Under book publishing’s trending best practices, historical authenticity can be secondary to appeasing people’s sensitivities. I’m qualified to say this based on my recent experience as a literary agent on behalf of a client.
The events in question began happily: my client received a Big Five contract for a book about his time as a Marine sniper during the Vietnam War, when he was 17. The original manuscript (written with the assistance of a coauthor) told his story in the context of its time and place, including florid verbatim language and descriptions that wouldn’t be appropriate in other settings, then or now. Historical authenticity and truthfulness were the author’s priorities.
The manuscript passed the publisher’s editorial and legal protocols with relatively few revisions, and no additional hurdles were expected. In fairness, the editor’s good news email included a brief statement that the manuscript still needed to pass a so-called sensitivity read, but we weren’t told what that was or given any reason for concern. I had never heard of it and didn’t give it a second thought. Instead, I asked the editor to request the second advance payment due upon acceptance for publication. But my assumptions were wrong.
I’ve since learned that sensitivity reads are a recent and potentially powerful layer of scrutiny some books are subjected to. Evidently, they have been in use by some children’s publishers for several years. I don’t know which adult publishers may have adapted them, if they are uniformly structured and empowered, or if any written mission statements or guidelines exist. I can only write about my experience.
If properly conceived and used, sensitivity reads can be beneficial for all stakeholders, especially authors. Any manuscript can be potentially infected with inadvertently offensive content that serves no meaningful purpose. For instance, I represent many older backlist titles that possess unacceptable language by current standards but that, when written, seemed innocent. We make an effort to discover and rewrite those segments without distorting the (often deceased) author’s meaning. The key is trying to remain as true as possible to the author’s original intent.
Under the threat of having his book deal terminated, my client was forced to meaningfully modify his manuscript to accommodate a five-page document full of subjective complaints about how the Vietnam War was fought by the author and his co-combatants, the unfiltered descriptions of his horrific experiences, and the unsavory language used by the mostly very young men who were there on behalf of their country. The sensitivity review was written by one person. This person was hired by the publisher, and no information about their qualifications, or who might have reviewed their review, was provided. No appeals or rebuttals were allowed. My author reluctantly complied in full.
I actually agree with many of the sensitivity reader’s sentiments. Everything about that war was appalling. But why sanitize it? It should be depicted exactly as it happened. Following the publisher’s logic would be equal to transforming the M˜y Lai Massacre into a misunderstanding with unpleasant consequences that shouldn’t be discussed because it’s too upsetting for some people.
I felt the publisher endowed the sensitivity reader’s report with the unilateral power to censor my client’s book, which raises serious questions. How are sensitivity readers recruited and what qualifies them? Are their personal views and experiences taken into account? More problematically, how can a person’s feelings qualify as objective or open-minded? How is it possible to oppose a person’s feelings without at least partially invalidating them? Should the need for accuracy be enmeshed with feelings? What outcomes are publishers looking for?
Manipulating or sanitizing history will not cure what ails us. And publishers, especially, should understand the perils of going down this road. We can’t lose sight of the need to stay true to our authors’ ideas and characterizations.
Jeff Herman is a literary agent and author.