New Niche in Fiction Publishing: Sensitivity Reader


little_black_sambo-1900I recently heard, on NPR, and subsequently read in The Guardian,  of a new employment niche, in the increasingly competitive world of book publishing: “Sensitivity Reader“. Even without reading the NPR piece, you can probably guess what this sensitivity reader role means, in the present atmosphere of hyper-inflated media attention to perceived threats,  and counter threats, insults, and protests, aggravated by our growing preference for personal passion over objective thinking. After all, the former approach sells more products than  the latter.

Let me summarize the sensitivity reader’s job. She offers to edit a writer’s work, before publication, to make sure that it doesn’t contain topics, terminology or tones  that might offend some particular groups of readers. Generally, this involves fiction writing, which is the largest book market, with many self-publishing authors. It’s thought to be especially important for writers who undertake to present characters or situations with  which they have no personal experience. The fee may be a few hundred dollars for a normal size book.

The perspective which leads to this market niche is what I would call “identity politics”, which first developed during the civil rights era starting in the Sixties, and is intensifying as more and more people in the middle and lower socioeconomic classes deal with increasing wealth inequality and decreasing opportunities for good education , satisfying work and dependable income.  Loosely defined, identity politics involves groups whose members share some special interest by which they identify themselves, who come together to gain political ends. Their association may involve ethnicity, trade, profession, gender identity, religion, geographic locale, age, country of origin, language, disability, etc. Often governmental actions are sought to avoid discrimination, or to provide benefits to such groups.

It seems obvious that there’s no clear limit to how many such groups may develop, or to what degree they may seek to be recognized, protected or favored by various levels of government. That in itself is enough to give pause when considering the issues. The federal government is the primary target, as it has been the agency for protecting individual rights since the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  which forbade discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Subsequently these groups have expanded and subdivided, and continue to bring legal suits –  often ultimately at the Supreme Court level. We should remember that these ideas were hinted at in the 1776 Declaration, which spoke of “certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, as well as in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution – the so-called Bill of Rights. But such rights were not applied widely in practice, until a century after the Civil War which had formally banned slavery, and made African slaves citizens, with the right to vote (males, in any case). In practice, however, these formal rights were often ignored or weakened.

I think identity politics is often emphasized without careful analysis of what the larger issues are in the country which affect all such groups For this reason, they fail of their purpose to advance their status. In advocating for the equal treatment of all such disadvantaged minority groups, they often miss the larger social issues that are affecting disadvantaged people generally. Identity politicians insist these identity groups should all be treated equally well, but don’t define what ‘equally well’ means. They could easily (and probably will) be treated equally badly. A more practical approach would be to consider the older general ideas of social justice, by trying to improve economic conditions for all poor and disadvantaged people – e.g., by passing laws to provide better health, education, and employment opportunities for those who most need them.

This idea of ‘sensitivity’ also involves a serious moral and legal issue regarding the tension between free speech and public welfare, which has an  old history. The First Amendment says Congress  cannot “abridge” freedom of  speech or  press, or the “right of people peaceably to assemble”. But this doesn’t on the  surface prohibit states or local government agencies from doing these things. And many courts have had to interpret these limitations. There is Justice Holmes famous 1919 statement that free speech does not include “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded  theater”; and libel and slander have long been actionable in courts. So obviously there are limitations to what can be said or written.

On the opposing side, ‘free speech’ was the principle appealed to in Citizens United v. FEC (2010). The Supreme Court said that limiting political contributions violates free speech rights. In this case, they were contributions for publicity supporting some particular candidate, whether donated by for-profit, or non-profit corporations, or unions. These contributions still must be disclosed, however, and cannot be given directly to candidates. See here.

For a long time, I have thought it should be permissible that some TV programming and billboard ads be ‘censored’ by various communities who want to protect their children from experiencing too much violence or undue visual and audible stimulation, or the inclusion of ads to sell the same items which are integral parts of the programs being watched. These (perhaps ‘old fashioned’) ideas were for a time put into practice – e.g. keeping ‘porno’ magazines under the counter, or keeping ‘adult’ films and network entertainment from showing during family hours. But since the Reagan era, community efforts to protect themselves and their children were rejected, in the name of free speech. Obviously, however, the real purpose was not free speech at all, but freedom of corporations to make profits in any way possible. I wrote a speech relating to this topic almost 30 years ago, that was published in Vital Speeches of the Day, which I believe is more relevant now than ever. It’s titled “TV – No!” I’ll be interested to see any reactions to my critique.

The picture that heads this post is familiar to me. When I was young, long before the civil rights movement, my family enjoyed an annual Christmas gift of children’s books from a wealthy relative. Among these was The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman. Today the book is not to be found except in rare book catalogs, because it was thought to be racist. Indeed, some of its later editions, by different publishers who had bought the author’s rights (contrary to her desires) were racist in their  illustrations. I’m sure that ‘sensitivity readers’ today would (and did in the Sixties) have a heyday with the latter, and it was effectively banned from children’s libraries, even though it has long been misunderstood.

The author, Helen Watson, was born in Edinburgh. In 1889 she married William Bannerman  – a physician and officer in the Indian Medical Service – and moved with him to Madras, India, where they spent 30 years. While there, she composed Little Black Sambo to entertain her children, who lived happily among the people she depicted. It was not at all demeaning. Her personal bio and academic development are a remarkable story.

Not surprisingly, the sensitivity discussion has gotten a lot of attention, pro and con. This is part of the ‘divide’ that represents contemporary politics. For an entertainingly ‘insensitive’ reaction to this controverial subject, read this piece in Spiked by comedian Andrew Doyle.

As usual, I’ll extend the topic to some other issues which are related, culturally and morally. I’m sure my points here can be disputed. They are presented to provoke thought. I think the sensitivity issue is a milder (i.e. still voluntary) variation on the subject of ‘hate speech’, and ‘hate crimes’, which are also much in the news lately, and have often been so since  the Fifties and Sixties. That was an the era when civil rights  groups joined with anti-war groups, to bring about radical changes in federal laws and policies. Countries on both sides of WWII began to see a resurgence of hate groups, as is the case today. Without giving too much ethical argument here, I would suggest first that ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crimes’ are different, yet their distinction is blurry. A Ku Klux Klan cross-burning on a street in front of an African American’s home is not just free speech; it’s also an action that can do mental harm to the people inside looking out.

Clearly the the Klan is hateful. And it has done unforgivable harm. Similarly, Nazis (and contemporary ‘white supremacists’) have hated and harmed Jews and  other ‘non-whites’ in the past, and up to the present. But such hateful crimes ‘against humanity’, whether considered by international courts, or federal or state courts, must be forbidden and punished. However, this is not because they are hateful – which is all  too obvious – but because they do such unbelievable harm, to individuals, groups, nations and ‘humanity’.

Dealing with hate crimes involve ‘hard cases’. My 5th Grade teacher used to say, “Hard cases make bad laws”. That’s a wise principle. Laws should deal with broad generalities, and the larger the group of people affected, the more general should be the laws that govern them. With regard to ‘hate crimes’, I question whether the category is useful or even clear. What constitutes a ‘hater’ in legal terms? If I hate people who play loud music while driving with windows open, and I throw a brick through his windshield when he stops at the corner, is that a hate crime? It may be, but not unless the law has made it to be so. Moreover, whom does the ‘hate crime’ law protect?

Furthermore, although hating a person or group clearly skews my thinking, it doesn’t necessarily skew my rational understanding of what I’m doing. I can be a cold-blooded hater. “Intent” is a state of mind, which shouldn’t be (and probably can’t be) properly limited by laws. “Motives” are different, and are distinguished in law.  I wonder though whether the motives of a criminal can be determined ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, even if one can guess by looking at speech and behavior. For a scholarly analysis of this issue, see “Bad Laws Make Hard Cases” from the Gonzaga Law Review.

Just as ‘hate crimes’ involve strong emotions, so do ‘crimes of passion’, yet the one is said to exacerbate guilt, and the other to mitigate it. Again, I question if either should be a special category of law. My view is that the any crime’s severity should be judged on particular circumstances; this has always been the effort of individual court judgments. It should not rest on an effort to determine motives. More importantly, it’s up to legislators to decide which hated groups and which groups of haters should be given special status. That is dangerously arbitrary and political. Assaulting one of my students because I hate stupid people is not (yet) a hate crime.

Laws about crimes of passion are gradually changing. Here’s a news summary of the debate in 2003 by the British Parliament. But we need to remember that all the ‘passion’ doesn’t lie with the perpetrators of passion crimes. It also heavily influences those who consider making laws regarding such crimes. A good example is the increasing pressure on legislators to respond to emotional public outcries in certain kinds of hi-profile cases, especially when they involve children as victims.

A last point about the ‘sensitivity reader’ issue has to do with the value  of objectivity (regardless of what readers might find upsetting). The ‘sensitivity reader’ wants a writer somehow to sympathize (or at least empathize) with those who might read about characters she alleges to be depicting, and their experiences. And that would work best, it is suggested, if she had shared those experiences personally. Barring this, the author must not cause discomfort to her readers. By contrast, I would suggest that one who has not ‘walked in the shoes’  of her subject might in fact present a more objective, and in that sense more true, account of the story, even if it does evoke discomfort. After all,  isn’t it a major purpose of good (as contrasted to marketable) fiction to present some important generalizations about human life and thinking, through a particular instance of plot line and character building? And doesn’t this require objectivity, and hopefully a correct view of reality? In that sense, great fiction can be ‘true’, although  the particular story is ‘made up’.

Ideally, one could hope for some balance of subjectivity and objectivity- what one feels and believes – when dealing with others, whether in professional or personal capacities, as a thinker, speaker and actor. A psychotherapist, for example, needs to learn to ‘identify’ with her subject client, and ‘get into her head’, as it were, to know the forces that are operating there. But at the same time, she needs to remain well rooted in reality, and not be so sympathetic as to get sucked into her client’s pseudo-reality, or take the client’s perspective, or become what the client wants her to be; otherwise, she won’t be able to help her client come to self awareness, and progress towards a happier way of thinking. So too with many writers. They often say that the character ‘takes over’, and the book writes itself. Whether or not that is true, being able to judge whether or not the resulting work reflects reality takes some degree of stepping back from it.


Leave a Reply