In Slate we have “Is My Novel Offensive?”.
How “sensitivity readers” are changing the publishing ecosystem—and raising new questions about what makes a great book.
The cannibalization taking place on the Left is so great to witness. The article’s first paragraph:
When Becky Albertalli published her first young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, with the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray in 2015, she never expected it to be controversial. She’d worked for years as a clinical psychologist specializing in gender nonconforming children and LGBTQ teens and adults.* Yet her book—about a closeted gay kid whose love notes to a classmate fall into the wrong hands—contained a moment that rubbed readers the wrong way: Simon, the sweet but clueless protagonist, muses that girls have an easier time coming out than boys, because their lesbianism strikes others as alluring. At a book signing, several people approached Albertalli to complain that the scene played too readily into a narrative they’d heard many times before. Online, commenters condemned the “fetishization of queer girls” in the book as “offensive.” Albertalli hadn’t originally given the passage a second thought: the character was obviously unworldly; elsewhere, he asserts that all Jews come from Israel. But in the latter exchange, readers pointed out, Simon’s Jewish friend immediately corrects him. The lesbian line, a snippet from the narrator’s interior monologue, receives no such rebuttal.
Cue the ‘sensitivity readers’, yet another niche industry for P.C. authoritarian personality types:
In one draft, Albertalli—who totaled 12 sensitivity reads for her second novel on LGBTQ, black, Korean American, anxiety, obesity, and Jewish representation issues, among others…
Buried in the piece is this one cautionary note from “freelance sensitivity reader” Elizabeth Roderick, “who concentrates on bipolar disorder, PTSD, and psychosis”:
Even these readers acknowledge the risks of overpolicing artists if the practice were to be taken to the extreme. “Of course that’s a danger,” Roderick said. “Art is a mode of free expression, and if you put constraints on it, it can become stilted and contrived.” The hassle and potential discomfort of soliciting such feedback could theoretically have a chilling effect on writers working up the courage to venture outside themselves. “If authors are frightened of offending members of a diverse group, and having to deal with the horrible outrage that can ensue in those situations,” she said, “then they’re definitely going to shy away from writing diverse characters.”
Thankfully, the Slate piece has a happy ending. The story’s last paragraph:
In Albertalli’s case, a sensitivity reader’s note ultimately produced a bright spot in her novel. The Upside of Unrequited features a queer teenager named Cassie who happens to have two mothers. While the reader, a bisexual woman, assured Albertalli that her treatment of the character hadn’t hit any sour notes, she saw an opening for an interesting confrontation—a challenge to one of society’s more maddening myths about gay parents. On her advice, Albertalli had a student named Evan, “this really douche-y guy,” suggest to Cassie that her family had raised her to be queer. When he makes the comment, he’s met by awkward silence; it’s clear that the other characters firmly disapprove. Albertalli was happy to orchestrate the teachable moment. And in the end, she realized it wasn’t just a socially conscious improvement but a narrative one: Personally, she said, “I loved that moment in the book.”
At the bottom of the piece is this critical editorial correction:
*Correction, Feb. 8, 2017: This piece originally misstated that Becky Albertalli worked with gender-fluid teens in her therapy practice. She worked with gender nonconforming kids and LGBTQ teens and adults.
For the thousandth time, you can’t make this stuff up.