January 29th, 2018
Contributing writer for Wake Up World
You might be surprised to learn many of our beloved classic stories from childhood (Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name a few) would fail in the eyes of modern-day sensitivity readers — individuals who check manuscripts (mainly children and teen books) before publication to highlight aspects that could be construed as “racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.” Sensitivity readers are brought in by publishers and writers alike due to their self-proclaimed expertise, in areas such as “experience with a terminal illness,” “racial dynamics” and “transgender issues.” These readers then make recommendations as to how the story can be more racially or culturally accurate — or where offensive material needs to be removed altogether.
I was quite surprised to recently stumble across a New York Times article about sensitivity readers — I had no idea such a thing existed. I can see why there’s a push to render books for young minds “authentic and accurate” — but can it lean too far into the realm of censorship, creating a sanitized version of creative literature that does little to spark debate and critical thought? Some believe it already has.
Where to Draw the Line
A number of books by popular and established authors have come under fire with sensitivity readers this past year.
J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) was heavily criticized for her depiction of Navajo traditions in her story History of Magic in North America. Keira Drake weathered severe backlash and had to revise a good chunk of her fantasy novel The Continent because of her characterization of people of color and Native backgrounds. Then there was Divergent author Veronica Roth who felt the heat over her new novel, Carve the Mark, which was deemed “racist” because of how the main character with chronic pain was portrayed.
Some say sensitivity readers are crucial to help shape “authentic” narratives. But at what cost?
“At the keyboard, unrelenting anguish about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and constipates creativity. The ghost of a stern reader gooning over one’s shoulder on the lookout for slights fosters authorial cowardice,” says novelist Lionel Shriver. “Some writers terrified of giving offense will opt to concoct sanitized characters from “marginalized groups” who are universally above reproach. Others will retreat altogether from including characters with backgrounds different from their own, just to avoid the humiliation of having their hands slapped if they get anything “wrong.”
He also bemoans how the list of marginalized groups continues to grow.
“It was news to me that the terminally ill now need to be sheltered from fictional representations of their plight that seem insulting or run counter to their personal experience. Why only the dying? Let’s add eczema sufferers, too.”
Moreover, it’s a fine line between identifying potentially objectionable material to a subgroup and blatant political censorship, Shriver argues.
Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound, a novel that is told by both black and white characters, admits it’s intimidating to write from the perspective of a black person, but acknowledges that “writing literature is inherently risky.” She adds, “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.”
She believes that the desire to write fiction about a race other than your own comes from a place of “curiosity about how other people live; it comes from the desire to break down the barriers between us.” Jordan doesn’t think an author can fully embrace such a process when “you have someone looking over your shoulder and sort of coughing slightly to let you know when you’re off.”
Shriver points out that “fiction won’t help younger readers to make sense of their real lives, if in books Muslim men never groom white girls or become radicalized through the internet, transsexuals never regret transitioning or conclude they’re actually gay, women are always confident and empowered, and the terminally ill are always brave (or whatever they’re supposed to be; ask the experts).”
Maybe what we need in lieu of sensitivity readers is thoughtful discussion in the classroom, by teaching children the lost art of critical thinking, where they can question what’s presented to them, instead of blindly believing everything they read is accurate and authentic.
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