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.

Monica 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.

24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sue Gedge on August 17, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    Excellent, well argued article. I must admit to finding the furore over the book in question very odd. Like you, I struggled to see the supposed racism in the quotes as given in the Guardian article, but while I suppose I must accept that others did perceive it, I do find the concept of a ‘sensitivity reader’ rather strange, since when it comes to ‘sensitivity’, one size doesn’t fit all, and some readers will be more thin-skinned than others. If every writer has to tread on egg shells to avoid every possible offence,very little can be written at all.

    Reply

    • Hello Sue,
      Since I haven’t read this book, it may well be racist for all I know. But it seems to me that the examples cited to demonstrate its racism demonstrate no such thing; and, more importantly, even if it were racist, that is something that the reader has to decide for his or her self. This idea of “sensitivity reader” seems to me a most sinister development.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Jason wilson on August 17, 2021 at 4:43 pm

    The bottom line with the issue referred to here is that those whom the language was describing ( almond eyes was the others ) are not offended but others have usurped their agency on the issue . The contrast is Wole Soyinka ‘s poem telephone conversation in which chocolate skin colours are used against the narrator in a different way which is racist . Context matters here I think.

    It’s sometimes hard when the culture war demands one extreme or the other . Stuff written in the past is what it is – we all live with the less savoury aspects of those we admire . People don’t know which way to jump so we get these over reactions . Perhaps over compensating fur attitudes of the past? Who knows .

    Reply

    • Hello Jason,
      I must admit I find the current atmosphere of censoriousness very troubling. Of course I disapprove of racism, but the idea of some group of people called “sensitivity readers” dictating what is or isn’t too much for my sensitivities is not just a slippery slope, it is wrong in itself. Context certainly matters, I agree, but if we cannot trust the readers to decide on these matters for themselves, I don’t really see the point of publishing anything at all!
      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    There is also that obfuscation coming between innocent description and overt racism generally referred to as a Dog Whistle. However, I agree that censorship is not the answer and suggest that improving Critical Thinking skills would be the more beneficial direction. Unfortunately, here in the United States it is apparent that a third of the people are incapable of thinking for themselves.

    Reply

    • Hello Mike,
      Dog whistles are easy to spot. Over the years, I have developed all the sensitivities of the dog, and flatter myself I can detect a dog whistle quite acutely. I am not disputing that much writing is indeed racist. What I am disputing, of course, is the right of anyone to make these decisions on my behalf. If large sections of the public are likely to become racist themselves by reading racist writing, then we have lost the fight anyway, and censorship will make no difference. So I stand, I think, by the classic liberal formulation of let it all out into the open; expose it all to sunlight; and if anything is indeed racist, then let us who oppose racism have the freedom to argue our point in public. It won’t be easy, but it will be a damn sight more effective, I think, than restricting expression!
      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on August 17, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    Milton commented upon the practical difficulty involved in employing censors:
    https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/jebb-areopagitica-1644-jebb-ed#lf1224_head_010
    “No man, studious, learned, judicious enough to be a competent licenser will endure the drudgery. The present Licensers make no secret of their weariness. Future Licensers will be either ignorant, imperious and remiss, or venal.”.

    Reply

    • Posted by alan on August 17, 2021 at 5:12 pm

      I’ve been hasty. Censorship and rewriting will be done by algorithm.
      It will provide a training programme for when literature is only written by machine since any censored work will become indistinguishable from the same

      Reply

  5. I presume we will have “sensitivity readers” from each of the infinite number of minorities? I therefore put myself forward for the mentally-and-physically-disabled-socialist-miserable-old-congenital-heart-problem-cisgender-male position!

    Reply

  6. Disturbing developments. For the last ten years at least, in America anyway, there has been a trend toward allowing writers to only write about ourselves or people exactly like us. Clearly that’s anti-art and anti-humanity, shutting off the possibility of empathy and imaginatively inhabiting the life of another human. Simultaneously, at least here in America, there is a trend toward forbidding writers to only write about ourselves or people exactly like us, because that denies the existence of cultural difference and the diversity of racial/social identities. In short, writers must fail at anything but carefully-written memoir. I just finished drafting a short novel populated, mostly, by old white women in a rural setting. But I am not an old white rural widow, so I don’t have standing to write about them, so I should not have written that novel. Because it is naturally impossible for me to understand the basic humanity of anyone unlike me, and any attempt I make will be nothing but an arena in which my implicit biases are set free to play. We are, all of us readers and writers whoever we may be, truly fucked.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott,
      I agree with you that I find all these developments not merely sinister from a political perspective, but inimical to the very concept of literature, or of culture in general. Those in favour of these things care neither for literature, nor for culture. This is why I occasionally enter the political arena on this blog to make these points, for what they’re worth: the implications on literature of this kind of thing are immense.
      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

    • “Disturbing developments. For the last ten years at least, in America anyway, there has been a trend toward allowing writers to only write about ourselves or people exactly like us.”

      That trend is slowly seeping into public discourse here in Portugal, but we haven’t yet reached the point of telling writers who to write about. So far we’re reacting to the big news from outside, stuff like who gets to translate a black girl’s poems, etc. But I guess the next step is beginning to chide writers for usurping other people’s voices.

      Reply

  7. A logical implication, following your last line, is that Picador does not care about furthering literary values. Nor do the other big guys.

    Reply

  8. As always, Himadri, you nail the argument perfectly. The whole “woke” phenomenon is frightening, not just for the Soviet-style restriction on free speech, but for the counter-reaction it will inevitably unleash. Brexit was bad enough, but once people realise they haven’t “taken back control” after all, I can foresee support for people who make Farage and his ilk look sane. I can only hope that either it will take long enough I won’t be around to see it, or that the current fad for “sensitivity readers” and similar nonsense will disappear as quickly as a “star” created by a talent show. Time, as always, will tell.

    Reply

    • Hello Neil,
      I too hope it’s a fad, and, perhaps, looking through social media gives me but a biased view of what people really think. I can only hope so. But the very idea of “sensitivity readers” is deeply sinister. So far, they have been restricted mainly to YA: that’s bad enough, but as we can see, they’re making inroads into other forms of publishing as well. And given the public stink that is made wen something is deemed ideologically unsound, it seems to me but a matter of time before their “advisory” role becomes something even more sinster.
      But of course, I do hope my doom-mongering is mistaken. I do wonder, though, who will stand up for liberalism when self-avowed liberals themselves reject it.
      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. A few months ago (or was it last year?), I looked at websites of a bunch of sensitivity readers, for research and all that.
    Some interesting stuff I’ve learnt:
    1/ Sensitivity readers tend to be employed by writers themselves. They also say they don’t decide anything, all they do is to read, give feedback and suggestions, and they don’t guarantee anything.
    2/ Sensitivity readers, or at least the ones I saw, tend to read YA, sometimes fantasy, sometimes romance. YA pops up quite often. So you can imagine their reading level.
    3/ Very often, sensitivity readers are themselves writers. This makes things more interesting, does it not? In the YA fiction scene, the writers tear each other to pieces, often before the book even comes out and before readers know anything.

    Reply

    • About a decade ago, I was part of an online writers’ community that had something like 600 members, a lot of whom were YA authors. The YA people were all heavily invested in workshopping their books, with many beta readers and an openness to blunt criticism that most literary writers wouldn’t welcome. I can see how YA and fantasy writers (and there are a lot of people writing both) would take to sensitivity readers, as many of them are quite market savvy and consciously work towards a definite idea of market-ready novels. Writers like me and my little group of like-minded friends have no real idea what’s being read these days, so it’s all quite baffling to discuss the market and current trends. A world I don’t inhabit and don’t really trust. It’s probably not as sinister as I make it out to be in my above comments.

      Reply

    • Goodness – this is weird! From what I have seen of many YA practitioners on social media, sending out the right message appears to be the only criterion they’re interested in. I’m basing this only on what I have seen, and that may well be a biased sample – so I am not insisting this applies in general to the YA genre. But to anyone interested in literary values (remember them?) this is, of course, a very worrying trend, and those of us who care for literature really have to make our voices heard. Currently, their role may be only “advisory” – but for how long?

      Reply

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