The Concept Art Gallery

Sensitivity readers and offensive credentials


In 2015, I had predicted that the publishing industry would eventually follow the example of the film industry by introducing its own rating system, which would effectively discourage writers from including anything potentially controversial in their stories, at the risk of getting a restrictive rating slapped onto their work (even something similar to NC-17 for movies). The benchmark I expected to become the equivalent of the PG-13 film rating (generally considered to be the most profitable rating of that system) would be a YA-label for books (with YA reportedly being the best-selling book category). I suggested that the Board of Education in American could effectively become the authority that ultimately determines which books get the coveted YA-label, as novels are often considered Young Adult merely by the fact that they are typically taught to that age group in schools.

What has happened now is that publishers are reportedly hiring sensitivity readers to check manuscripts for offensive content (ranging from racism and sexism to other culturally insensitive themes). With that, the publishing industry seems to be following the example set by the comic book industry in the fifties. A psychiatrist specializing in juvenile delinquency, by the name of Fredric Wertham, ran a crusade against a range of popular themes in comic books, asserting that they were a harmful influence on the young and suggestible readers, leading them down the path of deviant and even criminal behavior. Wertham had conducted his own research to back up his claims, as he outlined in his book The Seduction of Innocence (for the record, Wertham’s methodology and findings have since been thoroughly discredited). In reaction to the public outcry for comic books to become more wholesome, the major comic book companies established their own self-governing body, called the Comic Code Authority, which would check all comics for corrupting material. For years, the comics coming from those big companies would be labelled as ‘approved by the comic code authority’ (this operation wasn’t closed down completely until 2011).

Now it seems like something similar to the Comic Code Authority may be on the horizon for the publishing industry. In a Chicago Tribune article, the case for the need for sensitivity readers was laid out, with references to relevant experiences of several authors who, interestingly enough, were all referred to as Young Adult authors. With these imposed controls over this category of fiction, my prediction appears to be coming true that YA will become a label equivalent of PG-13, or ‘Approved by the Comic Code Authority’, though whether or not the sensitivity-reader trend will ever escalate into a proper system being put into place remains to be seen. In my original article, I encouraged authors who do not wish to be a part of this development to label their books with a special NYA – Not-Young-Adult – label, sending out the message that they reject the idea of cleaning up their material for the sake of getting approval from the most easily offended readers.

An alternative approach could be to develop some sort of ‘offensive credentials’, so that an author who gets criticized for upsetting sensitive readers, can wear it proudly, as a credential or as evidence of not pandering to the most emotionally fragile and easily upset readers – in case the authors happen to believe that these readers are so unpopular anyway that aligning oneself with their interest will mostly result in failure. Yet another alternative would be the employment of an ‘insensitivity reader’ who would exactly have the role of making a bland story more controversial. Outside of the YA market, that kind of approach might even be a winning strategy.

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