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Sensitivity Readers and the C-Word

How social media outrage is changing how authors write diverse characters

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When Young Adult author Laura Moriarty heard President Trump denounce Muslims en masse, she was appalled and wanted to do something. She decided to write an inspirational dystopian novel where a white teen protagonist would help resist the government’s forced internment of Muslim-Americans as a straight-forward, if somewhat heavy-handed, parable for our modern times. Little did she know that she would soon be accused of insulting marginalized communities and have her book itself denounced as a “white savior narrative”. The debate over what should be allowed to be said in the public sphere, and by whom, rages more fiercely than ever.

Moriarty’s protest was not the first time outrage had targeted authors who were perceived as portraying minority communities offensively in recent years. After a blogger declared that Laurie Forest’s initially well-received book The Black Witch was “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read”, a massive online campaign was launched to keep the book off the shelves. Keira Drake’s The Continent was branded“retrograde” and “racist trash”, causing the book’s publication to be delayed. Mary Robinette Kowal even decided to pull a project when she was told it was “problematic”.

As a response to the increasingly frequent outrage over authorial missteps regarding characters with marginalized identities, publishers have started hiring “sensitivity readers” — people belonging to relevant marginalized groups who review manuscripts for insensitive language and cultural misrepresentation. Their pricing starts from $250 a book and it is common for an author to hire anywhere from 12 to 20+ sensitivity readers for a single novel.

Some authors have taken this change in stride and some even think this is a positive development. Fantasy writer Kate Milford, for example, sees sensitivity readers as playing an analogous function to a history expert who provides information about historic context. Just as a Victorian scholar might be called in to ensure that a book about Victorian times does not make any major factual mistakes regarding clothing or norms, a bipolar sensitivity reader might ensure that writers who aren’t themselves bipolar do not make any erroneous or offensive choices regarding manic-depressive characters. As Milford puts it, “it’s not that I can’t empathize or do the imaginative work myself, but I want accuracy.”

Not everyone is as sanguine about this trend, however. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates scathingly tweeted what could have happened to books that are now cherished if they would have had to kowtow to the kinds of demands that sensitivity readers might want:

The worry for critics like Oates is that even if the sensitivity readers are appointed for noble reasons, they risk serving as Trojan horses that sneak in censorship (the dreaded C-word!). After all, it does not seem implausible that an insistence on narrow ideas about race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., which are currently in vogue will nudge authors into producing safer, less risky, and consequently less valuable work. After all, isn’t literary progress and innovation produced by violating seemingly sacrosanct moral rules? Where would the literary cannon be without Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Toni Morrison’s Beloved — all books that were deemed immoral at their time of release? Should works of merit have their wings clipped by the myopia of current moral standards?

The question then seems to be: how should one maneuver between the Scylla of furthering oppression and the Charybdis of censorship creep?

One technological solution to this stand-off is the one offered by PageMajik, an even-handed approach that recognizes that both sides are relying on powerful and compelling moral principles. By offering flexible workflow management, it allows authors to fabricate writing processes specially tailored to suit their singular needs. Specifically, all decisions regarding whether, when, and how many sensitivity readers should be consulted, as well as which of their recommendations should be accepted are left completely up to the author. This way, someone like Kate Milford can easily create an arrangement where input is gotten early and regularly, while others like Joyce Carol Oates can maintain the insularity they seek. By ensuring that all consultation is at the discretion of the writer, and more importantly, that all decision-making power resides solely with the author, the threat of censorship is mitigated while still ensuring that minority voices continue to be heard and harkened to.

This isn’t a perfect solution, of course — opponents of sensitivity readers will argue that the threat of censorship creep remains, while supporters will criticize how marginalized voices can still easily be shut out. Still, given the set of incompatible moral demands laid on us, PageMajik’s ceasefire might very well be the best of our available options.

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