Ian McEwan is right to take on the sensitivity readers

A fear of causing offence is the enemy of artistic freedom.

Nick Tyrone

Topics Books Culture Free Speech Identity Politics

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In a welcome move, Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan has come out against the use of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the publishing industry.

Sensitivity readers are hired to read soon-to-be-published works to discover anything that might possibly offend anyone. They then try to talk the author into removing any words or passages that they deem ‘problematic’. This is often done, implicitly or otherwise, with the threat of the book deal being altered or even cancelled altogether in the case of non-compliance.

‘You’ve got to write what you feel. You must tell the truth’, McEwan said in an interview with the Guardian earlier this month. He described the demand for sensitivity readers as one of ‘these mass hysterias, moral panics’ that ‘sweep through populations every now and then’.

It’s brave for McEwan to speak out like this. Even someone as well-established as he is risks coming under considerable fire for questioning the role of sensitivity readers in today’s offence-taking climate. McEwan’s intervention is a necessary one, though. Sensitivity readers really do endanger the vitality of literature.

Novels in particular can challenge established views of the world, be they political, philosophical or religious. They are able to do something that no other art form can. They can offer readers the first-hand perspective of someone completely outside of their usual experience. And they can show why someone thinks and acts the way that they do. In doing so, a novel can foster empathy in a way that paintings, films and even theatre often can’t.

By trying to prevent novels from causing offence, sensitivity readers are effectively preventing novels from challenging us. They’re trying to stop them from discomfiting readers, from stirring up uncomfortable feelings, from making us question ourselves. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, sensitivity readers represent the death of the novel. Once you remove any possibility of a piece of fiction being difficult or challenging in any sense, you remove its ability to change the world.

Ironically, the demand for sensitivity readers has come almost entirely from the political left. It’s quite the turnaround. The left used to champion writers’ freedom to express themselves regardless of the offence that might result. And it was the right who used to want to censor artworks, from depictions of sexuality to anything deemed blasphemous.

Today’s left-wing censors want to prevent anyone with a sensitive disposition from being ‘triggered’ by something they read. This represents a betrayal of the left’s historical commitment to freedom of expression.

McEwan’s words, however, should give us all hope that the tide may be turning. If more authors like him speak out against the idiocy of using sensitivity readers, the large publishing houses might soon begin to drop them. Within the next few years, the industry could even rediscover that shocking, surprising and offensive novels are a better commercial investment than the lifeless products of endless sensitivity readings. The upside of publishing novels that people want to read, after all, far outweighs the downside of some poor soul being offended by a piece of fiction they skimmed.

This is a war that people who care passionately about free artistic expression can win. Hopefully, we will look back in shame at the fact that publishers once hired sensitivity readers. And we might figure out a way to ensure that such a brazen attack on free speech never happens again.

Nick Tyrone is a journalist, author and think-tanker. His latest novel, The Patient, is out now.

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Topics Books Culture Free Speech Identity Politics


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