WASHINGTON - It’s a profession that is increasingly under the spotlight as the culture wars rumble on: “Sensitivity readers” – editors who identify insensitivities or stereotypes in manuscripts – are becoming a lightning rod for the publishing industry.
Such readers have worked in the wings of the Western literary world for years now, though they were largely confined to children’s literature.
But amid social reckonings such as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, sensitivity readers are becoming prominent in contemporary fiction publishing also – and not everyone is pleased about it.
Publishers “are doing a damn good job, trying to ruin our books, and to ruin our fun as readers”, the American author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver, complained on ultra-conservative British channel GB News in February.
Sensitivity readers have recently been pilloried again with the announcement that books by children’s writer Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, were being republished to be more adapted to current sensibilities.
In Dahl’s books, for example, some characters are no longer identified as “fat” or “crazy”. Fleming’s books were being reissued with racial references, including the N-word, removed.
Accusations of censorship began flying almost immediately from observers who fear sanitised literature could whitewash the past, as well as the present.
“People say that, but I don’t feel that they understand the process,” Ms Patrice Williams Marks, a Los Angeles-based sensitivity reader, told Agence France-Presse.
“If you’re writing about a people or community that you’re unfamiliar with, and you want it to be authentic… then you find somebody who’s a sensitivity reader who’s part of that community and ask for their opinions,” she explained.
“I always let them know that they don’t have to accept the changes that I suggest,” says Ms Lola Isabel Gonzalez, another sensitivity reader, also based in Los Angeles.
So who are “sensitivity readers”?
Mostly, they are freelance editors, often paid by the word or number of pages – and with strict confidentiality clauses, of course – by authors or p...