Publishers Hiring 'Sensitivity Readers' to Flag 'Offensive' Books

"Books aren't supposed to be a place where readers encounter harmful versions and stereotypes of people like them."

Is there no form of art and expression safe from the corrosive tentacles of political correctness and identity politics? Spoiler alert: the answer is no.

The Chicago Tribune reports that publishers have begun making increasing use of so-called sensitivity readers to examine book manuscripts and offer feedback in terms of any racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. Such readers sometimes specialize in areas of expertise such as "dealing with terminal illness," "racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families," or "transgender issues."

"The industry recognizes this is a real concern," said Cheryl Klein, a children's and young adult book editor at Lee & Low Books. She said specialized readers have recently become more of a priority for publishers, especially in books for young readers.

Thanks to politically correct concerns about "cultural appropriation," novelists today are under pressure to avoid possible stereotypes and to create "authentic" characters from "marginalized groups" -- especially when the author is not a part of that group.

Last year, for example, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling was criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in a 2016 story called "History of Magic in North America." Young adult author Veronica Roth, who wrote the bestselling Divergent, caught heat for her new novel Carve the Mark, which was called racist and criticized for its portrayal of "chronic pain in its main character."

As the Tribune notes, "This potential for offense has some writers scared." Young-adult author Susan Dennard, for example, recently hired a transgender fan to review her portrayal of a transgender character in her "Truthwitch" series. "I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage," Dennard said.

Dhonielle Clayton, a New York-based librarian and reader who is black, said, "Books for me are supposed to be vehicles for pleasure, they're supposed to be escapist and fun. They're not supposed to be a place where readers encounter harmful versions and stereotypes of people like them."

Stacy Whitman, publisher and editorial director of Lee & Low's middle-grade imprint Tu Books, said, "Everyone's goal is a better book, and better representation contributes to that."

Some sensitivity readers feel, however, that they may actually be contributing to cultural appropriation by helping white authors write more "authentic" black characters for books from which they then earn profit and praise.

"It feels like I'm supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery," Clayton said. "Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don't understand it?

"It's more likely that a publishing house will publish a book about an African-American girl by a white woman versus one written by a black woman like me," Clayton says, "so until publishing is equitable and people are still writing cross-culturally, sensitivity reading is going to be another layer of what's necessary in order to make sure that representation is good."

They won't stop until only black people are allowed to write black characters, only Asians are allowed to write Asian characters, and so on.

Issues