Reason magazine reported last summer on the rise of sensitivity readers, and publishers have made headlines for their plans to release sanitized versions of Roald Dahl’s and Ian Fleming’s works. I’m not sure what’s more depressing: the fact that publishers are hiring sensitivity readers to purify these books, or the fact that I probably should have had one review my books before they were published.
In an ideal world, sensitivity readers would be in as much demand as Betamax repairpersons. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world full of hypersensitive Twitter users who relish finding offense in the unlikeliest of places. Hence the proliferation of sensitivity readers, or “authenticity readers” as they’re sometimes called. Kat Rosenfield at Reason reports that these censors come in many flavors. One representative consultancy, she reports, has a roster of experts “in the usual racial, ethnic, and religious categories, but also in such areas as ‘agoraphobia,’ ‘Midwestern,’ ‘physical disability, arms and legs,’ and (perhaps most puzzlingly) ‘gamer geek.’”
It’s easy to laugh off all this. But every author (or content creator of any kind) must reckon with the fact that these people can leave damning one-star reviews or, even worse, whip up anger on social media. All four of my books are travel-related, but even I’ve unintentionally crossed the mob.
In Footsteps of Federer, my account of traveling across Switzerland in the footsteps of the tennis great, some readers took offense to one passage where I recounted being accosted by a multicultural array of prostitutes (I should have called them sex workers, they said) in Basel’s red-light district. Several other readers gave the book one-star reviews, complaining that I’d injected politics into it. I thought the book was as neutral as Switzerland, but some sensitive liberals were irked by a passage in which a Swiss man who’d promised to show me the court where Roger first played tennis instead treated me to a lengthy lecture about the evils of Donald Trump and Brexit. My sin was to express my frustration and remind him that Switzerland also wasn’t in the EU and had done just fine. One reader claimed to have snapped the book shut at that point.
In my most recent book, Mad Travelers, I disturbed sensitive readers, including one author my publisher sent the book to, for failing to include female characters. Mad Travelers is a nonfiction book. It’s an examination of wanderlust, focusing on the true story of a con artist who scammed many of the world’s most traveled people, all of them men. In one passage, I told a story about Captain James Cook’s wanderlust, irking one reviewer on Goodreads who said she stopped reading because I failed to condemn Cook for genocide.
Another Goodreads reviewer, using her real name and profile, which included a link to her website, claimed that I “clearly hate women.” She gave no explanation for this libelous allegation, and when I saw that she had a website with other book reviews and a contact box, I sent her a message asking her what she was talking about. This set off a chain reaction of events (described in detail in a piece for City-Journal) that led to me getting dozens of one-star ratings from friends and allies of the woman. The reviewer contacted Goodreads (owned by Amazon), my publisher, and various publications I work for with the intent of getting me canceled. Goodreads did just that, kicking me off of their platform for daring to defend myself against absurd charges.
Could sensitivity readers have spared me from these negative reviews and hassles? Perhaps so. I’d never change anything essential in my books. But many of the seemingly small things that infuriated some readers were far from essential. It never occurred to me that my books would antagonize anyone, but perhaps it would have if I’d had someone like Philippa Willitts read my work.
VICE recently spoke to Willitts, a sensitivity reader who specializes in editing works that include “issues, themes or characters that are disabled or LGBTQ+.” Willitts claimed the demand for her services was “definitely growing” because publishers and authors “don’t want to publish a book and then find themselves in a Twitter storm, or realize through Amazon reviews that they’ve gotten something massively wrong.”
The only thing I got massively wrong was underestimating how sensitive some progressives can be. Thanks to the left’s cultural dominance, progressives can comfortably exist in intellectual safe spaces where they’re rarely exposed to information they dislike in a way that is impossible for conservatives to replicate. Sensitivity readers exist as a kind of last line of defense against the intolerant left. Willitts acknowledges in her interview that sensitivity readers are essentially a “left-wing progressive thing.” But they’re probably a sad necessity for un-woke authors and content creators who aspire to succeed in a world gone mad.