On Sensitivity Readers and Censorship: Why We Can't & Wouldn't Want To
Updated: Mar 20
It’s been an evergreen topic since this type of work had an official name, sensitivity reading. Often arising from the ashes of some publishing news that makes its way out of industry channels to the mainstream media. A book gets delayed, edited, or “canceled” because a sensitivity reader, with their mighty red pen, has deemed the content too dangerous to be in the hands of the public. They have Censored it.
This time the news is about the catalogs from Roald Dahl and James Bond author, Ian Fleming The gist is. The estates and publishers of these books made major edits to the books based on outdated or offensive language.
It feels like no coincidence that the Dahl IP was sanitized just before a massive sale to Netflix, nor that Ian Fleming’s estate should, as reported, bring in sensitivity readers to sanitize the James Bond novels in what seems like a last-ditch attempt to save a franchise whose relevance is on the wane and offends contemporary sensibilities.
Some people claim the slash-and-burn campaign against Dahl and Fleming is the work of sensitivity readers who are eager to censor books with the slightest hint of negativity. An entire article can be written about why people want to print racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist stories. But this article is about who gets blamed and lambasted for “censoring” literature and why.
If you let some people tell it their way, sensitivity readers are in charge of what goes to print and we want it to be as wholesome as possible. When the truth is sensitivity readers can't censor anything and frankly don't want to.
Would a surgeon who consults with an author be a censor if she told the author they described a procedure inaccurately and explained what changes should be made to be more accurate? That’s what sensitivity readers do. We provide guidance based on a perspective and a lived experience the author usually doesn’t share. We are consultants asked to give our expertise.
To censor requires power. The power to make decisions. The power to have not just a say but the say in what gets printed and what doesn’t. Censors determine what the public has access to.
It’s easy to misunderstand our role in the process of publishing a book but this is how sensitivity readers interact with books:
An author or publisher asks for assistance. We agree to take on the work based on our expertise in the subject matter at hand.
We give supportive feedback on writing characters with marginalized identities with accuracy and free from bias. The feedback can range from offering word choice alternatives to suggestions for revising plot points and/or character arcs.
The hiring clients take the feedback and decide what to do next.
Sensitivity readers rarely interact with clients beyond step 2. We don’t initiate work, make any changes to the text itself, nor do we decide what is fit for publishing.
It’s important to also note sensitivity readers are not employees of publishers or authors. We work on a singular project and have no financial stake in the sale of a book. We don’t know the publishing plan. We can’t censor, we simply don’t have the power or access to.
Even if we could (we can't), sensitivity readers don’t want to censor books. If an author didn’t accept my suggestions I don’t take it personally. It's up to the readers to decide what they want to read. The same goes for already published texts like Dahl. I’m ok with shutting the door on literature that isn’t interesting to consumers anymore. But publishing is a business, so shutting the door isn’t the best option if you’re the entity making money from that literature.
There are stories of authors claiming a sensitivity reader stopped their book from being published. But in those stories, the journalists who report these stories aren't thinking critically. Writing is an art, publishing is a business. Businesses decide the standard of quality of the products they sell. If an author refused to revise egregious copy edits or lines edits that book wouldn’t be published. Is that censorship? Publishers determine the standard and some authors, instead of meeting that standard, rather blame the people who were trying to help them achieve it.
Instead of being concerned about government-led censorship and book bans in the U.S., it is easier to punch down. To go after the small fish. If you were to zoom out you’ll see sensitivity readers are people with marginalized identities, freelancers who make the least amount of money on a book and have the least amount of decision-making power are inexplicably blamed for “censoring” content.
Content that dehumanizes marginalized people, perpetuates stereotypes that are at best boring and at worst dangerous. This finger-pointing is another tentacle that strives to maintain the status quo of supremacy by going after marginalized folks who are simply attempting to see their humanity in the books they read.
Renee Harleston is the founder of Writing Diversely and Chief Anti-Censorship Officer