Cultural advisers or literary censors? The rise of “sensitivity readers” in question
Initially confined to the world of children’s books, the fever of “reviewers in sensitivity” spread to the Anglo-Saxon world of publishing. While living authors are divided over their role, deceased writers like Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming are not spared either.
Behind-the-scenes proofreaders whose work and recommendations sometimes lead to heated debates. Present for several years already in the Anglo-Saxon literary world, the “sensitivity readers” point out cultural inconsistencies, inappropriate stereotypes and flush out, in the manuscripts entrusted to them, the slightest passages likely to offend contemporary sensibilities. Vindicated by certain authors when others, wanting to be in tune with the times, consider their work welcome, these proofreaders of a new genre have long remained confined to children’s literature. It is no longer the case.
The profession has been talked about again on the occasion of the release of revised and corrected editions of the books of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the chocolate factory ) and D’Ian Fleming (james bond ). The prose of these two mid-twentieth-century authorse century has been modified to be more suited to current sensibilities. At Roald Dahl, characters are for example no longer “fat” Or “crazy” ; while at Ian Fleming, the changes relate to the description deemed racist of black characters. Accusations of censorship immediately flared up among those who say they fear a sanitized literature, sweetening the past as well as the present.
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quest for authenticity
Who are these “sensitivity readers” ? Mostly freelance workers, often (little) paid by the word or number of pages by writers or publishers concerned with the accuracy of descriptions in their texts. Or, critics of the practice accuse, of avoiding at all costs the disastrous consequences of a possible storm on social networks in the event of a misstep. Proofreaders have various specialties depending on their origins, religion or experience: “child of immigrants”, “bisexual”, “autistic”, “hijab wearer”, “deaf”, “expert in Chinese and Hong Kong cultures”.
“I don’t believe our critics understand the process“, defended AFP Patrice Williams Marks, “sensitivity readerbased in Los Angeles. “If you’re writing about a population or community that you don’t know well and want it to be authentic, then you’re looking for a sensitivity reader who is part of this community and you ask his opinion”. Lola Isabel Gonzalez, another proofreader also based in Los Angeles, adds: “I always point out to the authors that they are not obligated to accept the changes I suggest“.
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If she judges that“there are good reasons to regulate children’s reading”, British teacher and author Kate Clanchy is much more circumspect when it comes to adults. These latter “are able to put down a book if it upsets them”argued last year the one whose memoirs were subjected to “readers» after their publication, because accused of being racist and validist – that is to say discriminatory towards disabled people.
Constant anxiety about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and stifles creativity.
Lionel Shriver, American writer
For the American writer Lionel Shriver (We need to talk about Kevin), one of the fiercest criticisms against them, proofreaders are nothing more or less like a “sensitivity police”. Gold “the constant anxiety about hurting other people’s feelings inhibits spontaneity and stifles creativity” literary, she castigated in the Guardian in 2017. Publishers “do a damn good job, trying to ruin our books and our enjoyment as readers”, she squeaked again last month on the ultra-conservative British channel GB News. In France, a country very resistant to this type of proofreading, the essayist Raphael Enthoven had denounced in 2020 these “modern censorsas being “the vanguard of the Identity Plague”.
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But in the name of authenticity and anti-racism, writers are favorable to these proofreaders. This is the case of the American Adele Holmes, who took the initiative to call on Patrice Williams Marks for her first book (Winter’s Reckoning, 2022). The latter has identified, she explains to AFP, “points relating to white privilege and the role of the white saviour”. And more prosaically, for the character of a black woman described as having hair “silky”she suggested he use the word instead “curly” to stick to reality.
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Adele Holmes thinks the proofreader has it “greatly helped”. As for the criticisms, she says she thinks they come from people who feel “threatened” by minority claims, in a publishing world known to be predominantly white.
For Lola Isabel Gonzalez, this rise of sensitive proofreaders reflects the evolution of a part of society. “I don’t think I could have done this job at another time”says this proofreader, rejoicing that the “Gen Z” questions established facts. “The younger generations understand the importance of sensitive proofreading”When “Older generations may find it difficult to see it as cultural progress”she believes.