Skip to Content

Stock photo from Pixabay

French publishers discover ‘sensitivity readers’

Readers who track down ethnic and sexual prejudices that may offend certain non-white minorities in books, are emerging in French publishing. Known as "sensitivity readers", they are now routinely employed before a book is published, especially if the author is writing about cultures outside their lived experience.

Published: January 16, 2023, 3:44 am

    In the Anglo-Saxon book industry, these new kinds of proofreaders scrutinise manuscripts for descriptions that could offend minorities and spark controversy on social networks.

    The first novel by Filipino American Daphne Palasi Andreades, 30, was published in France on 12 January. Brown Girls (its original title) traces the trajectory of a cohort of girls and women from Queens, a working-class district of New York. American women of immigrant background who are trying to find their place.

    A few months before publication, the editorial director of Les Escales, Sarah Rigaud, was looking for the right translation in French of the term “brown girls”, which appears throughout the text. She called on Maboula Soumahoro, a lecturer in American civilisation at the University of Tours, to find the right word and carefully reread the manuscript. Involved in the debates on the decolonial question, this researcher sees her (paid) mission as a simple question of “common sense, honesty and quality research”.

    Scrutinising a text for descriptions of characters from ethnic, sexual and cultural minorities in order to avoid offensive stereotypes is an uncommon approach in France. However, in the space of a few years, this approach has become ubiquitous in the English-speaking world, under the name of “sensitivity reading”.

    This new profession is developing rapidly, in a climate that some see as a return to censorship and others see as necessary for the predominantly white and privileged industry to become aware of its racist, sexist or homophobic prejudices. Officially or not, all the major publishing houses have resorted to it and agencies specialised in sanitizing texts are multiplying.

    “At the slightest doubt about an aspect of the book that could create a debate, all Anglo-Saxon publishers call on sensitivity readers,” confided the foreign literature editor of a major French publisher, speaking to French daily Le Monde on condition of anonymity. They risk too much, and they are very afraid.

    Subjective censoring

    The author of seventeen novels, including the best-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), 65-year-old American Lionel Shriver is known for her outspoken opposition to the literary community’s efforts to promote inclusivity and diversification of writers and characters in fiction. “The biggest problem with wokism [a pejorative term applied to anti-discrimination work] is its methods: name-calling and revenge,” she said in the British conservative daily Evening Standard on 16 June 2021.

    Contacted by Le Monde, Lionel Shriver dismissed “sensitivity reading” as just another “subjective” take on a work of fiction. “Sensitivity reading is a totally subjective editing process. Getting excited about what a group of people will think of a book is a mistake and a waste of energy that forces authors to be careful. The more cautious you are, the less creative you are. If you are afraid of stepping on people’s toes, you don’t dance!”

    Last year, controversy blew up in the UK over teacher Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, about her time teaching kids from diverse backgrounds to write poetry.

    Although Clanchy’s book was initially lauded (even winning the Orwell Prize), criticism soon eclipsed praise. Readers, prominent writers of colour and autistic author Dara McNulty protested the language Clanchy used to describe her pupils (“Somali height”, “Ashkenazi nose”, autistic children as “jarring company”). Her publisher Picador agreed the objections were “instructive and clear-sighted”; eventually, it withdrew the book from publication.

    Clanchy apologised for any offence caused, but maintained that her book had been intended to be anti-racist. “I’m horrified that people found prejudice and cruelty in my book,” she wrote in an article on UnHerd.

    A recent example from academic publishing is that of “BIPOC” writer Mary Rambaran-Olm, who was asked to read a chapter on Early Medieval England of a history book written for the general public. Rambaran-Olm has expertise in relevant academic fields, and also through her personal experience as a scholar of Afro/Indo Caribbean origin.

    The white male authors overwhelmingly did not accept her advice about problems with the manuscript’s representation of the past and how it feeds into contemporary racism. They thanked her in the acknowledgements, however. This created the false impression she had actively shaped the contents of the book.

    According to “nonbinary” author Alison Evans, they’re paid between $350 and $400 for sensitivity reads.

    Consider donating to support our work

    Help us to produce more articles like this. FreeWestMedia is depending on donations from our readers to keep going. With your help, we expose the mainstream fake news agenda.

    Keep ​your language polite​. Readers from many different countries visit and contribute to Free West Media and we must therefore obey the rules in​,​ for example​, ​Germany. Illegal content will be deleted.

    If you have been approved to post comments without preview from FWM, you are responsible for violation​s​ of​ any​ law. This means that FWM may be forced to cooperate with authorities in a possible crime investigation.

    If your comments are subject to preview ​by FWM, please be patient. We continually review comments but depending on the time of day it can take up to several hours before your comment is reviewed.

    We reserve the right to del​ete​ comments that are offensive, contain slander or foul language, or are irrelevant to the discussion.


    WHO introduces a global patient file

    GenevaThe WHO has introduced a global patient file with the vaccinated and unvaccinated to be codified in future.

    Macron deputy consumes cocaine but justice system closes investigation

    ParisAn investigation by Médiapart revealed that the Renaissance deputy of Hauts-de-Seine Emmanuel Pellerin used cocaine, before as well as after his election.

    Sweden’s NATO membership bid goes up in smoke

    StockholmAfter the burning of the Quran in Stockholm, Turkey has no intention of allowing Sweden to join NATO. Sweden's Prime Minister, on the other hand, pointed to the importance of freedom of expression. The NATO Secretary General also spoke up on the matter.

    Internal EU report: Asylum applications has increased by half except in Hungary

    BerlinThe asylum disaster continues unabated in 2023. According to a confidential "Status Report on Migration and Refugees" by the EU Commission dated January 11, the number of asylum applications in the EU rose by around half in the past year to well over 900 000.

    French pension reform: 150 000 young demonstrators according to organisers

    ParisSome 150 000 students marched in Paris on January 21 against pension reform, according to the youth organisations that initiated the demonstration, but only 14 000 according to sources close to the Macron administration.

    Corruption thriller: Zelensky’s deputy minister arrested

    KievJust 14 days after the President of the Ukrainian National Bank (who is said to have embezzled 5,42 million euros) applied for asylum in Austria, Deputy Minister Wassyl Losynsky was arrested.  

    Mild weather thus far saving Europe from an energy crisis

    Countries across Europe are currently experiencing warmer-than-expected weather for the first few days of the year. Experts say that even if an energy crisis has been averted for the moment, cold weather or supply delays could still create an upheaval further down the line.

    Macron announces that climate crisis has arrived ‘faster than expected’

    ParisThe French president has spoken out in a YouTube video in response to comments from climate cultists, NGOs and green political opponents who were "shocked" by remarks made about the climate during his December 31, 2022 greetings.

    Three months into Meloni tenure sees migrant arrivals exploding

    RomeIt has been a disturbing development. Despite its right-wing government, which has now been in office for almost three months, the number of illegal immigrants in Italy continues to rise steeply. This has caused many voters to become dissatisfied with the right-wing government under Giorgia Meloni.

    Sweden: Government declares war on migrant gangs

    StockholmSweden has been experiencing non-stop explosions, shootings and murders for weeks now. The cities of Stockholm and Malmö are particularly affected and the police have been overwhelmed. The government intends to lead the charge against escalating violence by various migrant gangs.

    Go to archive