A new National Public Radio (NPR) piece by Lynn Neary reveals something I didn’t know: some book publishers, especially those who put out children’s books, employ “sensitivity readers” to go over manuscripts and single out bits that might offend readers. The NPR piece can be accessed (both the audio and text) by clicking on the screenshot below.
This new business, which employs a bunch of specialists who vet particular genres of books, seems to go along with the climate of the times: times when the word “nigger” is expunged from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
. . . The use of sensitivity readers began as an informal practice, but it became more systematized with the creation of the website Writing in the Margins, which lists readers and their areas of expertise. [The list is here. I would recommend looking at it somewhat closely!]
The sensitivity readers cover the gamut of writing, but there does seem a surfeit of those interested in fantasy, science fiction, and mythology.
But of course there are those (I among them) who think that the “sensitivity readers” might be overly sensitive (and censorious), redacting ideas that might challenge people (not just children), or imposing their own ideology on the writer. Here’s one dissenter:
Writer Hillary Jordan is wary of that development. “If this is a source for a writer who has no other way to get it, then great,” she says. “But I feel that if it’s a risk management tool of some sort, I find that troubling.”
Jordan is author of Mudbound, a novel which has been made into a movie to be released this year. The story is told by characters who are both male and female, and black and white. Jordan says she was intimidated writing from the perspective of black characters, but a teacher told her you can’t be afraid of your own work. “Writing literature is inherently risky,” she says. “And the further you get from your own experience, the riskier it is. But no one can inoculate you against these risks because they’re part of the process.”