13 February 2023

Sensitivity reading – blessing or curse?

Sensitivity reading –<strong> blessing or curse?</strong>

We in the West are outraged when we hear about the freedom of the press and freedom of speech being curbed or suppressed by totalitarian regimes. Particularly when it comes to art, we object to censorship.

It came as a surprise to me therefore to hear about a new activity that’s on the increase – described as a “cottage industry” somewhere – “sensitivity reading”. I had not heard of this before, but then perhaps, as so often, I am a little behind the times. A friend in Germany sent me an article from Die Zeit (25 Jan. 2023) explaining what the job of the sensitivity reader entails; surprisingly, the article is poorly written,  for this weekly newspaper that generally has an excellent reputation for its quality.

From what I grasped, a sensitivity reader is a kind of detective, constantly on the lookout for phrases and passages that might be considered insensitive, insulting or derogatory by individuals outside of what is still considered the norm by society. That means mainly transgender, non-binary people, people of colour, and other minorities. Sensitivity readers are not editors that are in pursuit of factual or grammar errors, or suggest improvements in terms of readability or style. Many publishers seem to have done away with those, to their own detriment. How else would you explain the increasing number of typos, hyphenation errors, involuntary repetitions and clumsy phrases that are now common in books and newspapers?

Sensitivity readers search for particular aspects that might be perceived as demeaning or offensive by individuals or groups. They look for racism and other cultural and religious prejudices and clichés. They comment on descriptions or snippets of dialogue that are based on misconceptions or ignorance, or hate, and often stem from the fact that the author is an “outsider” to a group. They look for insults and terms that have been branded as politically incorrect. They, so says the journalist in Die Zeit, do not see themselves as censors, but are driven by the desire that no-one should feel excluded, or discriminated against, and no-one should be mis-represented. They see themselves as battling against cultural inaccuracy, bias, stereotypes – all in the interest of marginalized groups, diversity and inclusion.

While these may be worthwhile objectives, I cannot help feeling that sensitivity readers are patronizing us as readers, in fact dis-empowering us, and denying us the right to make up our own minds. They protect us from a reality that we ought to be confronted with – in order to judge for ourselves what is wrong and harmful. If we are shielded from prejudice and bias, how can we even recognize it, and fight it? How can young people learn? And it is obvious that there are other problematic issues with this approach. For one thing, sensitivity readers do not have particular knowledge or appreciation of literature, they are often random people from a particular group, asked to universalize their own particular set of experiences to an entire group, and anticipating what its members might see as offensive. They are kind of self-anointed guardians of what can and what cannot be written.

But is it not true that we all are shaped by our personal history, whether we are heterosexual, or Jewish, or Christian, of African descent, or Asian. Everyone is different, and everyone might be affected by one remark, but not by another. If you are going to write a novel that’s outside your own turf, surely you should do your own research and then be brave enough to see what response you get. I don’t imagine you would want to rely on a sensitivity reader. If your depiction lacks authenticity and distorts reality, and readers object to that – well, then your book is a flop, and you’ll do something different next time.

Sensitivity readers each read with a particular focus. So, if as an author you want to be totally confident that you have not set a foot wrong, you may have to engage 5 or 6 different readers, each with their own perspective… If a white female author writes a novel about a black gay guy the sensitivity reader will comment on remarks or perceptions that to them do not appear to be a realistic depiction of a particular reality. Isn’t there something odd about that? Does it not deny the freedom of the artist to imagine a world outside their own? Does this not severely curtail opportunities for people to test out their ability to let their imagination take over? Is it right to prevent authors from taking that risk and exposing themselves to criticism? Surely, no-one is expecting from an author to know everything, not to make any blunders and to be completely right? So, are these safeguards not a complete contradiction and denial of the freedom of the artist?

A little looking around on the Web shows that sensitivity reading has now become a must for publishers. People are offering to read your manuscript for a fee. In a week a reader can make around 1500 Euro. I have heard of worse-paid jobs. Clearly, publishers use sensitivity readers as a shielding device, for fear they might get sued, and forced to withdraw a book from the market (see my earlier blog on Winnetou).

One author/screenwriter (Juno Dawson) is all in favour of sensitivity screening, and says she regularly asks for her writings to undergo the treatment. Her article in the Guardian is entitled “Stop moaning about sensitivity readers – if there was diversity in publishing we wouldn’t need them”. She says that she welcomes another perspective on the characters she invents, and mentions that “Dickens changed his depiction of Jews after corresponding with one of his Jewish critics, who pointed out antisemitism in Oliver Twist.” (See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/mar/08/stop-moaning-sensitivity-readers-diversity-publishing). Her article makes interesting reading, even if you don’t agree.

To me, sensitivity readers are like food tasters: they ingest written material that was prepared for someone else, to confirm it is safe (non-poisonous) to eat/read. If they find it nauseating, well the king does not get served that dish. But we, as humans, need to get some food poisoning from time to time to recognize what is good and what isn’t.

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