Books, Free Speech, Literature, Top Stories

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

The idea of a sensitivity reader, the newest profession birthed in our politically correct times, instinctively does not sit well with writers. Because writing is not about protecting people’s feelings—it’s about provoking them. And nobody pursues a career in the arts because they like being told what they can and can’t say with their work.

So I, like many writers, watched the influence of these “editors” grow with significant consternation. In theory, sensitivity readers simply review looking for anything that might offend the arbitrary sensitivities or transgress the invisible fault lines of the moment. In practice, I saw what looked like hordes of censors with the power to block the publication of Young Adult novels. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being sufficiently sensitive to diversity concerns.

I shook my head and then, for some reason, I thought, “Well, I’d like to try that.”

Earlier this year, between the final passes on my book Stillness is the Key, I told my publisher that I wanted to hire a sensitivity reader to review my writing. They were somewhat surprised by this request, as they had already accepted the manuscript for publication. Nevertheless, they consented. I was interested in doing this for several reasons. Curiosity, admittedly, was one. But it was certainly also possible that buried somewhere in the 65,000 words I was scheduled to ship out in a first printing of 175,000, there was some unintentional faux pas or thoughtless or sloppy characterization. Was I willing to bet my career that there wasn’t?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a writer came from Robert Greene, the author of the 48 Laws of Power. He explained that a good author must work hard to find material that can relate and speak to a diverse audience. As an author who is often wrongly demonized for his blunt writing about power and human nature, he was obviously not advising me to placate critics. His argument was commercial and stylistic. His belief was that in a good book,  there should be female examples and male examples, stories of straight and gay love. You should draw from the East and the West, from rich and poor, young and old, black and white. That is, if you want any of these groups to become a paying and satisfied customer at some point…and if you don’t want your books to become boring and repetitive.

It’s advice I have long tried to follow. At the very worst, I thought, a sensitivity reader could help me follow it better.

Sensitivity readers are typically sought by authors writing about some marginalized group—a culture to which they don’t personally belong, or a community about which they don’t feel they have complete expertise, and about which they want to be warned of any overlooked biases or stereotypes. So, sensitivity readers are increasingly common in fiction, where authors are more regularly writing from the perspective of their characters and not from a position of authority. These readers can be friends or friends of friends, as they often were when the “need” for this service began to grow in earnest. But a quick Google search reveals that “sensitivity reader” has emerged as a legitimate profession, with hundreds of people now advertising their services.

I made contact with one such person on Twitter and we quickly got down to price. For a one month turn around, he charged $500—50 percent up front. For every week faster I wanted the book back, it would be an extra $100. We met in the middle: Two and a half weeks. $650.

But there were two conditions. He asked that I not use his name publicly (or in the acknowledgments) and warned me that it is impossible for a sensitivity reader to represent every marginalized group or potential reader. “Any notes I suggest,” he said “come from personal experience, and how I read it. It doesn’t speak for the community as a whole.” Fair enough. A manuscript was sent to him the next day.

A few years ago, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Originally, I had been planning to write a column about the little shell that each character wore in their ear—the device that connected them to entertainment and communication on demand. My high school memory was vague enough that I thought I might be able to draw a connection to the now omnipresent Apple earpods.

What struck me as I read the book was that I had completely missed the point of what it was about. I thought Bradbury was warning against governmental tyranny and censorship—about what happens when the powers that be try to control what the people can read. Actually, his book is about what happens when the people try to censor themselves—when we become overly protective of everybody else’s feelings.

“It didn’t come from the government down,” Captain Beatty tells Montag in the book. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!” Instead, the censorship came from trying to make sure no one cultural group was offended by another, an early attempt to avoid what we call “identity politics” today. It’s in the conclusion of Beatty’s speech that Bradbury makes the thrust of the book’s argument (and ironically does so in a way that a sensitivity reader would almost certainly flag today):

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right?…Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, to the incinerator.”

It’s this dangerous precedent, I suppose, that even the idea of a sensitivity reader edges towards. A good book, after all, is supposed to upset and stir emotion. They’re not supposed to make us happy, they’re supposed to make us think. Never mind ruffled feathers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have started the Civil War. There is no important or worthwhile book that is not in some way insensitive to somebody, somewhere. As Susan Orlean writes in her book about libraries, to create a book is an inherently aggressive delusion—between the pages of any two covers are the words of someone “who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” That someone needed to listen for their own good. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin not because she wanted to start a war but because she believed that Americans needed to hear about the humanity of the slaves in their midst and the inhumanity of the system of slavery that kept them in bondage.

James Tilton, a straight white male author, enlisted the services of several readers for a queer love story he was writing. “Sensitivity readers are hands down the best thing to ever happen to my manuscript,” Tilton has said. “All of my sensitivity readers have provided me with honest, courteous, and confidential revision notes…By engaging these sensitivity readers early in the revision process, I was able to make important and substantial changes to my manuscript before sending it to a publishing house.”

If sensitivity readers were simply about helping a writer improve or consider ways that their message was not getting through, that might be one thing. In practice, these readers—who are by no means credentialed or even accomplished editors or writers in the industry—have begun to serve as a kind of gatekeeper about what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be published. Amélie Wen Zhao withdrew her highly anticipated debut novel Blood Heir. Keira Drake’s The Continent was pulled just eight weeks before its release date.

Writers who submit their books to sensitivity readers are complicit in the collapse of their freedom of expression. They are not hiring sensitivity readers because their primary concern is other people’s feelings, but because they don’t want to be the next victim of mob justice. Or because they are trying, consciously or otherwise, to advertise their progressive bona fides to their perceived audience. But there is another reason writers do this—one I didn’t fully understand until my sensitivity reader made a request of me that shined a light on it.

He asked that if my book did find itself subjected to criticism, that I should not try to use him as a shield. I asked what he meant and was told that he issues this as a disclaimer on all books he works on. “It has happened before,” he said “that someone uses a sensitivity reader, takes their notes, has someone, usually a reader, from the same demo[graphic group] as the sensitivity reader, call them out on something, and the author then says, ‘Well my reader said it was fine!’” It’s the old, “But my [insert minority] friends let me use that word” argument.

The other (and perhaps only?) real reason a writer might hire a sensitivity reader is to get permission to write their story. To be able to claim that they had received the green light from the Committee For The People’s Books. This is beyond cowardly and pathetic, and more offensive to the creation of art than any art that has ever offended. Writers who do this and still get criticized deserve all the misdirected anger that is aimed at them.

“There is more than one way to burn a book,” Bradbury wrote in a 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451. “And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.” The sensitivity readers who get to decide which books are and are not okay to publish, and which words can be said and in what context are burning books—along with the fearful authors and publishers who empower them in their eagerness to avoid trouble. There is no other way to say it.

It happened that my sensitivity reader was a bit delayed. Nearly a month in, the manuscript hadn’t come back yet. What could this mean, I thought? What kind of preposterous microaggressions and political incorrectness am I about to be accused of? It turned out he had simply been held up on another project. The notes, I must say, were not obtrusive or pedantic. Perhaps a novel would have been a little different, he wrote, where we are seeing the world through a character’s eyes. In the case of a work of nonfiction, what really mattered was whether the book was inclusive and whether there were any glaring omissions.

He said that I was at times “status-quo centric” and said that while my examples were diverse, I did not speak directly to the idea of “dual marginalization” (being both black and queer, a woman and an immigrant, etc), two points which were fair though I think difficult to address. I had prepared myself for a torrent of specific criticisms that didn’t arrive. So, I asked, what were you looking for that you would have flagged had you seen? What kind of insensitivity do you find yourself calling out to authors most often. His answer:

Bad LGBT rep
One-dimensional Black Rep
Slander against young people just because they are young
Assumptions about minorities that are archaic, or badly sourced, or aren’t nuanced enough to unpack why said slander is bad.
Faulty Science (I’m a science major so I can usually stop low-level BS).
One sided mentions of historical situations, such as slavery, that do not tell the whole story (ie, I’ve read a lot of books that say the civil war was only about slaves, which isn’t fully true, things like that).

If any of that had appeared in the book, I can’t say it’d have upset me to remove it. But then again, that wasn’t the kind of book I was writing. If I’d written The Reader (about a Nazi statutory rapist) or The Chocolate War (or anything with that kind of language, violence, and sexual content), on the other hand, I might feel differently. Because I’m not sure they would make it through.

It says something about the process that sensitivity readers have the most power in the genres where writers should have the most freedom. Fiction is make believe. It’s the creation of new worlds. Yet it’s here that sensitivity readers come in to tell them what they can and cannot say and whether they’ve said it politely enough. But in non-fiction, as in my case, where thoughtfulness and scholarship do matter, you can skate by with just a few notes.

In the end, I came away from the experienced less outraged than I feared I would. For the free speech advocates outraged by the practice, it’s worth considering how much editing already happens along similar lines just by differently titled editors. In traditional publishing, your editor, their managing editor, the copyeditor, the marketing and the production teams are already reading books with some of the concerns of sensitivity readers—and many more—already in mind. So too are author’s spouses and friends, agents, and peers. Nobody wants an author to publish something that is needlessly offensive or embarrassingly out of touch.

The difference is that these people are usually qualified professionals. Their editorial credibility does not extend from their identity as a marginalized person, but in their ability to make a book better. Their sensitivity is for the reader—all readers—and for the book itself. Is it as good as it can be? Is the author’s point being made?

And that’s the only thing writing should ever be edited for.

 

Ryan Holiday is the author of 10 books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the EnemyConspiracy, and Stillness is the Key. He is the creator of DailyStoic.com. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanHoliday

Comments

  1. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being insufficient sensitivity to diversity concerns.

    Sensitivity readers judging their competitors, with the power to silence? What could go wrong?

  2. What if a writer’s intent is to offend? What if an entire neighborhood in France is depicted in a book as a haven for collaborators during WWII, because the author wishes to shame the few collaborators who resided there? What has been lost is the effort not to offend people is fruitless, as it is dependent upon the mindset of the recipient. The one’s who should be condemned are those who maliciously seek to offend. In other words a credible claim of absence of malice should be a defense.

    The author of this article omits one salient detail. It is not about avoiding offending people. It is about avoiding offending the right people.

  3. Someone tell me the point the writer was trying to make? “Censorship is bad but sensitivity readers are really not so bad”? Or “buy my book”? Can’t wait for future reviews after sensitivity readers truly take over. “This book is wonderfully bland and inoffensive. I cannot recommend it highly enough.” “I was unshocked to my very core.” “At no point did the author challenge my views, thoughts or feelings. My pulse remained as steady as a metronome. A splendid effort. Five stars.”

  4. This article reminds of the old comedy skit “Elderly Man River” by Stan Freberg and Daws Butler

  5. Very funny. Bret Easton Ellis’s White is about how political correctness is making the culture bland and inoffensive. It’s not that you can’t offend, but every offense is made in a predictable way. The critics cheer if you offend straight white males, fundamentalist Christians, conservatives, or climate change doubters—so making these kinds of offenses are part of the script. And everybody will bend over backwards to use acceptable language, avoid stereotypes, and be nice when dealing with the accepted “marginalized” groups. And that, too, is predictable.

    The marginalized groups, including women, minorities, LBGTQ, immigrants, non-Christians, Asians, make up at least 70 percent of the population. And we all pretend they think the same way and are offended by the same things. And stereotypes are never true, except when they are the stereotypes of oppressors. The culture is flattened out to tell the same, predictable, boring story that becomes harder and harder to believe.

  6. Nice twist on my meaning! I said the other side needs to know these things for the fight to be fair–not the judge; that’s why there is pre-trial discovery, etc. And Hogan’s lawyers skated close to the ethical edge when they told the judge months before the trial that Hogan had limited funds to cover legal expenses…

    If you think that it’s OK to turn civil law into a private vendetta machine, then you’ll love reading Holiday’s book–he’s very much on Thiel’s side.

    Look, if it’s OK to short-sell a stock, then it’s OK to invest in someone else’s legal misfortune, although I personally wouldn’t do either. But just as the stock market is supposed to be free from insider trading, so the legal system should be free from insider profiting and manipulation.

    Do you have a problem with that?

    So would most people, but do you really want to live in a society with 3rd party-driven lawsuits? I sure don’t!

  7. Paying sensitivity readers? Why would you pay to be a prostitute?

    What’s the point in writing if you must write what others dictate?

    Why volunteer to become more pathetic under the terms of pathetic people?

    I would rather write torture porn on my own terms than young adult fiction under the terms of others.

    I find it difficult to respect anyone who is concerned over offending hypersensitive authoritarians.

  8. Then what’s this?

    [Bold is mine]
    If you just meant to the other side then you should have said so. But even so, I disagree; knowing the depth of your opponents pockets would make it even easier for the wealthier to run over the poorer, wouldn’t it? I think this is an area where keeping things risky is actually a benefit to all.

    It sure beats guns :slight_smile:
    But I did find an Atlantic interview with Ryan Holiday, it’s entertaining. But there’s an interesting bit that reveals the options Gawker had:

    If you’re fighting Hulk Hogan alone, you file motions and drag it out to be as painful as possible for Hogan, in the hopes that he’ll settle. But if you’re fighting a billionaire, what you do not do is try to drag out the trial as long as possible.

    So did Denton think he was just going after small fry? That he could force Hogan to settle? (This would make such a great film, kind of like those old Westerns where the big ranch owner tries to run off the little settlers, and then John Wayne strolls in :laughing: ) Big mistake.

    Denton was trying to profit over other people’s misfortune; he was even perfectly happy to create it if it suited his purposes. Try getting your sensitivity reader to look at it from another side :laughing: Thiel was helping someone recover from the damage inflicted on him by a very bad public bully. That he put Gawker out of business is fine by me; that he profited by it, even better.

    As for shorting, it’s simply a bet that based on a belief that this or that instrument is overvalued. A long is a bet that it’s undervalued. I’ve done both, and I don’t have a moral issue with either side of the market, and neither implies insider trading. How you got from one to the other is beyond me.

    If I were faced by someone like Denton, who had much deeper pockets than I, I would certainly welcome the help.

  9. Sounds like a good gig. Just emailed a bunch of Hollywood execs. They could use some help refining their one dimensional portrayals of straight white men and women who hold diverse political opinions.

    Super excited to hear back from them…

  10. Like others here, I found this essay strangely unfocused. “A sensitivity reader is a bad idea, but hmm I’m gonna pay over $600 to hire one because I feel like it and maybe it will be good, and the sensitivity reader was two weeks late but very nice and maybe it’s a good idea to have one even though it might be a bad one”

    This came across as simply a way to market a book, and the author wanted to sound like he was creating controversy without actually doing so, having his cake and eating it too.

    As an author myself, I find the entire idea dangerous, extremely stupid, and squarely antithetical to art. Many authors do, but just as with everything else woke, they’re afraid to speak out lest the crazies come after them. You risk not simply your book, but your entire career. Writing is about saying what you must, what will shake people, or make them think, or laugh, or mostly, to express the human condition. It is not about prostituting yourself, to lack so much integrity about your vision that you roll.over at the first “achoo” lest your work is “offensive” but in a shadowy way, and only for certain elect groups and not others. Many writers are alarmed at the very least but figure, well, I’ll just avoid x and y topic, thus entering the slippery slope to hell. The problem is that writing a novel is a very large commitment - it can easily take 5 years from soup to nuts - and the majority are of the opinion that it’s simply not worth the time invested to risk no one publishing it because of a random person and 5 people on twitter, or worse, being blacklisted from your career. This is going on right now and writers are definitely avoiding topics, ironically not including a diverse cast of characters lest the gods of woke come after them. My own novel takes place in an urban school but though I’m not white, I’m not black either, and though my narrator is not black, I am.getting carefully worded rejections that makes me feel fairly confident that its fear of the woke mob and/subscribing to their incoherent ideology. Wish me luck, is all I can say…

    That anyone would voluntarily give a random unskilled person - usually young and with no qualifications except how the work makes him or her feel snd belonging to a group the unelected cultists decide belongs to the oppressed group du jour - the power to act as bureaucrat clerk-gatekeeper of an artistic vision is something I thought only existed in totalitarian countries like the old Soviet union or modern china.

    That any writer would defend this is extraordinarily disappointing and baffling and is certainly an act of cowardice at the very least. Im sorry but I think anyone who defends it or, as here, both defends it and vaguely attacks it, does not deserve to be called a writer.

  11. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a writer came from Robert Greene, the author of the 48 Laws of Power. He explained that a good author must work hard to find material that can relate and speak to a diverse audience. … His argument was commercial and stylistic. His belief was that in a good book, there should be female examples and male examples, stories of straight and gay love. You should draw from the East and the West, from rich and poor, young and old, black and white. That is, if you want any of these groups to become a paying and satisfied customer at some point …

    Some people write because they have something they want to say.

    Some people write because they want to be writers.

  12. That sounds interesting, @dirk; alas my knowledge of Geertz and social involution is lacking, to say the least (it would fit on the the head of a pin and still leave room for the angels to dance :laughing: ) Anyway, it looks like I have more reading to do…

    But in the meantime, my own tentative thoughts run along these lines - the US is a massive society (about half the population of the EU) with an overall ethos of “all the same”, enforced by the nature of US media. Europe, on the other hand, has its various countries and regions, with their various languages and dialects, and hence more localized subcultures which are considered valid in themselves.

    The problem then as I see it arises from the fact that most individuals need a sense of validity from their local social environment in order to be content with their lives. You get that validity from the people with whom you are most engaged. In a pre-screen society; those people were your neighbors and family, to a lesser extent your community, and finally your society. But in today’s world, for many it’s either television or the internet, and that form of engagement is usually one directional. You can watch TV, but you can’t engage with the people on it. It’s very passive. Similarly on the internet, you can read or watch others, but outside a few forums like Quillette you can’t engage with them. So while these various media go about shaping your interpretation of the world, you can’t really challenge them. One’s sense of validity comes from those people one spends time with, which in the North American case is mostly TV “personalities”.

    Unfortunately as well, various media need funding to survive, and in order to get that in a competitive world they need to attract eyeballs, the more the better. But they’ll lose their audience if the audience members feel challenged, so the natural result is to play to the lowest common denominator. And that lowest common denominator is one’s relief from responsibility for one’s own life.

    On top of that, there’s the fragmentation of thought that occurs because we are so engaged in media that realized that holding a thought for only a few seconds is much more profitable than holding a thought for a few hours, days, or weeks. You see that in all sorts of ways, from the average shot length in a film (now only a few seconds) to supposedly “long form” articles that might extend to (gasp) a few pages. But if people are no longer habituated to long form thinking, they aren’t going to be able to reason their way through their difficulties. It’ll all just be Greta Thunberg…

  13. I, estranged from all loops, had never heard of sensitivity readers. Long story short is all that need be said:

    … Their sensitivity is for the reader— all readers—and for the book itself. Is it as good as it can be? Is the author’s point being made?

    And that’s the only thing writing should ever be edited for…

    So sensitivity readers simply collapse into editors, which is as it should be.

    Btw, this advice that you try to follow:

    … His belief was that in a good book, there should be female examples and male examples, stories of straight and gay love. You should draw from the East and the West, from rich and poor, young and old, black and white…

    comes across, even as it sounds politically correct, as too prescriptive.

    A good book will be good because it’s good, not because you’ve been inclusive and incorporated diversity.

    I’d say write about any damn thing you want any damn way you want. Include and exclude whatever you want. Follow no formulae or guidelines such as you quote. Your work will be good because it’s internally good and not because of obeisance to such suggested oughts.

  14. Well said.
    As I read this article I kept on thinking of a line from Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing

    ‘‘He’s so wet you could shoot snipe off him.’’

    The thing is that there are not legions of people out there who re going to be offended at a novel that doesn’t portray some kind of people in a way that suits the activists.

    Those who would take offence where none is given, deserve to be scorned by society.
    It’s time to cancel the cancellers. The mere attempt to cancel anyone else should in fact be subject to a prison sentence and monetary damages.

  15. I’ve been looking for this to start, where “offended” bullies are repudiated, but have not seen it happen yet. If there examples, I’d love to see them. I cannot imagine this living in a minefield as the new normal.

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