Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much. I had the good fortune earlier this week to be visited here in Rome by an ex-student who was brought up in Nigeria and has been working on a novel set there. I’ve only read the beginning of the book and have been unable to read more. (At the moment I can’t read much because I haven’t figured out how to scroll down though documents without the help of Isabella.) Anyhow, when the student had written a considerable amount of the book, she decided to show it not to an editor, friend, publisher or agent, but to a so-called ‘sensitivity reader’. She was concerned about whether her work would be politically correct or considered offensive to some or other reader; she was worrying about whether the book would even get past an agent, let alone to a publisher. This is a trend I’ve noticed with other students and also with editors at publishing houses: whether their work will be condemned for sexism, racism, cultural appropriation and so on. This is the contemporary anxiety for young writers today.
A few years ago, I attended a small concert, weeks before COVID made such a thing a temporary impossibility. The performer was well-regarded in English jazz circles, beloved by both audiences and critics, and the recipient of numerous awards. That evening she prefaced a rendition of 'Ol' Man River' – a song from the musical, 'Show Boat', overburdened with the weight of slavery in America's deep south – with an anecdote of the time when she had performed the song in front of a much larger crowd. Beforehand, she had privately wrestled with whether she, as a white woman, even had a right to sing it, or if it would be in poor taste to do so.
I found myself depressed by the notion that someone so gregarious and bold in her performances had contemplated censoring herself. 'Ol' Man River' was penned by Oscar Hammerstein II – a white man who, in the lyrics, eloquently distils the injustice of racial slavery into a great personal sorrow, that is as wide, and as deep, and as interminable as the bends of the Mississippi river, as it flows alongside the cotton plantations.
Just over a decade later, a New York schoolteacher, named Abel Meeropol (the son of Russian Jewish immigrants) wrote a poem, titled 'Bitter Fruit,' that was inspired by the lynchings of black men. The poem was later retitled 'Strange Fruit' and set to music. It was originally performed by Meeropol's wife, Laura Duncan. In 1939, the song was recorded by Billie Holiday and went on to become one of the clarion calls of the civil rights movement.
Hammerstein, to my knowledge, never worked as a slave on a cotton plantation. Meeropol, one assumes, had never been chased by a racist mob who were intent on hanging his body from a poplar tree. It is entirely plausible that, had they created their seminal works in the cultural paradigm of the last decade (2014 seems to have been year zero), they would have been vilified; accused of racism, cultural appropriation, and literary blackface. Attempts would have been made to end their careers and ruin their lives.
And yet, both 'Ol Man River' and 'Strange Fruit' are exercises in empathy – that most positive of human traits – where the writer looks beyond his own experiences and asks 'What if?' and 'What would it be like if I was...?' These questions, when they are answered well, produce art that unites us when there is no other common ground.
Richard C Meyer is a comic book writer and publisher, and a veteran of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He gained notoriety about a decade ago for identifying and articulating the parlous state of the American comic book industry, as its writers and editors waged an ideological war on their own readers, with predictable results. When Meyer attempted to publish his own comics, these same neo-puritans, who had robbed the medium of both its joy and its financial solvency, waged a vicious campaign of libel and threat against him, all the while claiming victimhood. They had his deal with his publisher cancelled. There was a bizarre plan to induce war-related PTSD by attacking him at a comic convention. In full knowledge that Meyer had fathered two mixed-race kids, one of whom was a Muslim, they publicly branded him a nazi and a white supremacist; claims that I still see repeated to this day.
Meyer stood his ground, made a small fortune, and has twice collaborated on comics with Sylvester Stallone. However, it was a close run thing and it could have easily gone the other way. He has often described what he terms as “the twelve psychos on Twitter” as the worst people who have ever lived, adding that, during his military service, he met actual terrorists.
Having watched these individuals gleefully destroy careers and lives, and, on at least one occasion, drive a man to suicide, for no reason other than they derive pleasure from hurting people, and are able to do with impunity, it is hard to disagree with his assessment.
It would be lovely to tell your novelist that she is over-reacting. That she can speak and create freely but that is not the way things are in legacy publishing or the arts in general. Even, if you do find someone who is willing to throw their weight behind your vision, there is the possibility they will buckle under pressure from the mob. I have seen plenty of people in this situation, offer an open-ended apology in the belief that they are dealing with reasonable people and that saying sorry will be the end of it. That is seldom the case.
Fortunately, there are signs of a break in the clouds. A few months ago, the editorial staff at Hobart – a long running literary magazine – resigned en-masse. In a public statement that was unintentionally comedic in its pomposity, they announced they were protesting the publication of an interview conducted by Hobart editor, Elizabeth Ellen, with the Cuban writer, Alex Perez. The outgoing editorial team regarded Perez as harbouring problematic opinions, and therefore as someone who should be sidelined and ignored. Ellen was having none of it. She put together a new editorial team. Hobart is currently as strong as it ever was, and brimming over with fresh resolve. However the threat of cancellation remains too great for some writers. In a recent tweet, Ellen mentioned an unnamed person who had submitted work to Hobart, withdrawing their submission on the advice of their agent.
People like myself, who have nothing to lose, find themselves in an enviable position, creatively speaking. I have in my possession, just over 400 pages of meticulous character and chapter notes that, taken together, form bones of my next novel – the story of a London-based community of African ex-patriots, who are experiencing a crisis of leadership. There are certain tropes that one has come to expect in works of this nature, one of which is entanglement with a racist police force. There is a pivotal incident in the novel that involves the police, however it plays out in a way that would sow the seeds of premature wrinkles in the brows of sensitivity readers, and draw ire from the usual suspects.
In 2023, writing fictional characters of a different race to ones own is taken as sufficient grounds, by a vocal and thin-skinned minority, to level accusations of racism and cultural appropriation. I am neither conscious of my own race when I write, nor would I denigrate my characters, or insult the intelligence of my readers, by solely defining them by their race. They are neither stereotypes, nor are they soulful saints – that most bland and useless of paragons.
I will self-publish the book. It will never grace the desk of a sensibility reader – a fact that I intend to make clear in the copyright blurb. The worst that can happen is a bad review on Good Reads. Well, I like the sting of a slap across the face and the ensuing taste blood in my mouth. It reminds me I'm alive. The last time I held ground on my principles, I ended up sleeping rough in London. It is hard to scare or intimidate someone who has been close to rock bottom and survived.
I’m sorry to hear of your student’s difficulties. It’s always been tough to make a living as a writer, as Gissing’s New Grub Street shows. Women in the 18th and 19th centuries mostly had to publish anonymously or under male pseudonyms. The obstacles to getting a foot in the door change over time; you once wrote that the publishing world was overwhelmingly white and posh when you started out so you turned to fringe theatre. Now, you suggest, the goal posts have moved again.
You wonder whether The Buddha of Suburbia would be published today because it includes racial insults and lewd language. I’ve been teaching The Buddha to American students for thirty years and it’s interesting to see how responses to the novel have altered. When I started teaching, the majority of my students were straight, white, culturally conservative and frequently shocked, particularly by the frank depiction of sex in The Buddha. They thought Jane Austen and Dickens were proper English literature and wondered what you were doing on the course. I used to pair Great Expectations with The Buddha of Suburbia as Pip and Karim’s stories have a lot in common, despite Karim’s irreverent put-down: “Fuck you, Charles Dickens!” The students usually came to appreciate The Buddha after we discussed it in class, which is a testament to the power of your writing and Karim’s engaging voice.
These days many of my students are radicals, people of colour and/or queer: the kind of students who are often vilified as “the woke mob”. They lap up your novel like eager puppies. So if The Buddha were turned down today, I think the problem would most likely come from corporate publishers over cautiously protecting their brand. At a time when novels depicting LGBTQ relationships are at risk of being banned in some US schools, I doubt The Buddha would survive a conservative library purge.
I also wonder whether a sensitivity reader would necessarily butcher The Buddha. Irvine Welsh said that although he was initially hostile to the prospect of a sensitivity reader going through the typescript of his latest novel, which tangentially deals with trans issues, he found the process very useful and positive.
Sensitivity is not synonymous with censorship; nor is it about sanitising the language in a novel or ensuring that characters are “PC”. The job of a good reader is to point out unintentional stereotyping so that writers are free to create characters whose backgrounds may be very different from their own.
I hope your student finds a publisher and a wide readership!
Go Hanif! Terrific stuff!
Thank you for this insight Hanif. Just thinking of how much literature has been “cancelled” of late without regard to its overall merits or indeed any regard to the time or context it was written in. I’m currently reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time it’s uncomfortable but more rewarding than the bowdlerised TV adaptations. Poor old Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book are also no longer acceptable because of negative references to native Americans but they are a very honest portrayal of harsh frontier life. Rudyard Kipling was an unapologetic colonialist but as I often point out to my friends who aren’t of Asian heritage he at least understood India and spoke the language and introduced names of characters such as Balloo and Shere Khan which are Urdu/ Hindi translations of the animals names.
However, the concept I most despise is cultural appropriation. I love going to Indian weddings where people of all races dress up and experiment with Indian and Western outfits. English people can look stunning in Saris and Nehru suits as do Indians in Western attire. It draws us all closer together and I can’t imagine these innocent acts of camaraderie and love could offend anyone. Wishing you all the best for a continuing recovery with warm greetings from a Springlike and fecund Ireland.
Something that struck me the other day in terms of what is offensive (to use that as a general word covering the entirety of what could be held up as forbidden writing ) I thought of all the horror in the world to do with wars drug wars civil wars terrorism torture imprisonment abuse domestic violent sexual children murdered beaten to death and I thought how funny it was that we must shoulder all that but be offended by some writing. I actually thought that because an account I follow on Twitter had referred to Priests and asked whether they still fucked kids - which on the face of it is shocking (because we know child sexual abuse has indeed been prevalent in the church) and shocking again in the way it confronts - you hardly want to know about that (but you know it has happened) and then I thought will his account be suspended/ when the real offence is that it is happening at all. Now I may have approached your topic from a different angle but I agree with what you say - if we are offended then that’s a shame but we must know about it. I can look away but it’s still there - thank you as usual for challenging and being so direct. And that account that I mention has challenged me over and again because it does not recognise any limit. Have a lovely evening and it’s good to know you are receiving guests!! You’ll get the scrolling down thing. Love Maddi from deepest North Yorkshire x
I too am struggling with dictation at the moment and wish I could comment more. However, this post has spurred me to try t and pulls me away from my own writing because I'm passionate about this topic.
Much of my writer's life has faced these skewed ideas of sensitivity, what is polite and what is rude and what is deemed acceptable by society. The sensitivity issue is currently burdening the progress of my work (and much work by other disabled writers) along with the tiresome ongoing belief that my novel, the dark exploits of very rude cripples in a freak show is too unpalatable and offensive for readers!
There is much written about disabled people that I find offensive and frustrating. About us, without us.
But sensitivity reads are dead ends.
I fight as a disabled woman, working class country stock, not much younger than you, to create a counter balance. But the privileged echelons of publishing are resisting acceptance and I will admit to hoping that out of fear if nothing else there is actually an awareness we are here, that it might stop some of the worst demoralising hackneyed crap getting through from a non-disabled writer who would cross the road in daily life to avoid a cripple, a spaz, a mong, a retard, a handicapped!
I have been asked to do sensitivity reads in the past. I didn't last. Mostly bad writing. Sometimes disabled characters portrayed like a wildlife documentary. Today this cripple is eating food from a plate!
I wonder if I will offend readers here!
Keep well, I hope we meet one day.
ps. I also hope you access the fullest range of assistive technology soon. It's flawed but magical when it works.
If writers need “sensitivity” readers, new books will be extremely dull. Alas.
What a relief to read this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
YES!!! Read and shared!
Thanks for writing this. I have been arguing it for years - the idea of only writing what you know is absurd, unless it can mean that you write what you feel and understand, however and in whatever guise that emerges. It should never stop anyone from telling a story from anyone else's point of view. We'd just have memoirs and first person narrative accounts if that was the case. Do you feel the same way about cultural appropriation? Can I, a white British woman, write a novel set in India/Pakistan with Indian and Pakistani characters? I hope I can, because that's what I've done. It is mostly about the very different perspectives of western/hindu/muslim protagonists about the same issues: history, and love.
I would also like to thank you for writing so candidly about illness and the need for better understandings of disability - a subject I could respond much more fully on from my own experience but haven't the capacity at present - and for perpetually coming back to the central and urgent political need to make common cause against the right and the rise of fascistic thinking, instead of fighting amongst ourselves.
I have always assumed it is the job of a writer to inhabit different skins, perspectives and moments in time, otherwise how are we, as readers, able to explore ideas (however strange, or “dangerous”) safely? What a pale and sickly thing writing will become if every nuance of every word is checked for cultural, racial, gender, ableist, ageist and religious sensitivity.
Nearly every time I succumb to an outside party's (usually a director's or editor's) push to "cork my gator"*, I end up regretting it.
As a good Midwesterner, I am sympathetic to commenter Caroline B's POV, but I think it's a bad business to let a sensitivity reader call the shots. Yes to thinking long and hard about how we would like our work to be perceived, and if what we have written seems likely to achieve that or no.
Hell no to outside sensitivity readers who may not know or "get" us, and whose end goal is unlikely to serve the story creatively.
*a favorite Simpson's reference: https://tinyurl.com/corkedgator
Thank you so much for this. I'm also sorry to hear about the physical maladies you're dealing with. I recently saw your Twitter post with this information and decided to respond in my own Substack. I then discovered that you have a Substack too. I've written a response to your tweet: https://autumnwiddoes.substack.com/p/whats-with-all-the-censorship
I understand why people feel that sensitivity readers are needed, due to the insensitivities of many and the likelihood of writing about people in a way that reinforces stereotypes, but I also feel that sensitivity readers have been given far too much power and are being used in such a way that they are becoming censors.
That said, a playwright often works with dramaturgs to get the play to more polished state (and the dramaturg performs the role of critical analyst and researcher for the director who chose to stage the play).
I think sensitivity readers though aren't trained the way a dramaturg is. Most people don't get new ideas, or new ways of seeing the world. They often reject these things that the avant-garde, the artist, and the revolutionary thinker bring to this world. It takes years, sometimes decades, for a work to be embraced - often by a different generation from the one in which it was written. A sensitivity reader would likely not understand what the writer is attempting to do.
Hanif, I appreciate what you’ve written about the power of literature to shock and unsettle, and the freedom that artists need to create - but I don’t think a sensitivity reader is the horror you’ve made it out to be. The publishing industry in the States is overwhelmingly white, and well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) writers can blunder into racist caricature, compounding the deep hurt that many people of color carry in this country. A good sensitivity reader can point out inaccuracies and stereotypes that even a good editor might miss.
Oh, Hanif, I so agree. Soon they will say only a woman can write a woman, etc. That would take care of Tolstoy , Nabokov and many other great writers. This culture war is awful and creates a creative prison.
Only people of color can write people of color? Ridiculous. James Baldwin wrote terrific caucasian charaters. It also applies in cinema. Many are annoyed that at times a non gay actor plays a gay actor. Please. I hope you have the opportunity to watch TAR. Cate Blanchett plays a gay woman who basically acts like a man, climbing towards fame and stepping on acquaintances along the way. So she is punished of course. Demoted, etc. It is a harsh and honest film and to me was the best film of the year. But Academy Members were repugnated by the fact that she was not sympathetic. She was not sympathetic perhaps, but she was fascinating and very real.
The question is, will this pass.? Will this constipation of the Left (and i am a Leftist) pass?
I only partly agree. If I was a writer, I think I'd want to know if I was being unintentionally offensive to people from another culture out of ignorance . I might well decide not to change anything, but would want to make that choice consciously.