Protecting Sensitivity Readers

The far-right’s culture war has many fronts, but one that is very close to our community is their attacks on sensitivity readers. For example, one of the candidates in the current election for the Management Board of the Society of Authors talks about authors being “forced” to use sensitivity readers. (Edit: she’s been successfully elected.) In addition The Guardian recently ran a piece in which Ian McEwan claimed that sensitivity reading was a form of censorship, and that authors should be allowed to offend people if they want. All of this is nonsense.

Firstly, any sensible sensitivity reading contract will have in it, a clause that says that the author is under no obligation to take account of the feedback they are given. If it doesn’t, they shouldn’t sign that contract. Just like other expert the author chooses to consult, the advice given by a sensitivity reader is advice, nothing more.

Secondly, any sensible sensitivity reader will have a clause in their contract which says that their advice cannot indemnify the author against people taking offence at the final work, because people can and do take offence at anything. I was once sent a contract by a publisher that asked me to do that. I refused to sign it. Of course it had been written by the company’s lawyers, and as soon as I explained the issue to the editor in charge of the book they were very apologetic and had the clause taken out.

But the worst attack I have heard to date on sensitivity readers came at a panel at this year’s FantasyCon. I wasn’t in the audience, but several people who were there were horrified. Runalong Womble has a mention of the incident in his con report (you have typoed the year, Womble).

The gist of the accusation being made is that sensitivity reading is a scam. What sort of a scam wasn’t made clear, but presumably it is either that the advice provided is worthless (which seems unlikely, why would you hire someone whose advice is worthless), or more seriously that sensitivity readers are somehow blackmailing authors with a threat to ruin their reputation if they don’t change their books as demanded.

The first point to make here is that people on panels at genre conventions should not be going around accusing other members of the community of criminal activity without evidence, especially when there is a good chance that some of those people being so accused might be in the audience. It really doesn’t matter if you then backtrack and say, “well not all sensitivity readers,” the intention to smear an entire group is very clear.

The objectives of this sort of attack are also obvious. It will make authors reluctant to use sensitivity readers for fear of being scammed. It will make publishers reluctant to allow sensitivity readers to be acknowledged or thanked in books. (I was going to say it would make them reluctant to pay for sensitivity readers, but in my experience that’s already commonly the case.) It will make readers think that a book that has had input from sensitivity readers is less authentic rather than more so. And eventually it will lead to concerned fans of authors seeking out sensitivity readers with a view to punishing them for having somehow conned the author.

Ultimately, of course, this is not about sensitivity reading. It is about insinuating that the communities from whom sensitivity readers are likely to come — people of colour, queers, the disabled and so on – are communities whose members are likely to be criminals, whereas straight, cis, able-bodied white people, especially white women, are likely to be victims of crime.

This may seem all highly unlikely to you, and if you had put the same issues in front of me 5 years ago I would have dismissed the whole thing too. But in that 5 years I have seen the anti-trans discourse in the UK ramp up from, “we are just asking reasonable questions” to “all trans women are dangerous sexual predators who should be locked up to keep ordinary people safe.”

The main thing I have learned about outrage farming during that time, is that if you don’t push back against mild statements, then future statements will become more and more extreme until, by the time you think it is necessary to push back, doing so will make it seem like you are defending the indefensible. Nowadays you can’t be publicly pro-trans in the UK without being accused of being pro-rapist and pro-pedophile.

Obviously I don’t hold FantasyCon at fault here. This was one incident, and they were doubtless caught on the hop by it. However, if any con tries to push back against this sort of thing, they are likely to be accused of attacking “free speech”. And given that being against “free speech” is deemed the greatest crime possible by UK media culture, they’ll be reluctant to do anything.

I think the important point here is to demand proof. If someone claims on a panel that a particular group of people are criminals, pin them down. Ask them to name names, and give actual examples of this happening. If they refuse to do so, make it clear that you think they are making it up. Far right political activism relies on the theory that if you repeat a lie often enough then people will start to believe it. And if you don’t stop the lie, it will become accepted truth.

So please, if you see ideas like this being spread, push back against it. People in the minority groups being targeted may well be afraid to say anything for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. It is up to you, members of the majority, to decide what sort of world you want to live in.