The ways in which words reflect and shape reality is at the heart of a hidden war playing out within the British publishing industry, linked to what’s known in the trade as “sensitivity reads”.
These independent reports commissioned by a publisher to ensure a book won’t cause offence to potential readers were, until very recently, virtually unknown to most people. The idea may sound harmless enough but sensitivity reads are fast becoming a significant force in publishing, with potentially grave consequences for authors. This was thrown into sharp relief in the summer of 2021 when the author and teacher Kate Clanchy found herself at the centre of a social media furore about her award-winning memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, which had been published to critical acclaim two years earlier.
Clanchy was accused by her critics of racism, ableism, sexism and white supremacism, with words and passages from the book cited to support their arguments. While insisting that many of these quotes had been taken out of context, Clanchy nevertheless publicly apologised for any offence she’d caused and made changes to her text in response to some of the criticism. In addition, her publisher, Picador, who had expressed no concerns about sensitivity prior to publication, now decided to send it to three different sensitivity readers to scour the book for any remaining traces of authorial wrongdoing.
FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival
Rebecca Abrams and Kate Clanchy will be interviewed by Stephen Law in the Oxford Debate: Sensitive Readers on April 2 at 2pm in Blackwell’s bookshop. For more information see oxfordliteraryfestival.org
The reports insisted on extensive changes, but disagreed about what and why. They directly contradicted one another in places, admiring and condemning the same passages. There was consensus only in their conclusion that the book should be withdrawn from publication. In January this year, Clanchy and her publisher ended an artistic collaboration that had flourished for 25 years.
As Clanchy’s friend, and as a writer and teacher myself, I watched this saga unfold with disquiet as it rapidly moved beyond reasonable questions of sensitivity. What was at stake, it seemed to me, were the boundaries of authorial freedom and who had the right to impose limits on a writer’s imagination.
Subjecting manuscripts to external scrutiny is not new. Sensitivity reads have been widely used in the US and the UK for well over a decade in young adult and children’s publishing, where the age of the target reader justifies a high level of editorial care in relation to tone and content. Academic presses have long sent proposals and manuscripts out for peer review by experts as a matter of course. Now it has spread into the mainstream as publishers try to be more aware of cultural and societal opinion.
What are the qualifications for being a sensitivity reader? What does the task itself consist of? And whose sensitivities exactly are being safeguarded?
I have some tentative answers to these questions, having recently carried out a sensitivity read for a memoir on inherited trauma to be published by Penguin later this year. I was very clear in my own mind that my role was collaborative, not invasive. It was not my job to impose my preferences on the author’s style, nor to force the text to comply with my own values or worldview.
My task was to draw the author’s attention to where and why the text might evoke a strongly negative reaction at particular points, and offer suggestions — not instructions — for how offence might be avoided. Do I think my feedback was beneficial? Yes. Would it be possible to write a book in this way? No. Defensiveness is the curse of creativity.
The widespread use of sensitivity reads for all genres of fiction and non-fiction, however well-intentioned, poses more questions than it answers. To some, it is the response of an increasingly timid publishing industry running scared of public opinion, and in dread of social media maulings. To others, it is an acknowledgment of the structural deficits of an industry that does not always reflect the wider society in which it operates.
For me, the most concerning aspect of the sensitivity readers’ objections to Clanchy’s book was that they seemed insensitive to the process of writing itself, tone-deaf to irony, intolerant of ambiguity, impatient with the concept of a narrative journey.
Reading in this way, whatever your ideological perspective, is inimical to the relationship between writers and readers, which is inherently consensual, freely entered into by both parties. The role of publishers is not to police authors’ imaginations or tiptoe around readers’ feelings, but to support their writers, stimulate discussion and defend debate, respectful of difference and fearless of sensitivities.
Literary scandals predate social media, of course. In response to fury provoked by his 1991 Holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis asserted, “There are no ‘do not enter’ signs any more. But you don’t swagger in there just for the hell of it. You’ve got to have something to say.” Any serious (and, dare I say, sensitive) writer understands this. Writers don’t hurl words at the page in any old order. They ponder, they reflect, they agonise.
The world of books has always been one big unhappy family — rivalrous, envious, argumentative, at times downright cruel — and it needs to stay that way. I want the books I read to unsettle, challenge — yes, even to offend. I want them to shake me out of my metaphorical armchair. I don’t want sensationalism for the sake of it, or mindless vulgarity, or gratuitous provocation. But I do want to know how the world looks to people who are not like me. I want to inhabit imaginative spaces that differ from mine. I want to be part of a republic of readers and writers who freely agree to disagree, not a literary autocracy in which all dissenting voices have been silenced.
Rebecca Abrams’ latest book is ‘Licoricia of Winchester: Power and Prejudice in Medieval England’
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