Publishers employ “sensitivity readers” to avoid offending readers

March 1, 2017 • 12:00 pm

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.”

h/t: Jon

30 thoughts on “Publishers employ “sensitivity readers” to avoid offending readers

  1. The best comment I’ve seen on this sort of thing is on an R4 comedy when the comedian repeatedly said “fuck”, knowing that it would be beeped out, but doing so in such a way that the beeps spelled “fuck” in morse code.

  2. And what if a Klansman wanted to publish a book, “Bedtime for Blond Blue-eyed Boys”? would it have to get rewritten to pass muster with the Oversensitive Thought Police? Or does the First Amendment no longer apply to them? And we expect their reaction to being silenced to itself be peacefully silent…why, exactly?

    If your goal is goodthinking duckspeak and you haven’t yet succeeded in policing your own thoughts, sure, hire a brainwasher to help you cleanse your mind.

    But the practice, as described, can only ultimately end with committees of censors commanding “proper” use of “ze” and “zir” and similar such zhit.

    I have a novel thought. How about we go about finding all these vulnerable, sensitive people, and protect them at the source?

    Those who show promise can be given desensitivity training, in which they’re given tools to strengthen their sense of self-worth to the point that they don’t become suicidal because somebody who doesn’t care about them doesn’t care about them. And those who truly lack the strength to venture forth into the wild are safely secured in their own protected safe spaces where nothing is ever let in that might harm them.

    I know, I know. Not only does it make too much sense, it deprives the censors of the power they so unashamedly lust after.



  3. I mean, essentially this reads to me like a fist raised against market trends. The only reason publishers do this is because they think it will maximize their profits (and minimize their headaches). I find it hard to blame them for those goals. Do I wish society were in a different place? I do. But do people have a first amendment right to be overly sensitive? Sure. Do publishers have a first amendment right to control what they publish? They do. As such, this strikes me a bit as complaining about the symptom rather than the disease. Just my two cents!

    1. A minor niggle: there are no first amendment rights involved here; this is strictly business.
      But yes, publishers don’t want a shitstorm descending on them if a book is perceived as culturally insensitive; and there are a small crowd of people looking to label almost anything as culturally insensitive, so it’s understandable.
      I guess that a new author would have no choice but to go along; but an established one could probably say no, leaving the publisher to decide whether to lose the author (and revenue) or risk the wrath of the SJWs.
      And, when you get down to it, this is what editors do – tweak the author’s words to make a better (better-selling) book. And isn’t removing inadvertent insult from a book sensible for both author and publisher? Deliberate insult (think of Hitch), that’s something else.

      1. The idea that the First Amendment is not strictly implicated is what I was getting at! I suppose it’s just representative of my (in)ability to write clearly. You’re quite right that there are no First Amendment issues as between author and publisher — I meant that people have the right to be overly sensitive, even to “bad” words in print (no matter how much I might think it distasteful). As I said, I see this as market trend more than speech issue. And I am not a big fan, but neither does it greatly concern me. Cheers.

  4. Done voluntarily this might be a good thing, but there are always a variety of opinions.

    Jay Leno had a “checker” of all his jokes about gays and other minorities longggg before this was fashionable to make sure that most (if not all) members of those groups would not be offended. I congratulate him. But if this becomes mandatory at a publisher, it’s more than a tad chilling.

    True, there have been well-intentioned depictions of minorities which they find demeaning, but often only in certain subgroups, and sometimes the good intentions don’t get credit.

    I remain utterly fascinated by the phenomenon that the Charlie Chan stories and movies are quite popular in the country of China, even as Chinese-Americans find them demeaning. (Presumably when translated into Chinese, hackneyed phrases like “Honorable Chinaman” get smoothed over, and when dubbed into Chinese, Sidney Greenstreet’s ludicrous Chinese accent is gone.)

    Puccini’s opera “Turandot” was banned in China for many decades as insulting to the country, but had its Beijing premiere in 1998, and has now been largely embraced by the Chinese (although the first performance changed the location from China to a fictional Asian country.)

    Although Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a powerful anti-racist musical “South Pacific”, there are continued complaints about “The King and I” and even more their largely forgotten “Flower Drum Song” (about Chinese-Americans in San Francisco). But in light of South Pacific, do we really need to get censorious about the latter?

    The most thoroughly genuinely offensive example of Yellow-Face in American cinema remains Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but I still kinda-sorta enjoy Yul Brynner in “The King and I”, and Peter Seller’s parody of Charlie Chan in “Murder by Death” remains totally phuquing hilarious! But you could not make the latter today, and that’s a shame!!!

  5. I took your advice and looked at the list more closely: it spells not ‘Duck Dynasty’, but rather ‘Daffy Duck’ to me.
    Are you sure that list is not from ‘The Onion’?

  6. I just heard about this because Scott Simon, on last Saturday’s Morning Edition, interviewed Lionel Shriver–the author who was excoriated last year by someone writing a piece in The Guardian about how she walked out of Shriver’s speech at a literary convention in which Shriver spoke against political correctness in literature. Oddly enough, The Guardian recently published a piece by Shriver about this sensitivity reader thing, and Scott Simon talked to her about it. I’m not sure how to embed links in a comment. But just google Scott Simon, Lionel Shriver, sensitivity reader, and they’ll both come up.

  7. This topic has many facets so I will address just a couple. I think back oj Judy Blume. She is a great writer willing to give teens and some adults information in a way people can relate to and retain, in a story. I remember thinking how awful the protests against her books were, and how horrible when they were banned from schools. The idea was what I thought was OK and good, what those people thought was silly and outdated. Today I find the social sensitivity movement to be silly and unneeded, putting me on the other side of the fence again.

    I like to be challenged sometimes. I draw the line in my interest depending on the forum. IF it is designed to make me think, I want to see side trails and branches to sharpen my mind and opinions on. If it is simply play and fun I don’t get offended if I don’t agree with some or all of it, I simply don’t watch, read, or play the game. The point is I can chose, I do not need censors to choose for me. When you give that far reaching power power to anyone else you lose your ability to enjoy or learn. Thanks. Hugs

  8. the evangelical christians i know seem to be positively daffy about fantasy and sci fi and, in my experience, resistant to facts and science.

    i do find it disconcerting that the sensivity readers slant heavily the way.

  9. I’m not a fan of this idea, but if publishers are going to adopt this strategy for categories like science fiction and mythology then please, please, please also unleash these ‘sensitivity readers’ on the Bible, Koran, etc. I am very curious to see how much of those books would survive such scrutiny.

  10. Wow, like a monarch employing tasters to ensure the royal family’s food isn’t tainted, or miners carrying a canary to the coalface to detect noxious fumes.

    Poisons and gas may dispatch my ass, but words will never slay me. When will they ever learn?

  11. I suspect Zorro wouldn’t have got through the sensitivity doctor – yet the character has been embraced by many Spanish speakers – including Isabelle Allende who wrote her own Zorro novel.

  12. How does anyone learn to think about previously unthought or unthinkable subjects if one is protected from encountering them? Anything thinkable should be expressible. It is up to the reader or hearer to determine how they react. All of learning is layers of previously
    unknown and/or unthinkable material until one can be exposed to it. Then your thinking must grow or change in one direction or another. How often the pendulum swings back to some group deciding to protect “the innocent” from knowledge the culture thinks they shouldn’t have.

  13. sensitivity reader Dhonielle Clayton … says. “… people don’t realize the power of words”

    The ‘people’ Dhonielle is talking about are authors, so the statement becomes, “authors don’t realise the power of words”. WTF?

  14. In addition to the obvious concerns, I’m also concerned about the objectivity of said sensitivity readers, people whose livelihoods are dependent on finding what they are looking for. There’s kind of an inherent conflict of interest here.

    Quite often, if you hire someone to look for and recommend solutions to problems, they will find such problems and recommend solutions, even if no real problems actually exist, especially if they offer to implement the solutions at extra cost.

    Is there any accredited industry or government certification or oversight to provide ethics and standards guidance for these sensitivity readers?

    1. …assuming sensitivity readers are paid for their service. I don’t remember if that was discussed in the broadcast.

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