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My Heart is a Sensitivity Reader
What a new layer of criticism in the book publishing process means for every reader
I sit down at my house to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I open the book and read the first page. A few pages in, while describing Jim, Huck casually throws around the N-word. It’s shocking, offensive, but for all that, a little fascinating. Yes, I understand why we don’t use that word. It’s not a word I use in any context and won’t change because Twain uses it. What I want to know is, what does the author--who’s about as famous as any American author you can name--accomplish by the use of such language? What does the use of this language do for the story? I’m interested in these questions, and I flip to the next page.
Let’s contrast this experience with an experience a teacher friend of mine had in a 10th grade English class. She opted to have her students read out loud portions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Great American literature, right? The kids should know something about this classic title. A few pages in, the teacher realizes she’s made a mistake. These are kids, some of them kids of color. They in particular shouldn’t have to come to school to listen to this kind of language. The teacher flashes forward to an imagined next day, after one of these kids goes home and explains to their parents what they did at school that day. The teacher is embarrassed and vows to never teach that book again. She stops the reading and moves onto something else, hoping she somehow averted offending these kids, not to mention a series of nasty emails, a reprimand, or maybe even losing her job.
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We can argue all day about the appropriate action in both situations. You could say that I’m too easy on Huck Finn and shouldn’t be fascinated by the casual use of this language. Or you could say that my teacher friend should press forward with the class reading of the book, that the kids should be given the chance to get past the language to understand the vital points Twain makes about racism and independent thinking. You could make both of these arguments, and I would understand your points and wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. What I hope we don’t disagree on is that there’s a difference between a public and a private reading of a work.
While reading by myself in my home, I have a private relationship with the author and publisher of this book, and that relationship seems relatively healthy, even politically so. Is there a more poignant and fierce dramatization than Huck Finn of the Martin Luther King aphorism, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? The issues are so similar I wouldn’t be surprised if King had the book in mind when he wrote the famous line.
Still, if I were my teacher friend, I would react exactly as she did. Nope, not reading that one today. Anyone want to read To Kill a Mockingbird?
I dramatize this contrast between a public and private reading of a book to discuss it in the context of sensitivity readers, which the publishing industry has adapted over the past few years to ensure their products don’t offend people from this or that group.
According to dictionary.cambridge.org, a sensitivity reader is “someone who reads documents, books, etc. in order to check that they do not contain anything that might upset or offend people who read them, especially before they are published.” At some point during the editing process of a book, the manuscript gets passed to someone with, one hopes, specific expertise in matters pertaining to women, people of color, minorities, or those with less common sexual orientations, and these readers offer the author insights into how their work might come across to people of these demographics.
It's easy to see the benefit of sensitivity readers for publishing houses. They don’t want to find out after the book comes out that it offends a broad swath or vocal contingent of their community. The process also makes some sense for authors, many of whom crave almost any professional opinion of their work and how it might impact their readerships. What writer could be against having their book critiqued by an expert who, at least on the surface, proposes to help them with their prose and career?
I also don’t doubt some readers find the use of sensitivity readers comforting. Sensitivity readers might allow these readers to know or intuit going into a work that the book is going to be extra careful about certain notions of race, gender, and identity, and that kind of reading experience can be fulfilling. In sum, I believe the sensitivity reader process has some merit for readers, writers, and publishers; that people aren’t wrong for trying it; that on a certain level and for certain books, it works well enough.
Still, with any change to the book publishing process, it’s important to explore what we also might lose with the addition of this extra layer of critique of the work. I believe we sacrifice the more direct communication of writer to reader in a way that could drastically impact the dynamic nature of book reading as a whole. In short, the sensitivity reader can too easily treat every reading of a book as though it’s a public reading of a book. It is what we do when we look for “anything that might upset or offend people who read” the book. Yes, if I’m a sensitivity reader, and something in a work offends me—like some straight up racist use of the N-word—I’d mention it in my report. But what about something that doesn’t offend me necessarily but something I recognize might offend someone else?
Let’s say the work being sensitivity read is set in the early 1990s. It’s a memoir about a teacher and her relationship with her students. She’s particularly fond of one student, and once this student graduates, he asks the teacher to take him to a club where, it seems, gay people hang out. The teacher questions it, but they go. The student dances for 20 minutes, and the teacher worries about him. It’s the early nineties, and there’s an AIDS epidemic. When the student comes back from the dance floor, the teacher tells the student she loves him and “you have to promise me to always use a condom and never get AIDS.”
The scene seeks to convey a touching moment when a teacher is worrying about the future of a student she has grown fond of. Her statement is clumsy but in no way hateful. This, by the way, is a real book that was passed through the hands of sensitivity readers, and one of the sensitivity readers said this passage “comes across as homophobic.” Others commented on the reductive and rogue nature of what the teacher said.
I respect how this happens. They’re sensitivity readers. They’re looking out for “anything that might upset or offend people.” The above comment is innocuous enough to me, but sure, I suppose it might offend someone. If you’re a sensitivity reader, that has to get marked. This author in question had her memoir deal with Picador disrupted by this sensitivity reader process, and both author and publisher eventually chose to part ways.
Of course, the corporations that publish these works love for the sensitivity reader to overshoot the runway, to make the jump from “this offends me” to “this might offend someone” as much as possible, but as an individual, I’ve always found “this might offend someone” specious. Who am I talking about? Individual readers from these marginalized groups—presuming we’re talking about adults—by and large have the capacity to judge literary work as offensive or not on their own. They don’t need me, the sensitivity reader, to swoop in to serve as some kind of arbiter for them. I don’t think I’m very good at this kind of overarching judgment, and I think, as people, we miss by a lot in this regard. We don’t really know what offends other people, especially during their private readings of a book, and especially people not much like us. That feels like the safest terrain to occupy for me, and it grants others the dignity of deciding for themselves what offends them.
If I’m talking about books offending any real people, I’m talking for the most part about offending political activists, the ones who might publicize this perceived slight in the book, but I don’t see them as offended so much as recognizing an opportunity to advance their cause. Their job, as they see it, is to move the political needle from here to there, and the offensive book is a tool to do so. That’s not really offending them, and in a certain way, it’s helping them.
In any case, as a sensitivity reader, you’re stuck chasing ghosts in your head, a practice I try to stop myself from doing when it happens in any other situation. I don’t really know what others think or feel, and I should just stay within myself and focus on what I think and feel. “This offends me” as opposed to “this might offend someone.”
If every book published were put through the scrutiny of making sure it doesn’t offend anyone from any walk of life, it would greatly impact the intimacy of the book reading experience. The question then becomes, do we want every reading of a book to be sensitivity reader sanctioned, potentially impacting this intimacy of the book reading experience with their opinion of what’s might be offensive?
During my first 18 years, I wasn’t a reader of literary work, not a reader of much of anything. It was when I first experienced Kurt Vonnegut’s novels that my reading habits changed. I was immediately charmed by the author’s humor, his odd characters, his willingness to break the rules of conventional storytelling, his sardonic take on America, his profanity. Still, none of these aspects of his novels were as important to me as an overarching sense of what I’ll call the Vonnegut-ness of his work. Somehow, this author could convey some portion of himself powerfully through the pages to me. On a deep level, I felt like I knew him, and I wanted to know him more. I didn’t care as much about anything else in his books. His words allowed me a window into his Vonnegut-ness, and I wanted to engage with it again and again. I read all of his novels as quickly as I could.
My experience with Vonnegut’s work served as my gateway to the world of literature. He wasn’t too stodgy or boring or erudite or refined. His words were well chosen but not what I would call discerning. He was never uptight.
Despite his many charms, Vonnegut’s work is loaded with elements that might offend people. As one obvious example, his novel Breakfast of Champions features a cartoon-esque drawing of a vagina and one of “female underpants.” A third drawing says, “Wide-open beavers inside.” In fairness, the narrator describes this latter statement as “lurid.” Yes, it’s lurid, and juvenile, but it also pounds home the fact that something different is happening in this book, something I as an 18-year-old had never imagined happening in a novel. Yes, these drawings might upset some people, but they might energize others.
With Vonnegut, I discovered a medium through which people who were gifted could convey some aspect of themselves that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Literature, to me, became simply a medium where people like Vonnegut tried to communicate some portion of themselves to people like me. Since those Vonnegut novels I read 35 years ago, I’ve been reading and writing, both trying to engage deeply with authors—I’ve also had long stints with Faulkner-ness, Updike-ness, Morrison-ness, DFW-ness—and trying to do it myself on the page.
It’s worth wondering what a sensitivity reader might make of Vonnegut’s work today. We could argue how this might play out, but what seems to me undeniable is that the process of sensitivity reading adds an additional filter to the process of the communication of Vonnegut-ness to me. Putting people in between writer and reader inherently impacts the writer-to-reader experience. It can be for the good, as with a good editor. Still, with the addition of the sensitivity reader, if nothing else, there is simply one more person now between writer and reader, with their wonderful array of opinions and prejudices, and this person can have a far different agenda than making sure Vonnegut conveys his Vonnegut-ness to 18-year-old me. Their impact inevitably makes it harder for this level of communication from writer to reader. It probably means that some version of my 18-year-old non-literary self would struggle in 2023 to find value in literature, to get past this new forced public reading of the work to engage privately with Vonnegut-ness. I’ve found a life-long vocation and purpose in reading and writing. Will the next version of me find the same?
Of course, they will. They’ll find it on the internet, right? That’s where many people now go to read words. With the internet, the writer can publish their own work for free or cheap, with few or no editors, and big publishing houses can avoid the risk of publishing a work that might offend various groups of people. I can imagine a modern-day Kurt Vonnegut self-publishing his work at Amazon or Substack, entertaining some adolescent version of me, and building an audience.
Any big publishing house worth its salt must be looking for such authors. “Is your work that compelling?” they might ask. “Then go out there and prove it.” When the author builds a substantial audience, the publishing entity can swoop in and sign the author and at least have some cover if the author in question offends with their subsequent—or previous—work. No one at these entities need risk their job over someone potentially offending the wrong group of people. The author can have that risk for themselves until they prove profitability. Then the company can justify the risk of taking them on. Is this the path of the Twain or Vonnegut of the 21st century? I don’t see how it would happen any other way. Thank goodness there’s still a way.
This is fantastic news since self-publication is a great option for those interested in communicating their author-ness to people. It’s offers some kind of opportunity for going directly to your reader without the intrusion of people tied too stringently to corporate entities, or to their own sensitivities, or to the perceived sensitivities of others. In this environment, the more direct communication from writer to reader thrives, and it continues to allow the novel to fulfill one of its historically most important jobs: to convey author-ness to readers.
What makes up author-ness? How does the writer attain it? After 25 years of daily writing, I can tell you I don’t know. In my experience it’s not something you can learn through work or in a craft lesson. At this point, I’m comfortable with calling in genius and being done with it. It’s something intrinsic to the people who have it, and you either have it or you don’t, and our efforts as writers to aspire to it is futile. Work hard at your writing, and in the end, your author-ness will either be there on the page or it won’t.
That said, from what I can tell, there is one key for authors who want to convey their author-ness to readers like me. They have to tell a secret.
Think back to your favorite novels, those touchstones of the form for you. Were the authors telling you a secret? Did you get the sense that someone was confiding in you something best said quietly from one person to another? Something controversial? Maybe shameful? Something, if others heard this person saying it, would think bad things about the person? Let’s go through some of the transformative novels of my life:
One-Hundred Years of Solitude, yes.
Lolita, oh, boy.
Each of these novels could be whispered to me. The first line of Slaughterhouse-Five is, “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.” It’s like Vonnegut and I are strangers sitting next to each other on a bench at a train depot somewhere in eastern Europe, and he’s passing information on to me while never taking his eyes off the newspaper open in front of him. He’s telling me a secret. He’s letting me in on this important thing he knows. He has to tell someone, and he’s choosing me because I just might get how important it is. That’s the feeling of reading a good novel by a secret teller.
Now imagine that same bench at that same train depot with me and Vonnegut sitting next to each other. Vonnegut gets ready to whisper the first sentence of Slaughterhouse-Five to me when someone sits down next to him. This person whispers something in Vonnegut’s ear, something I imagine along the lines of, “Be careful what you say. This guy might think bad things about you. If you’re going to tell him about Billy Pilgrim, you might want to tone it down a bit, or maybe just leave that part out.”
What would Vonnegut do? Maybe he’d think about it. What are the ramifications of telling this stranger next to me at the train depot about Billy Pilgrim? Will he think I’m crazy? Will that be bad for me?
Vonnegut being Vonnegut, he’ll probably tell me anyway. Maybe he tones it down, or maybe he gets up and leaves me there on the bench by myself. This is the effect of the sensitivity reader we want to avoid if we expect authors to continue to tell secrets to readers.
I see the effect as similar to a congressional hearing. Someone is being grilled by a committee of senators about their role in, say, an illegal arms deal. Senator Johnson asks, “Did you know about the arms deal?”
This someone leans into their mic, ready to answer, when the person next to them touches their shoulder. It’s their lawyer, and he whispers something into their ear. This someone leans into the mic and says, “I can neither confirm nor deny that I knew about the arms deal.” This is the kind of legal dodge we all recognize. I don’t care about it at all. I want to know what the lawyer said to the someone. That’s the secret.
I’m glad for this example, because it allows me the chance to transition to another type of storyteller, the newscaster.
We all count on newscasters to relay to us the news in a clear and inoffensive way. We don’t want or need the opinions or secrets of the newscaster. Just tell us the news. What the newscaster does serves as a perfect example of a public reading. We’re all watching, getting the story at the same time from this person, taking in the culture of our world as a collective whole. Newscasters strike me as the kind of storytellers who could benefit greatly from sensitivity readers. If I’m a newscaster, I want to know any and every way I might possibly offend someone in the audience. If the audience is offended, nobody is paying attention to the news, and I’ve failed. In fact, newscasters typically wear ear pieces as they read the news, through which news directors tell them this and that during the show. This person whispering in the newscaster’s ear doesn’t pull me out of the experience of getting the news. “Hey, that’s not the newscaster’s opinion” isn’t a feeling I have when watching the news. The point isn’t the newscaster, it’s the news.
Few want newscasters to be secret tellers. That’s what books are for. They’re the art form that best preserves this sort of intimate communication from one person to another because, by and large, that’s still how they’re enjoyed. In this communication, the intrusion of other people greatly impacts the dynamics of the exchange, and typically for the worse. No reader wants to feel sensitivity readers leaning into the author, whispering in their ear, as the author communicates their words to the reader. That takes the pleasure of the secret away from the author and reader and gives it to the author and sensitivity reader. It’s one thing when such an exchange is noticeable, as when a classic work is re-edited to suit the sensibilities of contemporary times, but it also can be corrosive if the sensitivity reader beats the audience to the punch, taking away the pleasure of the secret before it’s passes from writer to reader. In that case, the writer simply has left me on the bench at the train depot with nothing but his used newspaper next to me.
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