The Sensitivity Police

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

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Date: Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Audience

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