Why Joyce Carol Oates's Comments About "Sensitivity Readers" Are So Wrong

2017 has seen its fair share of publishing world blow ups, particularly in the YA and children's book realms, where most of the conflicts have revolved around the fraught struggle to diversify books from major publishing houses. In an article published by the New York Times on Dec. 24, Alexandra Alter posed the question, "In an Era of Online Outrage, Do Sensitivity Readers Result in Better Books, or Censorship?" The piece touched on several situations involving forthcoming novels and the wave of negative social media attention that hit before the books were on shelves. Most notably, Alter mentions Laura Moriarty, whose work of speculative fiction, American Heart, operates in a world where Muslims are confined to internment camps. The protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl, experiences a set of revelations when she encounters, and aids, an escaped detainee. But following social media outrage over the tokenization of the Muslim character, Sadaf, the book received a deluge of negative feedback on Goodreads. Kirkus Reviews issued a retraction of its starred review. And the latest kindling was added to the "sensitivity reader" war.

On Dec. 25, prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates waded into the debate, tweeting, "No one should censor writers--just don't read what offends you. Start your own publishing houses & magazines as many (of us) have done" in response to "sensitivity reader" and author Dhonielle Clayton's argument that marginalized voices have been silenced by publishing houses long before sensitivity readers came to be.

Oates, who has published more than 40 novels over the course of her career and co-founded The Ontario Review, a literary magazine, in 1974 and Ontario Review Books, an independent press, in 1980, then doubled down on her initial statement just 30 minutes later.

Oates has since tweeted more than 20 times over the past two days on the issue, at one point posting several "revisions" of classic works that seemed to mock the imagined effect of sensitivity readers on literature.

And it's understandable that writers of Oates' generation are particularly, well, sensitive to any inklings of artistic censorship. They fought for decades against variations of "the morality police," fiercely pushing the boundaries for creative freedom. Oates herself mentions the Catholic Legion of Decency and its oppressive movie regulations. The space we're afforded now? We owe, in large part, to Oates and her peers.

But here's what Joyce Carol Oates (along with a host of others) gets wrong about sensitivity readers.

First of all, they're not censors.

As Ryan Douglass pointed out in a Huffington Post article published earlier this week, this narrative surrounding the integration of sensitivity readers into the editing process paints it as a binary system — good v. bad, free v. censored. But publishing houses have long employed various "experts" - scientists, psychologists, artists - to consult on all manner of books and topics.

Similarly, sensitivity readers are hired, either by individuals or by publishing houses, for their lived experiences. They evaluate unpublished manuscripts for cultural inaccuracies, bias, and insensitive language and representation. Their very existence signals the growing realization that no matter how good your imagination, how interested you are in narratives outside your own, there is something innate to, for example, being black in America, that a white writer will never fully grasp. And that's not "A Bad Thing." That's reality. That's a symptom of living in a country built on a patriarchal, white supremacist foundation.

The use of "sensitivity readers," which existed for years as an informal editing process, began to gain steam with the creation of Writing In The Margins, a website that connects writers with a database of sensitivity readers organized by their backgrounds and interests, in early 2016. Per their mission statement, Writing In The Margins exists to amplify marginalized voices, regardless of their vehicle.

Mary Robinette Kowal, an award-winning sci-fi/fantasy author, published a blog post in April 2016 detailing her experiences with sensitivity readers, which led her, in one instance, to kill a project. She process, she says, is far from easy.

"As a writer, you shape the world," wrote Kowal. "This is a position of power. For your [sensitivity] reader to tell you that you’ve screwed up, is not easy, particularly if they occupy the subordinate end of multiple axes. A single voice that is telling you 'no' probably represents a larger number of voices who just didn’t have the energy to spend reading in the first place."

It's become common to lump sensitivity readers into this larger culture of "online outrage." But sensitivity readers aren't operating with a "hair-trigger." They're not blasting off on Twitter. Their role isn't to bar writers from penning cross-cultural stories; it's to help them do so in the most effective, authentic way possible. These readers are hired to provide honest, considerate, introspective opinions. And, perhaps most importantly, they serve as a reminder that a culture is not a monolith.

Second, this concept of just not reading what you don't like becomes complicated by the fact that historically, the major publishing houses have favored work written from white (and, for a long time, male) perspectives, that's been edited by white folks and marketed by white folks. Last year, Book Riot published a list of the all time, best-selling YA novels. Every protagonist in the top 15 was white. What do you do, what do you read, when it feels like nothing is written for you?

Brit Bennet, whose debut novel The Mothers was released by the Penguin imprint Riverhead Books last year, posted several tweets yesterday that shone light on the continually white-washed vetting process for books.

The use of sensitivity readers becomes particularly important when dealing with YA and children's books, which target impressionable readers actively seeking clues to their roles in society.

When I spent a summer teaching playwriting to a crew of gifted, 11-year-old girls, I watched as all my students, nearly half of whom were international or first-generation Americans, cast their "popular" roles as blonde and blue-eyed. I had one student, whose family had immigrated from China, using "white" and "American" interchangeably. Not once was a role written for a non-white character. When I pressed my students on why designating the lead characters as exclusively white was important to their character development, I was met with shrugs. They'd never seen representation any other way. At 11, barely in middle school, these girls — these brilliant, creative girls — had already cast themselves as the Other. This is what happens when literature is continually white-washed. You accept racial bias as fact.

Which brings us to the third argument, this concept that PoC should just create their own "publishing houses and magazines," because it's what has been done in the past. The economy has shifted dramatically over the last several decades. Similar to the, "I put myself through private college washing dishes" narrative that older generations continue to tout, it's become markedly more difficult to be self-starters in this aggressively capitalist culture. And when PoC do embark on their own independent creative endeavors — which they already do, and often — the reach can suffer. Without strong financial backing or prominent media coverage, the ability to distribute your work to the audiences who need it most — that middle-schooler who relies exclusively on her local public library for reading material — is diminished.

So why shouldn't the major publishing houses make an effort to diversify, too, to offer a wider variety of narratives, to provide readers with authentic, compelling characters? Ultimately, making sensitivity readers the enemy distracts from the larger issue: a lack of diversity in what publishing houses choose to put forth in the first place, and the repercussions of homogeneity for authors and readers of marginalized communities.