If you ever worried about what the student snowflakes at American universities would be qualified to do after graduation, this is the perfect job for them.
Publishers are hiring "sensitivity readers" to check book manuscripts to make sure they adhere to politically correct standards.
These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as "dealing with terminal illness," "racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families" or "transgender issues."
"The industry recognizes this is a real concern," said Cheryl Klein, a children's and young adult book editor and author of "The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults." Klein, who works at the publisher Lee & Low, said that she has seen the casual use of specialized readers for many years but that the process has become more standardized and more of a priority, especially in books for young readers.
Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.
Last year, for instance, J.K. Rowling was strongly criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in the 2016 story "History of Magic in North America." Young-adult author Keira Drake was forced to revise her fantasy novel "The Continent" after an online uproar over its portrayal of people of color and Native backgrounds. More recently, author Veronica Roth – of "Divergent" fame – came under fire for her new novel, "Carve the Mark." In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.
This potential for offense has some writers scared. Young-adult author Susan Dennard recently hired a fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her "Truthwitch" series.
"I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage," Dennard said. But, she added, she felt the voice of the character was an important one that wasn't often portrayed, so she hired a fan, who is a transgender man, just to be sure she did it right.
"Just to be sure she did it right"? By whose standards? Using what criteria? Self-censorship is still censorship and represents a threat to free speech. Certainly, portraying a black person as a shuffling, lazy character who eats fried chicken and watermelon is inappropriate. But beyond avoiding racial stereotypes, what responsibility does the author have to "marginalized" groups?
Can he portray a black man as a villain? Can he portray a woman as an airhead? Portraying "marginalized" characters as anything except heroic, smart, and beautiful is where "sensitivity readers" are driving the publishing industry.
The flip-side of this is, of course, the portrayal of white people as evil. How long before showing white people to be anything except racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. becomes the norm?
Here's some of what "sensitivity readers" do:
Her upcoming book, tentatively called "Breakout," focuses on three girls coping with a prison escape in their small town. Messner has enlisted multiple sensitivity readers to help her work out the class and race issues affecting the town and her characters. A reader has called out when her language doesn't ring true, and has questioned when her character does something that seems inauthentic and provides her perspective on why that is. Messner said it's been encouraging to hear when she's gotten something correct, but also she's had to make adjustments.
These people are "experts" not because of their extensive study and knowledge of the issues, but because they belong to one of the "marginalized" groups. Incredible.
I gave up on fiction years ago when the overwhelming majority of authors published were liberals and couldn't help but insert their political beliefs in their writing. Nonfiction has its problems, but at least you can easily recognize poorly sourced information or selective bias in the writing. And now, with sensitivity readers vetting books to make sure they adhere to the deadly conformity of political correctness, I definitely won't be spending my money to support authors and publishers who give in to this nonsense.