“I have no special power”: Don’t blame sensitivity readers for recent censored books

Words had been changed in several books by children’s author Roald Dahl, seemingly at random at times and with little or no context (a move the publisher quickly regretted and took back). In upcoming reissues of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, “ethnicities have been removed,” Variety reports, along with “derogatory terms” and descriptions.

What happens to books? So what other things what’s going on with books? Librarians, including public school librarians, are under fire and persecuted. Lawmakers are targeting dozens of books for removal after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) championed a bill requiring approval of all books in classrooms. Some, but certainly not all, of these targeted books mention race, sexuality, gender, even the Holocaust, with many authors writing personal stories from their own experiences.

Around the same time, publishers have changed a lot of wording in already published books, and some see this as either an attempt at “vigilance” or possibly an attempt to fend off a future attack by lawmakers. But are publishers changing the right things? Who is behind all these edits? One thing is for sure: it is not the fault of sensitive readers, although they have also been targeted.

Variety’s report on Fleming mentions sensitivity readers immediately: “Rights holders Ian Fleming Publications Ltd commissioned a sensitivity readers review.” It is a group that is blamed in the second paragraph of one of The Guardian’s stories about the edits made to Dahl’s writing. “Puffin has hired sensitive readers to rewrite chunks of the author’s text,” The Guardian reports, “resulting in sweeping changes across Dahl’s work.”

The sensitivity reader did it! But what are sensitivity readers and do they really have that much power?

Sensitivity readers are early readers, often authors themselves, who go over a manuscript, at the request of an author or publisher, paying particular attention to certain identities, characteristics, or phrases. However, Google the term and you will find definitions as varied as they are subjective. The University of Alberta, for example, defines sensitivity readers as “someone who reads for offensive content,” while The Spectator goes with “freelance copy editors who publishers pay to cancel their new books.”

First of all, a technical copy editor is different from what a sensitivity reader does, which is more along the lines of one contents edit. Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, an author and sensitivity reader, actually prefers the term authenticity reader because she believes it is more accurate. The idea is that a writer can write from or about an experience they themselves do not share, and they need the perspective of someone who has actually been there or is there.

“I love nothing more than being able to work with a writer to make their representation more authentic,” Beacom says in an interview with Salon. “I infinitely prefer having the ability to shape something before it’s released, rather than being stuck complaining about it after it’s already out there, causing problems.” Beacom usually reads for deafness and sign language, while author, screenwriter and sensitivity reader Lara Ameen reads for visible and invisible disabilities, along with queer or Jewish characters or content.

Contrary to some circulating beliefs, sensitivity readers do not hate books. The love them. Ameen tells Salon, “As a writer myself, it feels good to help shape an author’s book into the best shape it can be. I read a lot. I love to read, so this is the perfect job for me, and I learn something with every project I take on.” Both Ameen and Beacom describe their process as reading carefully, taking notes, and writing their findings, questions, and ideas to the author or publisher.

“Usually I pay attention to the character(s) the editor or author asks me to read for, but I also look at the entire novel or non-fiction and make suggestions to replace skillful language or phrases,” says Ameen. “For disabled characters, I will look to see if the author has used any of the common tropes or stereotypes associated with disability representation.”

“If I say, ‘I think it would be strengthened if you did X,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, no, I won’t,’ that’s where it ends.”

While much of their work involves books, they also sometimes read textbooks, articles, graphic novels, even video games, according to Beacom, who says she “virtually never” turns down a request. “Sometimes I take a deep breath because I know this one is going to be a humdinger, but it also gives me energy.”

Are authors and publishers listening to their suggestions? Sometimes.

Beacom tells Salon that she often has to sign NDAs, “and then also just generally practice not attaching my name to a project unless I’ve read the final version and signed off on it. Even with projects, where the creators were super receptive, there are often still things that make me cringe a little bit, and I don’t really want people to think I specifically approved that element.”

There are limits to the power of a sensitivity reader, hard limits. At the end of the day, readers don’t have editors’ ability for red ink or veto power. “Although authors almost always appreciate my feedback – after all, they asked for it – it certainly also happens that none or only some of my suggestions are taken on board. That’s just how it goes!” says Beacom. “If I say, ‘I think it would be strengthened if you did X,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, no, I won’t,’ that’s where it ends. I have no special power to to force them to make changes.”

As Ameen puts it, “All I can do is give them suggestions and hope they find it useful.”

And yet sensitivity readers were specifically and quickly assigned responsibility and blame for the proposed changes Dahl’s work. The group that reads Dahl’s books, Inclusive Minds, does not call itself sensitivity readers, but rather “a network of young people with many different lived experiences who are willing to share their insights to help (publishers) in the process of creating authentic — and often by the way — inclusive books,” the organization said in a statement when Salon reached out for comment. This process “is not about cutting potentially controversial content, but rather about including and embedding of authenticity and inclusive voices and experiences from the start,” the statement continues.

Mislabeling the group and blaming “youth” for the Dahl changes seems like a clear case of knocking down on the part of the publishers.

“On any project, the (including mind) ambassador’s role is to help identify language and depictions that might be inauthentic or problematic, and to highlight why, as well as indicate potential solutions. The publisher (and/or author) then has all the information , to be made informed decisions about what changes they want to make to scripts and illustrations. For clarity, inclusive mind refrain edit or rewrite text, but provide valuable comments.” All italics and bold statements are those of the organization.

Mislabeling the group and blaming “youth” for the Dahl changes seems like a clear case of knocking down on the part of the publishers.

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Publishers also cannot put into practice the suggestions of sensitive readers well. Witness the initial censoring of words like “fat” in Dahl, but no changes in the pejorative context in which the words appear. And while Fleming’s books were edited for racist content, misogynistic content (including that women “love semi-rape”) still remains, as pointed out by The Guardian. Perhaps publishers need to hire some of these sensitive readers as actual staff editors with more power to make nuanced changes.

Which leads to an important point about sensitivity readers. Who does the sensitivity reading – and who writes, publishes and profits from these stories?

“We don’t get a lot of representation in general, but when we do, it’s predominantly created by hearing people,” says Beacom. “This means that many misconceptions – some merely annoying, some downright dangerous – are invented.”

Sensitivity readers like Beacom and Ameen are creative artists in their own right and they are looking for a chance. Beacom has just finished writing the young adult novel she couldn’t find when she was a “newly deaf teenager,” and Ameen, also a PhD student, is working on an adult urban fantasy novel adapting it from his own pilot script, and has a story in the upcoming anthology “Being Ace.” They do difficult, misunderstood and essential work as sensitivity readers, but they also want to tell their own stories.

“It’s so important that that cycle be broken,” says Beacom, “for the representation to be authentic.”

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