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Sense and sensitivity

Some readers need thicker skins

Artillery Row

Recently, a bookbinding artist hit the headlines for selling Harry Potter books in fresh covers that didn’t feature J.K. Rowling’s name. The reasoning behind it was to create a “safe space” for Harry Potter fans who disagree with Rowling’s views on biological sex. Funnily enough, literature and “safe space” are about as compatible as the Wagner Group and crochet, but it seems the real safe space required these days is for writers. It’s not only the abuse writers receive on social media — it’s highly concerning that Salman Rushdie, who evaded the violent repercussions of his fatwa for over thirty years, was attacked last August. 

Sensitivity culture is on the rise in literature. This very month, Anthony Horowitz revealed the preposterous edits he underwent for his US publisher. Assessing Horowitz’s latest murder mystery, a sensitivity reader objected to a Native American character attacking someone with a scalpel on the grounds that “scalpel” was reminiscent of the ancient Native American practice of scalping. Who knew that a word could be deemed discriminatory simply through its resemblance to another?

That’s not to say writers of the past didn’t encounter criticism. F. Scott Fitzgerald made an effort to be multicultural with his portrayal in The Great Gatsby of Meyer Wolfsheim, “a small flat-nosed Jew … with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril”. He naturally avoided the excoriating Twitter pile-on that would have come his way in the 21st century, but was reported to be stung by accusations of antisemitism. Wolfsheim, he insisted, “fulfilled a function in the story and had nothing to do with race or religion”.

Past writers are more likely to be excused because of their “unenlightened” eras, but it’s interesting to compare Fitzgerald’s case to Kate Clanchy’s two years ago. Her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, included many accounts of her students from varying ethnic backgrounds, describing one as “small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache”.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t jettisoned by his publisher. Clanchy was. It’s also worth noting that Oliver Twist is still one of Charles Dickens’s most esteemed works in spite of his character Fagin. In 1863, Mrs Davis, a Jewish acquaintance of Dickens, sent him a somewhat astringent letter, explaining, “It has been said that Charles Dickens … has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.” Dickens replied “that all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians” and the matter ended there. 

You can never fully placate your detractors

By contrast, Twitter has a longer memory and thinner hide than an elephant; whatever opinion you hold on her writing, Clanchy is still at the sharp end of comments. For her, it all began in Goodreads (Badreads in this case). She tried to deny the quotes and misquotes from her book, perhaps out of pure panic, and soon some of the vilifiers went viral, posting modish buzzwords like “racial profiling”, “commodifying” and “exoticising”. They forgot that Clanchy was human in the notion that she was the manifestation of whitist and ableist publishing. They were so sensitive as regards the sensitivity of others, they became insensitive to the focus of their tirade.

It appears, in the current climate, we have two choices. Either we can write about a member of a different ethnic group in the most attractive/heroic way possible, or pursue the safest option which is to write exclusively about your own group. Yet, writing about a limited milieu doesn’t reflect the multiracialism of society, so it isn’t quite truthful either. It seems odd that any description of me as a red-haired person who likes a drink would be branded an Irish stereotype when it’s simply being honest. Should we write to please people whose sensitivity Geiger counters are attuned to react to the faintest atom of affront?

What Dickens did to redress the balance was create a Jewish character called Riah (meaning friend in Hebrew) in 1864’s Our Mutual Friend. Riah was a moneylender who acted honourably for the sake of his race and accused Christians of labelling all Jews as alike. Mrs Davis, whilst thanking Dickens, did so with the caveat that Riah was “something less than a realistic portrait”.

Mrs Davis’s reaction just goes to show you can never fully placate your detractors. By using the too-good-to-be-true Riah to atone for Fagin, Dickens proved that social engineering is antithetical to good literature. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”

To his credit, Dickens in a new edition of Oliver Twist in 1867 edited out many references to Fagin as “the Jew” in order to mitigate any hurt. If Fagin was written today, however, he’d be summarily expunged.

Her actual duty of care was, of course, to herself

F. Scott Fitzgerald also tried to make amends by writing an admirable Jewish hero in his final novel, The Last Tycoon. Kate Clanchy was equally ready to address concerns and said, “I welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly. With the agreement of Pan MacMillan, she did her own rewrite, but that apparently wasn’t good enough for the sensitivity readers who, as she elucidated later, contradicted each other in their suggested edits. They also appeared to have had a satire bypass. Clanchy said of these oversensitivity readers, “Writing, they imply, should represent the world as it ought to be, not as it is.”

Whilst I haven’t worked with sensitivity readers, I’ve experienced what might be termed “sensitivity publishers”. Recently, I worked on a memoir with a publisher in England who kept reminding me of how I’d be publicly judged on its basis and of her duty of care to protect me. Why infantilise writers when we willingly accept that any revelatory material is bound to draw a reaction?

Her actual duty of care was, of course, to herself. She was so terrified of my memoir giving offence that every single sentence was analysed in its minutiae, monitored for any hints of “exploitation” or “appropriation” or for being “unnecessarily exposing”. I did more “unpacking” than a customs officer. She kept changing her mind about publication, blowing as hot and cold as a faulty hairdryer. Last year, she passed on it. Her latest thrilling release is on birdwatching and is guaranteed not to ruffle any feathers.

How can literature progress if publishers (and some writers) are too scared of the twit for twat world of Twitter? To divide opinion is to multiply discussion, which can only be viewed as positive. Salman Rushdie stated two weeks before his stabbing that had social media existed when he published The Satanic Verses, things would have been “infinitely more dangerous”

We writers must be trusted to write freely and, if we commit errors, to make our own amendments. It’s ironic that some writers haplessly sign up to Twitter for the purpose of self-promotion, only to meet with unceremonious demotion. Sense should be prevailing over sensitivity.

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