Archive for August, 2021

Sense and Sensitivity

It’s always a good thing for those of us who take literature seriously to be sensitive to what they read. Quite often, matters of the most vital import are communicated with subtleties and nuances, and without sufficient sensitivity to these things, one may well miss the development of Emma Woodhouse’s perceptions, or of Lambert Strether’s. Which would be a shame, as these developments are at the very centre of these novels. So yes, let’s have more sensitive readers, by all means. That can only be good for the furtherance of literary values.

However, another expression, similar sounding but very different in meaning, has been making its way quite insistently into my consciousness of late, and this time, I’m not so sure it is very good for the furtherance of literary values. And that’s “sensitivity readers”. Being long of the opinion that any noun may be verbed, I have no objection with the noun “sensitivity” being, as here, adjectivised, but its import, in this instance, leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy. For it is the task of sensitivity readers is to read through texts before publication, and to remove, or at best to tone down, anything they feel might cause offence to the unsuspecting reader. In short, these people are censors, unelected and unaccountable, deciding on behalf of the reader what is offensive, and what isn’t; what we may read, and what we can’t. And the criterion determining this has nothing to do with correcting errors, polishing up the writing style, ensuring there is nothing libellous in the content, etc. – that is, the kind of thing we would expect editors to do: the criterion is to protect our sensitivities. On our behalf.

The political arguments against censorship need not be spelt out here, but the literary arguments perhaps should. For while literature does not need always to be offensive, there are times when it does. It would be tedious to list all those works now considered masterpieces but which have, in their time, been considered affronts to good taste and have fallen foul of censors – Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and so on. A general consensus had developed – or so I thought – that censorship is an enemy to literature. Of course, the relaxation of censorship inevitably means that a lot that is rubbish, or even morally repugnant, also sees light of day, but – and I’m sorry to be stating the obvious here – if people choose to read rubbish, even morally repugnant rubbish, then that is entirely their privilege, and no-one as the right to prevent them. This, as I understand it, is the classic liberal argument against censorship, and for freedom of speech.

So it did rather startle me to see an article in a mainstream liberal newspaper, written by someone who is herself an author (and hence, one may assume, someone who values literature), and who would also probably claim to be liberal, claiming that current level of censorship is actually a good thing, but not enough for the longer term:

Increasingly, publishers are using sensitivity readers, which is a good idea but a short-term fix.

In case it is felt I am quoting out of context, this is the article from which it is taken. It concerns the much publicised case of poet Kate Clanchy, whose book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me has recently come under fire for alleged racism. In this instance, the publishers Picador released a statement saying that they would, in this instance, do, as it were, a “sensitivity reading” in retrospect, and rewrite the offending passages. They will, in other words, now determine on our behalf how best to protect our sensitivities.

It may of course be argued – and many already have argued it – that they are removing passages that are racist and rude, and that there can be no objection to that. But firstly, are these passages racist and rude? I am at a disadvantage here as I haven’t read the book, but the examples given – in that article by Monisha Rajesh in the Guardian previously mentioned – leave me unconvinced. Let us go through a few of them one by one.

Someone is described as having a “chocolate skin”. I myself have a chocolate-coloured skin, and am quite happy with it. To see this term in itself as offensive is to see the possession of a “chocolate skin” as something bad, and that certainly would be racist. But if Ms Clanchy does see the possession of a “chocolate skin” as a Bad Thing, there is no indication of that in Monisha Rajesh’s article. Reference to a “chocolate skin” is, in itself, an objective description – “skin the colour of chocolate” – and whether one sees this as offensive or otherwise depends purely on what one thinks of chocolate skins. I, as I said, quite like mine. If describing someone as having “milky white skin” isn’t offensive, then I don’t see why “chocolate skin” should be either – unless one thinks “milky white” to be superior to “chocolate brown”.

Same, I imagine, with a “Jewish nose”. Of course, all Jews don’t have Jewish noses, but there is a recognisable shape of nose that is often found among Jewish people and is associated with them; and, as with a brown skin, as long as one does not ridicule it, or use it to attack or to abuse Jewish people, I can’t really see the problem if it is described in writing. I have myself admired and, indeed, envied many a Jewish nose in my time; and so, it seems, does Kate Clanchy, as, we are told later in this article, she refers to someone else’s “fine Ashkenazi nose”. The adjective “fine” seems to me to imply appreciation rather than otherwise.

And so on. When Monisha Rajesh says she “recoils” when a Somali boy is described as having a “narrow skull”, I assume it’s the description of the fact and not the fact itself that she is recoiling from, but if it’s a physically accurate description, I don’t, once again, see what the problem is, or why this should be termed “racist”. “Racism” – once again, as I understand it – is to hold prejudices about a person, or about a group of people, based upon their ethnicity, and I really can’t see any of that in what appears to be objective physical descriptions. I do hope we’re not at a stage where it is considered acceptable to physically describe white people (“milky white skin”, for instance) but not of non-white people: that would be racism.

Monisha Rajesh does not mention that another girl (from an ethnic minority) was described as having “almond shaped eyes” – presumably because after this expression was held up as an example of Kate Clanchy’s racism, the girl in question publicly identified herself, and said she wasn’t offended at all; that it was merely a case of other people being offended on her behalf. Well, of course she wasn’t offended! “Almond shaped eyes” sounds quite lovely, frankly.

Of course, there may be a problem with all this if the children could be identified from the descriptions, but once again, as I understand it, care has been taken not to reveal their identities. In any case, the charge against the book isn’t that the children are identifiable: the charge is explicitly that of racism. And, from the examples given, at least, I can’t see it. And this despite my being rather sensitive about racism (I am of Indian ethnicity and grew up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s – not an era associated with racial sensitivity: without, I hope, appearing self-pitying on the matter, I think I have experienced a fair amount of racist abuse in my life – enough, at least, to have a good understanding of what racism is).

However, clearly, in these instances, Monisha Rajesh sees racism where I do not; her sensitivities are clearly different from mine. And herein, I think, lies the problem: since different people can have different sensitivities, whose sensitivities should “sensitivity readers” represent? If their sensitivities are different from mine, why should their sensitivities be allowed to override mine? What right, in short, does anyone have to be offended on my behalf?

The obvious answer to all this is to let the readers decide for themselves whether they find something offensive or not. But of course, for the reader to do that, they must have access to the books in the first place – to the books unredacted by “sensitivity readers”. That, to me, is the liberal position, but the sight of people claiming to be liberal clamouring for more censorship, not less, makes me wonder whether I actually understand the term.

This liberal solution I outline – of publishing books without redacting to protect sensitivities – entails, inevitably, the publication of much that really is indisputably and offensively racist. But readers must be trusted to decide that for themselves. The alternative, it strikes me, is very illiberal indeed. And certainly not in any way conducive to furthering literary values. For those of us who care for such things, that is.