around making sure specific people get paid for selling their oppression. It’s not something I entirely disagree with in principle either. For example I identify as an agnostic and would likely take issue with an atheist or highly religious person writing a story from an agnostic perspective. Part of which would be because I resented not being able to profit from such a story myself.

    However I do disagree with how it’s being implemented here even though I can’t offer a better solution. I have no doubt the people drawn to being sensativity readers already have a specific bias around how identity politics should be handled that will on most cases lead to no work being sufficiently “woke” unless written by someone that belongs to the group being written about.

    This is terrible. With art we have the chance for the creator to tell the story of the other in such a way that the reader can relate to the other on their terms. To do such a thing should be seen as a triumph that builds bridges and creates connections between people. Not as something morally wrong.

  40. neoteny says

    Jackson’s reasoning may be valid, but it is not sound

    If a particular reasoning is not sound then that reasoning can’t be valid. I suspect that the intended meaning of this (partial) sentence was that

    Jackson might have a valid point, but his reasoning about it is not sound

    If I’m right, then Mr. DeLancey ought to have explained why he thinks that Jackson might have a valid point.

    • Craig DeLancey says

      I’m using the terms the way logicians do. Thus, validity and soundness are properties of arguments.

      A valid argument is an argument for which, necessarily, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.

      With a little charity we can formulate a valid argument for Mr. Jackson’s conclusion, based on what he said and the obvious implicit premises. It will not be a sound argument.

      • neoteny says

        A valid argument is an argument for which, necessarily, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. A sound argument is a valid argument with true premises.

        This made me look, and I’ve found this: https://www.iep.utm.edu/val-snd/ which matches your definitions. I’ve learned something today, and I thank you for it: English is my second language, this kind of knowledge is essential for me in order to be able to correctly follow arguments using such technical terms.

        With a little charity we can formulate a valid argument for Mr. Jackson’s conclusion, based on what he said and the obvious implicit premises. It will not be a sound argument.

        If such an argument would be valid yet not sound, then that could happen only because at least one of the obvious implicit premises are false. So having a valid but unsound argument is useless: the conclusion is still false. I’m not sure what was your intended point by giving credit to Jackson for the possible validity of his argument (reasoning): even if his argument is valid, his conclusion is still false because of his false premise(s). Were you trying to point out that Jackson’s argument is unsound because of his false premise(s), not because any logical mistake in it?

        However it is, I enjoyed reading your essay and I agree with its main points.

  41. Kim says

    My current book project’s main character is a FBI white male employee who now leads a covert task force responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct within federal government operations. Do you think Robert Mueller would be willing to be my sensitity reader? Ken Starr??

    Poop on that. I’ll stick with Amazon. Jeff Bezos respects my artistic freedom!

    • Kim says

      Wanted to add:

      Its the sheer hypocrisy of this SJW cult that gets me. My daughter has hung out with those kind of girls throughout her teendom. Five years ago these delicate souls were writing Wincest and One Direction/furry fics on their tumblrs, all the while screaming loudly ‘Don’t like, don’t read!!!’

  42. Harrison Bergeron says

    That the concept of a “sensitivity reader” is even taken seriously shows how bad things have gotten. The slide into 1984 is accelerating.

  43. Bob Morris says

    I may have other comments about this piece later on, but wanted to throw this out because it’s important to note: Amelia Zhao has decided to move forward with publication of Blood Heir. There were a few revisions suggested after other scholars and sensitivity readers looked at it, but Zhao ultimately concluded there was nothing wrong with her portrayal of the characters:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/books/amelie-wen-zhao-blood-heir.html

    • Annie Paper says

      Yeah but:

      ‘After Zhao decided she wanted to release the book, she and her publisher sought feedback from scholars and sensitivity readers in an effort to resolve any ambiguity around the type of indentured labor depicted. They had academics from different multicultural backgrounds, as well as one who studies human trafficking in Asia, evaluate the text, and Zhao added new material and made changes based on their comments. They had additional sensitivity readers vet the book for racial and other stereotypes.’

  44. Vivian Darkbloom. says

    The most chilling thing here is that sensitivity readers are being “employed.” Paying people to be virtue signalers. Western Civilization has been ruined by people who want “creative” jobs.

  45. Jim Gorman says

    The use of sensitivity reader unless the author deems them necessary for character development is absurd. Part of reading a story is determining what the AUTHOR thinks about characters be they trans, black, white or polka dot. I don’t want to know what someone other than the author thinks about a character.

  46. Renee says

    I find this alarming although not new — just spreading insidiously. Your article reminded me of a 2003 book I also found alarming called “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn”, by Diane Ravitch. That book explored the effects of sensitivity reading/censorship in the world of textbooks and in the creation of standardized tests. Your article also recalled to mind a book club meeting from many years ago. We had read Smilla’s Sense of Snow — a novel by Peter Hoeg. Many women in our group adamantly argued that the author failed miserably in presenting a believable female character — and others of us (myself included) loved Smilla’s persona and found her very believable. It certainly made for a great discussion — and highlighted how people with the same female “identity” can view what that means very differently.

  47. Rent Seeking Behavior says

    “…some things are off limits. I don’t understand why this is so god damn hard or fucking complex. There are millions of ideas. Leave us our pain and identities and don’t fucking profit from them. Respect us enough to do that.”

    This almost sounds like a principled stance. And then you realize that Jackson isn’t actually saying that “profiting off of pain” is bad, just that he should have dibs on it. This comes off as a creator in a highly competitive field seeking to thin out the competition by imposing some heavy-handed sensitivity rules that work in his favor. The fact that he is both a sensitivity reader and a writer working in the same field makes this abundantly clear.

    If writing fiction about human suffering is “profiting off of pain” then I guess it’s bad and people shouldn’t be doing it? In light of that, here’s my sensitivity note to all authors of fiction: make sure none of the characters in your stories say, do, or experiences anything bad. I think we can all agree this will make reading a safer and more pleasant experience for zzzzz………

    • Peter from Oz says

      Jackson is clearly a grandstanding humbugger, who needs to be totally ignored.

  48. Sonic fanfic writer says

    Ummmm, I’m a sensitivity reader’s worst nightmare.

    I put my characthers through Hell. Every one of them SUFFERS equally. When they’re not suffering. My characthers are embroiled in silly situations or they ARE entertaining to me.

    The way I see it is I’m going to get bad reviews anyway. I’m going to screw up. If it’s not my uber gay, rainbow sparkly vampire that’ll trigger someone down the line. Then it’ll be my Christmas Story about a girl whose Dad works at a mall because it helped him get custody of the daughter away from the abusive ex-wife. There’s even a sexualized Gorgon in my OC arsenal just because I wanted to put in a fictional race to fail the Harkness test on purpose.

    I don’t write lots of NSFW stuff. However, I’m just better off making a really bad OC for a really good story and if I pissed off some identitarians than that’s okay. I at least got my readers to feel something other than what the duck confusion. At the same time, if I’m going to trigger people than I hope my story is so bad it’s good.

    As Fennah once said, all ideas start out as Cringe than get worked through and he writes a fantastic series. I’m going to write either a really good story or an excellent bucket of cringe.

    • Jim Gorman says

      SFW –> Thanks for being honest. A book should be written by the author and for the author. If you give a certain emotion or idea or thought to a character, that character could be a trans, gay, purple polka dot, or whatever the author wants to do. Only the author knows what was intended. A second reader can only say that the author was wrong because that kind of person wouldn’t feel that emotion, thought, or idea. This is very much like saying for a given intersection of whatever types, those people must feel and think exactly alike. How elite can you get. How tyrannical can you get.

    • Aerth says

      I write a DiD (Damsell-in-distress) themed Naruto fanfiction from time to time. Which puts one or several female characters in perilous situation that potentially would lead them to become slaves and/or sex toys (most times they escape at the end, though. But not always). Which would be probably enough to trigger oversensitive snowflakes several times over.

  49. DM says

    What bothers me is that these use of sensitivity readers is essentially a means for frustrated writers who lack the talent or discipline to get better, to make a career out of race hustling, to turn grievances that never affected them personally (such as African-American slavery) into a profession. Then with their contacts in the publishing world, they promote friends with a similarly toxic mindset.

    This goes doubly so for those from large and diverse populations such as India. It is the height of arrogance to claim to speak for 1.3 billion people. While I do believe that hamfisted stereotypes should be put out to pasture you’ll never please everyone. But time to call out these con artists (such as those YA writers taking down others so they can get ahead) for what they are.

  50. DM says

    What’s most sad, if you are right about them being rooted in Platonism, is that the odds of any of those involved having read a page of Plato (at most, a few chapters from The Republic that they struggled to understand) or the later philosophers mentioned, is likely zero. I used to deal with this sort on a few writing forums I once participated in. They don’t read much at all beyond a handful of popular authors in their genre or required reading for course work. They’re likely so immersed in a particular way of thinking that they are unaware they are only staring at shadows in their cave.

  51. DM says

    @ Vivian Darkbloom
    Indeed – ruined by people who want “creative” jobs but without deserving them or earning them the honest way, such as by writing what people want to read, honing the craft and developing themselves as an individual. They seem content to stay stuck at the emotional maturity level of a small child and the current system is rewarding them.

  52. Nick Podmore says

    The more offensive it is to snowflakes the better it was likely to be!!

  53. Colin Turfus says

    A very well argued piece. One would hope the issues raised will get taken on board and addressed by publishers…

  54. The phenomenon of special interest ‘sensitivity’ is not just about control of the architecture of discourse and the editing out of ideological ‘dissonance’ coming particularly from the now all but destroyed reproductive and cultural centre. It is also emblematic of the adolescentizing of that discourse through the kind of special pleading beloved by adolescents, that adults do not ‘understand’ them, because they are unique and special case that is beyond ordinary adult ‘judgementality’

    This used to be known and represented in year 10 school clear thinking English texts as ‘special pleading’ which was considered, even in the early 1960s, to be a leading cause of bogus thinking by any opportunist and malfeasant trying to slough off the need for authenticity, accountability and mature/responsible agency.

    Special pleading is a particularly good fit for a society built around the deregulatory and privatization agendas of Indulgence Capitalism, where publicrelationsmarketspeak trumps rational and evidence based thought and that humanist ascendant infantile disorder (in the Leninists sense) from universitiland, known as postmodernist identity politics, takes care of what is left of it after that.

    This is as bad as the arrival of Nazi functionaries in German universities and media in the late twenties and it really is time for a decent brawl to sort it out. If we don’t do it now, we will find ourselves forced underground and being chased around the countryside by Orthodox Heresy Hunters and heterodoxy sniffers armed with legal warrants for arrest, for ‘distressing’ some poor precious (and unctuously noxious prick) who being as fragile as glass, goes to pieces at the slightest offense.

    “I’ll sue! I’ll sue!”

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  56. TWC says

    I recall reading something recently vehemently criticizing JK Rowling for not being an ‘ally’ to the gay community because Dumbledore wasnt gay enough. Rowling apparently neglected to explore that characters sexuality in a manner that would force it into the narrative.
    Ive lost count how many times Orwell has flipped inside his grave….

  57. Lightning Rose says

    Literary novels are what your teachers MADE you read in school. Most are not at all enjoyable.

    You know what actually SELLS, like hotcakes, and for surprisingly high prices? “Cozy” mysteries involving pets, “soft” police procedurals centered around dogs, and “women’s” fiction centered around relationships. Just the “dog story” genre alone supports thousands of writers, most of the books are self-published, and frankly the writing is better than that of nearly all TV shows. They are ENTERTAINING, so they sell!

    Believe it or not, there are hundreds of thousands of readers out there who don’t want explicit sex, shockingly graphic violence or “multicultural” agitprop with their fiction. They want to be ENTERTAINED, to enjoy their limited private time, not be disturbed with the same depressing crap they see on the evening news. In the YA market, this explains why the Harry Potter books are blockbusters–a plausibly watertight fantasy world with appealing characters and adventures.

    While the Quillette audience might have trouble believing this, most fiction writing is COMMERCIAL. Which means the job is knowing what your reader wants and giving it to them. And while you might find this shocking, vanishingly few recreational readers want to read about intersectional victimhood, race relations, homosexuals’ issues, transgenderism, or an ecological guilt trip. They want FUN, intellectually unchallenging books with characters you enjoy spending time with. Only the New York Times crowd (5%?) go in for that heavy stuff they can brag about.

    Write “literary” novels, I hope you have a trust fund. Write GOOD genre fiction and sell direct to the public on amazon, you just might do very well indeed and wind up with a fan following of thousands waiting for your next release. So try writing a story with smart and cheeky anthropomorphized CATS if you’d like to actually sell something. And BTW you can write what you want.

    The “intelligentsia” really need to take a vacation in the real world once in a while.

    • Interesting points. Though the most successful movie of all time is a three-hour-long ecological guilt trip, and they’re making several sequels as we speak.

  58. Sydney says

    It’s a perfect time for a new startup
    it’s called Sensitivity Readers Inc

    On staff we’ll have one of each type of human
    and we’ll tell you how they act and think

    Our Human-Type-X embodies all Human-Type-Xians
    they’re certified, specialist, and card-holding

    Ensure your fictional humans are made correctly
    and you’ll have no deplatforming or trolling

  59. Geary Johansen says

    The trick, for any deep and careful thinker, is to trace the root of any problem within the culture right down to its very roots- and only then proscribe solutions.

    The misdiagnosis in relation to culture and identity, surely lie with Foucault and Crenshaw.

    With Foucault, the error lies in assuming that the basis of all human history and society is power rather than trust, with power merely a useful byproduct.

    This was a reprehensible mistake for someone who was so supposedly intelligent, almost no-one could understand him.

    Think about it. If trust was not the basis of all human interaction, then no man would go to their doctor for a rectal exam, and we would all have hosepipe camera attachments for our phones and be comparing our pictures in the men’s toilets.

    For Crenshaw, the mistake is necessarily more understandable and tragic. I cannot begin to understand how horrible it must have been, to see the promise of equality and fairness betrayed by disparate treatment and the structural advantages wealth and generation deep, good parenting provides.

    The solutions lie both in Northern Ireland and with the Michaela Community School in London.

    If one were to go back in history to the nineties, you would generally find Catholics living on council housing estates and in turn of the century, terraced housing, and Protestants living in leafy, detached, suburban homes.

    Flash forward to today, and Catholics have surpassed Protestants in education and are drawing level, in wealth and income. Through more inclusive hiring practices, the non-selective catholic grammar systems reluctance to embrace the worst ideas of progressive education and parental, community involvement in education- White Irish GCSE results both raise and obscure the already dismal results of White British schoolchildren.

    In relation to Michaela Community School, please can the editor’s ask either Katharine Birbalsingh or Daisy Christodouou to contribute an article.

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