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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

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    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.

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