Will sensitivity readers make all books so woke that no one will enjoy them again?

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Matthew Broberg-Moffitt is ‘gender queer’ and of ‘non-binary identity’. He suffers from autism, learning disorders and narcolepsy – suddenly falling asleep at any time of the day. 

Of Romany heritage, he has experienced homelessness and poverty, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has a genetic birth condition.

The good news is that he is perfectly placed to work as a ‘sensitivity reader’, vetting authors’ manuscripts before they are published.

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And that’s exactly what he does, helping eliminate lapses in taste or authenticity when it comes to writing about, say, homelessness or narcolepsy – and protecting future readers from feelings of offence or ‘triggering’ moments of distress.

However distinctive he might seem, Broberg-Moffitt is no one-off. 

Listed on the website of a leading American agency, he’s part of a rapidly expanding ‘sensitivity’ industry which aims to offer guidance in a world where diversity is king and stereotypes must be avoided at all cost.

Matthew Broberg-Moffitt (left) is 'gender queer' and of 'non-binary identity'. He suffers from autism, learning disorders and narcolepsy. Of Romany heritage, he has experienced homelessness and poverty, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has a genetic birth condition. The good news is he is perfectly placed to work as a 'sensitivity reader', vetting authors' manuscripts before they are published. Another sensitivity expert also at the Salt & Sage agency is Sachiko Burton (right). Mixed race, she understands trauma, sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress, fat-phobia and abusive relationships

Matthew Broberg-Moffitt (left) is ‘gender queer’ and of ‘non-binary identity’. He suffers from autism, learning disorders and narcolepsy. Of Romany heritage, he has experienced homelessness and poverty, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and has a genetic birth condition. The good news is he is perfectly placed to work as a ‘sensitivity reader’, vetting authors’ manuscripts before they are published. Another sensitivity expert also at the Salt & Sage agency is Sachiko Burton (right). Mixed race, she understands trauma, sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress, fat-phobia and abusive relationships

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But its critics say the movement has American publishing by the throat. ‘Sensitivity readers’, they say, are the ‘imagination police’, terrifying authors into self-censorship lest they inadvertently upset readers from one minority background or another. And their influence is growing ever stronger.

According to a New York publishing source who asked to remain anonymous, no US book is printed without being first run past a person, or sometimes a whole committee, so that it can be examined for questions of sex, gender identity, race and a range of ‘trigger’ subjects including sexual assault, suicide, disability and domestic violence.

‘It’s a boom industry,’ said the source. ‘It’s been growing for the past few years but in the last year it has become the norm.’

Already worth an estimated $35 million (£24.5 million), it is projected to be a $100 million (£73 million) business as soon as 2025.

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Among the other 50 or so sensitivity experts at the agency are Ravi Teixeira (left), who is hard of hearing, and offers expertise in 'transmasculine and non-binary people' as well as mental illness and writing about people of colour. Meanwhile, Al McKay (right) is an expert on the 'rural queer experience', gaslighting and veganism

Among the other 50 or so sensitivity experts at the agency are Ravi Teixeira (left), who is hard of hearing, and offers expertise in ‘transmasculine and non-binary people’ as well as mental illness and writing about people of colour. Meanwhile, Al McKay (right) is an expert on the ‘rural queer experience’, gaslighting and veganism

‘Publishers and authors are terrified of being cancelled,’ the source continued. ‘Social media is so swift and brutal. We are living in a hair-trigger society where one false move can destroy your livelihood.

‘Manuscripts are being run past people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, those with mental health issues – anything you can think of, really. 

‘When you are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in an author and a publicity campaign, it makes sense to desensitise the book to any criticism.’

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These risks were played out last summer, when the novel American Dirt was ‘cancelled’ despite glowing reviews from critics and the powerful endorsement of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club – because the author Jeanine Cummins was a white woman writing about Mexican immigrants.

Cummins was accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ and a book tour was called off after ‘Latinx’ critics accused her of ‘taking the Mexican experience and using it to make money off the back of those who have died crossing the Rio Grande’.

‘That scared the hell out of us,’ said the source. ‘That book was a sure-fire success. Until it wasn’t.’

It is a testament to the influence of the woke lobby and its social-media cheerleaders that so few publishers dare go on the record, particularly in the US.

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But a glance at the list of 50 or so sensitivity experts at the Salt & Sage agency, which includes Mr Broberg-Moffitt, shows the bewildering scope of what’s now at stake.

Last summer, the novel American Dirt was 'cancelled' despite glowing reviews from critics and the powerful endorsement of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club – because the author Jeanine Cummins (above, with Winfrey) was a white woman writing about Mexican immigrants

Last summer, the novel American Dirt was ‘cancelled’ despite glowing reviews from critics and the powerful endorsement of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club – because the author Jeanine Cummins (above, with Winfrey) was a white woman writing about Mexican immigrants

The specialists include Sachiko Burton, who is a ‘white-presenting’ expert in Japanese-American characters. Mixed race, she understands trauma, sexual abuse, post-traumatic stress, fat-phobia and abusive relationships.

Ravi Teixeira, who is hard of hearing, offers expertise in ‘transmasculine and non-binary people’ as well as mental illness and writing about people of colour.

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Nicole Hawken can call on her experience of sociopaths and traumatic home childbirth, plus sexual assault and a range of mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression, addiction, bipolar problems, narcissism and mental abuse by parents. Al McKay is an expert on the ‘rural queer experience’, gaslighting and veganism.

Meanwhile, Mr Broberg-Moffitt’s range of specialisms is enhanced by archery, baking and cheesemaking, not to mention his experience as a classically trained chef, former substance abuse counsellor and a one-time Buddhist monk.

Salt & Sage has already published a number of ‘How to’ books for writers wishing to include characters who are black, asexual and overweight, and is due to publish 17 more, including guides on non-binary people, atheists and characters with anxiety.

Dot and Dash, another US agency, has sensitivity readers who can help on subjects from being Asian-American to having connective tissue disorder, tinnitus and being working class. 

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The company has produced a ‘conscious language guide’ suggesting, among other things, that using ‘female’ as a noun ‘is perceived by many as derogatory toward women’.

No doubt such publications will be eagerly read in Britain, too, where sensitivity readers are already hard at work.

Philippa Willitts, for example, specialises in disability and mental health. According to her website, the proofreading fees start at £10 per 1,000 words, although adding a specialist LGBT sensitivity editing package to the course increases the cost to £14 per 1,000 words.

Another, Hamza Jahanzeb, offers to make sure that manuscripts don’t ‘include any adverse characterising or harmful tropes to marginalised communities’.

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Georgina Kamsika offers her ‘expertise as a British South Asian’ to ‘give feedback on whether you are perpetuating stereotypes and actively harming people like me’. People, that is, who ‘don’t like opening a book and being met with microaggressions and stereotypes’.

The consequences can be serious, after all.

Kate Clanchy might have won the Orwell Prize, but the vicious reaction to her recent memoir, Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, left her traumatised.

Her crime was to use such well-worn phrases as ‘chocolate skin’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ when describing characters. She said that a Muslim girl was ‘very butch-looking… with a distinct moustache.’

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Accused of ‘racist’ and ‘ableist’ tropes in an overwhelming campaign of hostility on social media, Ms Clanchy issued a grovelling apology along with her publisher, Picador.

She is now undertaking a major rewrite in consultation with ‘specialist readers’. The result, she hopes, will be ‘more loving’.

Kate Clanchy (pictured) might have won the Orwell Prize...

... but the vicious reaction to her recent memoir, Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, left her traumatised

Kate Clanchy (left) might have won the Orwell Prize, but the vicious reaction to her recent memoir, Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, left her traumatised. Her crime was to use such well-worn phrases as ‘chocolate skin’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ when describing characters. She said that a Muslim girl was ‘very butch-looking… with a distinct moustache’

Friends say the furore had a grave effect on Ms Clanchy’s state of mind and that she has now lost her teaching work, her main income.

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Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling became a hate figure after daring to retweet an article about ‘people who menstruate’ and commenting: ‘People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people? Wumben? Wimpund? Woodmud?’

The result has been a campaign of unprecedented aggression from the trans lobby and its supporters.

Even Oxford University’s student union is planning a ‘consultancy of sensitivity readers’ to scrutinise student newspapers. Lord Wharton, head of the Office for Students watchdog, said this would have a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech and deny anyone with ‘difficult or uncomfortable views’ a platform.

In March, Nobel Prize-winning author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, warned that a climate of fear was causing some authors to shy away from tackling certain topics as they fear an ‘anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery’. He told the BBC: ‘I think that is a dangerous state of affairs.’

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Publishing houses are already divided over the issue.

One literary agent said: ‘There’s a battle going on between publishers who feel it’s their job to challenge our preconceptions, and those who won’t touch anything that doesn’t agree with their rigid view of the world. It’s the older publishers who often take the former view, and the younger crowd, probably five or six years out of university, toeing the Maoist line.’

In May, authors and academics including J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, published an open letter in Harper’s Magazine attacking the drift towards ‘ideological conformity’.

‘Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics,’ they wrote.

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Author Lionel Shriver (above) said: 'Is it any longer acceptable for characters to be bigoted? Can a character in your novel vote for Brexit? The day my novels are sent to a sensitivity reader is the day I quit'

Author Lionel Shriver (above) said: ‘Is it any longer acceptable for characters to be bigoted? Can a character in your novel vote for Brexit? The day my novels are sent to a sensitivity reader is the day I quit’

‘Professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes… The result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.’

Leading literary agent Clare Alexander recently told a House of Lords inquiry into freedom of expression that British publishing is at a ‘watershed moment’.

‘One of the very distinguished historians I represent, who is a white English woman, wanted to write a book about a black American slave who ended up as a man of property in Ireland and London,’ she explained. 

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‘Both American and British editors said, ‘You cannot do that. You are a white woman. We cannot publish that book.’

‘We were stood down because everyone was so fearful. We are in a very judgmental time.’

David Shelley, chief executive of publishing giant Hachette UK, said: ‘The people who are having to self-censor more are older. People over 40 and certainly over 60 are very worried about how they are going to fit into the current culture. They are very anxious about what subjects they can write about.’

Author Lionel Shriver goes further. ‘Is it any longer acceptable for characters to be bigoted?’ she asked. ‘Can a character in your novel vote for Brexit? The day my novels are sent to a sensitivity reader is the day I quit.’

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Who, though, is listening? Even the past is now under threat from woke campaigners on Twitter and Facebook. 

Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird is a powerful denunciation of racism, yet it has been banned by multiple schools and university libraries because it contains the N-word and has been accused of promoting a ‘white saviour’ narrative.

‘Can we no longer read Othello because Shakespeare wasn’t black?’ asked novelist Francine Prose in the influential New York Review Of Books. ‘Should we dismiss Madame Bovary because Flaubert lacked a lived experience of what it meant to be a restless provincial housewife?’

Even ‘lived experience’ – a phrase popular with diversity warriors – doesn’t always cut it.

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American author Koshoko Jackson, who is black and gay, felt obliged to withdraw his novel A Place For Wolves before it was published. 

He was accused of using ‘stereotypical’ depictions of Muslim characters in his story about two African-American boys falling in love against the backdrop of the Kosovo War.

‘He cannot possibly understand the pain of the ethnic groups at the heart of the conflict,’ wrote one of his many critics who, presumably, had not even seen the manuscript.

The irony is that Jackson had been working as a sensitivity reader himself, positioning himself as an expert on being gay and black.

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But that was not enough. As the New York publishing source put it: ‘No one is safe. The parameters keep getting changed. Everyone is terrified. You can be black and gay and get cancelled for not being ‘Muslim-sensitive’.

‘We are going down a rabbit hole in America, and what happens here will happen in the UK too. It’s only a matter of time.’

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