Books, Publishing, and Political Correctness

Books, Publishing, and Political Correctness
Books, Publishing, and Political Correctness

As we become increasingly more divided by so many seemingly different values in this country, publishing has been caught in the crosshairs.

Hate-mongers spout disgusting views, while on the other side, political correctness can be a muzzle on the truth.

And book publishing isn’t immune.

A Feb 15 Washington Post article, entitled, “Publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’ to flag potentially offensive content,” explores how writers are employing these ‘sensitivity readers’ to check their portrayals of people from marginalized groups for accuracy, and for offense.

The ‘accuracy’ part is mandatory. But for offense?

I recently posted on FB a Publishers Weekly article condemning the upcoming publication of a book by a well-known hate-monger.

My concern about this book being published was not about banning books (as one NY editor blasted me for on FB), but rather, voicing my chagrin at S&S publishing and promoting a man who advocates for racism, sexism, misogyny, and even rape. Twitter permanently banned him for leading a wave of racist assaults targeting an African-American actress. He also played a key role in Gamergate, which repeatedly attacked female game developers with death threats, rape threats, and the leaking of women’s personal information.

Do I think he should be silenced? No.

But I do believe those views should be maligned for the hatred they espouse. And I’m deeply sorry at S&S’s choice to publish him.

We’re better than that.

What does this have to do with political correctness?

Back to the Post article.

The headline appeared to be about making sure no one got “offended” by the authors’ novels. Which is pretty much the definition of political correctness.

Full disclosure: I detest political correctness. Chiefly because you simply cannot legislate morality. Hasn’t worked since the dawning of mankind. And what almost always happens is that whatever ‘ism’ just goes underground, and comes out in more nefarious ways.

That said, I detest racism, misogyny, sexism, any of the isms, really. That sure speaks to who the person is practicing it.

But we’ll never get to true peace and inclusion by saying, “You can’t say that.” It’s hearts that have to change, and only then will words follow suit. Which won’t happen without the truth.

The idea that someone might take offense, however, and you need to change things about a novel to prevent that, chills my blood.

An artist’s job is to tell the truth, as he or she knows it. And a lot of the time, that truth isn’t pretty. But unless we face it, we can’t get better, no? Whether this pertains to a personal failing or a cultural one.

And in publishing, anyway, this isn’t exactly new.

In 1993 my first novel was published by a nice literary press. It came out subsequent to the same press’s publication in 1992 of Dulce Moore’s A Place in Mind. Her wonderful novel followed a family displaced by the Great Depression (which she lived). A PW review chastised the use of the word “dago” as a racial slur.

Now, mind you, this book took place during the Depression. It was how people talked. It was true for the time and place.

The worst thing we can ever do is white-wash the actual truth.

And I’m forever grateful that this publisher didn’t bow to the criticism.

Funny thing about that Post article too—the actual examples were about authors making sure they got things right. Not about “offending the sensibilities of readers.” Not one example was given for the latter. I can’t say if that’s happening—the article says it is. But they didn’t quote one author as saying that’s what he or she was doing.

And making sure you “get it right” is an entirely different issue.

Let me give you an objective example. And one without the emotional firepower of current cultural debate. Those are easier to see.

I’ve just finished my new novel, which takes place in a Texas vineyard and winery. Now, I’ve never grown wine grapes. My brother made wine when we were teenagers, but half the time it blew up in Mom’s kitchen. So that wasn’t much help!

So, I researched deeply. Took courses through Texas A&M on growing wine grapes. Talked at length with growers/vintners. I’ll be forever in debt to the wonderful Gary McKibben at The Red Caboose winery and vineyard for his tireless teachings.

He was oh-so important to me because his place is in the same county where my fictional vineyard is set. I did so because—I know that land. I’ve farmed and ranched it and grown many other things there. So what I needed was expertise about growing grapes right there.

The attention to getting the details right in fiction is paramount.

But the idea of changing things in order not to “offend” anyone is travesty.

I offend readers all the time. Someone is probably offended right here! I know because they tell me so.

We all don’t see the world in the same way. Now that’s not a news flash, no? Often someone’s deeply held belief offends the beliefs of another.

That’s why we have the first amendment to begin with.

An artist’s job is to tell the truth, as he or she knows it. And a lot of the time, that truth isn’t pretty.

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So, yes, there are times, as in the S&S book, where I’m offended.

On Monday S&S withdrew publication of the book, due to public outcry. Well, that and old videos that surfaced over the weekend of the author advocating for sex with minors.

Did I cheer? Yes.

But do I think the book should be banned? Again, a resounding no. There is a huge difference there.

He has the right to free speech. And he still has publishing options—whether another house picks him up or he self-publishes.

And we have the right to ostracize him for what he promotes.

Words have enormous power. But only when they truly back up what’s in our hearts. I might not like what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it.

I’ll also speak up when something is a horror.

Where do you draw the line?

This Post Has 56 Comments

  1. My husband also hates Political Correctness. He gets really annoyed with it.

  2. I believe we should have fact checkers, but sensitivity readers? It’s not the same. I don’t think books should be banned, but I do think there are some books that shouldn’t be published in the first place.

  3. Hi Susan! I agree with you 100% on this. Was I happy when S & S decided to not publish the book? Yes, but I still agree that he should be able to publish it himself if he wants or find a company with similar values to publish it. Would I want it in my library….ugh? I think I would want to read it first (if I was the one that had to decide for my library) because it might be speaking to the value of free speech. And if it was written as fiction I would probably say yes of course. As you said, I also strongly believe that we should not censor writers or artists….but damn, sometimes that is a hard road to take! Thanks for providing a clear way to process! ~Kathy

    1. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it, Kathy. And his book is of course an extreme. I mean, when even Brietbart distances from this guy . . .

  4. I’ve never even heard of “sensitivity readers” before! Is this a new thing? I feel like I am so frustrated with the kind of information that is spewed out without any proper fact checks, but I do agree that fact checks and sensitivity checks are two very different things!

    1. Yep, it’s a new thing, Divya. Causing an uproar in our industry. And yep, fact checking and sensitivity issues are two different things!

  5. Susan,
    There is a lot going on in the world today and it is scary, but you are taking the correct steps . The internet makes it easier to target people so we have to be careful . Thanks for sharing !
    Lori English

    1. So true, Lori. Being watchful and mindful is the key.

  6. I never heard of sensitivity readers before. Maybe a new thing? If so, it is reminding me of the 2017 business trends I have been reading about and sharing with my new entrepreneur clients. These new macro trends are about a shift in attitude. It is coming about due to what came we experienced too much of in 2016. Isis, fake news, US Presidential Campaign negative blasting, dishonesty in large corporations, etc. The trend is showing how people are seeking safety, security, sanctuary and the like. They are done with dishonesty, corruption and not really knowing where to turn to feel good. But seeking to feel good. Could this be in light of that trend now?

    1. I wish I could say that were true, Teresa. But “sensitivity readers” is more about political correctness. A scary thing indeed.

  7. The world has gone weird. It is so different from the time when I was a young child. Now it seems everyone thinks they are right, and they try to suppress the opinions of others who do not share the same views. This thing with “political correctness” is incorrect!

  8. Sensitivity readers? That is truly horrifying. And frightening. While I truly believe in the power of words and try to use mine in an unoffensive way, whenever possible, I would hate to be stymied by the fear that someone won’t like, or agree with them. We may as well all stop writing, and speaking, now as there will always be people who have different opinions. If the truth is to be hidden under layers of political correctness then we have truly lost our ability to learn, educate and improve.

    1. I couldn’t have said it better myself, Tami. Perfectly stated.

  9. That’s the tricky thing with freedom of speech. Some people say awful things. I’ve fine tuned my social media accounts so I don’t have to listen to people spouting off.

  10. Some things are just very offensive to say and shouldn’t be said. I draw the line at the word retarded. I’ll come someone out for saying it incorrectly every time and attempt to educate them why it’s wrong once, after that I won’t be as patient. And people that can’t see why it’s hurtful to many despite being explained are just ignorant.

    1. And that’s a big part of the point–to call out the truly offensive. The person can still say it, but we can respond as well.

  11. Offending readers is part of the job description. Not for the simple sake of being offensive, but to effect change. If I portray something the way it really and truly is, and a reader reacts by thinking “this ain’t right” indignation, I’ve just performed a public service.

    The reason I write is to make the world a better place. Hiding the truth isn’t the way to achieve that. And if I write something that I think is the truth, and it isn’t, that’s fine too. Being perfect is not in the job description. Asking the right questions, however, is part of what we do. Avoiding the questions is not.

    1. Very well said, Michael. If as writers, we’re not offending somebody, we’re not being true to our own beliefs. And our number-one responsibility is to tell that truth.

  12. This is it! This: “we’ll never get to true peace and inclusion by saying, “You can’t say that.” It’s hearts that have to change.” We all want fast and easy control – make THEM stop doing that, make THEM stop saying that! It’s OUR hearts that need to change, first of all. Great post, Susan!

    1. So true, Reba–we all want easy control. But the heart doesn’t work that way, does it!

  13. There’s no cause for explaining. I used to and am so over it. Enjoy your writing process. Xoxo

  14. Omg sensitive readers -_- I freelance for a few big online publications and it’s true!!! I feel you have to be so politically correct or play 100% into your publishers narrative that I hate to say it, free speech and self expression through writing doesn’t exist anymore

    1. It’s scary, isn’t it, CourtneyLynne. If artists can’t tell the truth, there is no art.

  15. The fact that we now have sensitivity readers to check for political correctness makes me uncomfortable, Susan. It feels like moral policing when self-regulation to abstain from offending would work better. We can’t deprive authors and non-authors from freedom of speech but we also need to honor our feelings about the impact that words have on readers. A tight rope walk, indeed.

    1. Exactly, Vatsala. It is a balance, but when we fall to far to either side . . .

  16. Thanks Susan. political correctness has no place in the writing of novels. Or anywhere else for that matter. Being an avid reader, I WANT to read all the content that is appropriate for the times..including racial slurs or profanity if it is essential to moving the story along

  17. I am writing a Conservative Book and have never published before. How do I do this, and who do I trust?

    1. It’s tough out there, Kevin. And there’s SO much misinformation. Be wary of online groups. Take it slow, learn the craft and the business. I write a blog about all things writing and publishing, which gives a ton of info about all :

  18. I am right there with you, Susan. I think there is value in having fact checkers and, ultimately, the ability to freely agree to disagree. Your point about suppressing voices and people just going underground and finding other ways to come at things is precisely what we DON’T NEED. Thanks for raising awareness on this issue. It’s rather timely!

    1. It’s just human nature, isn’t it, Tandy. The “ability to freely agree to disagree” is what keeps that from happening.

  19. It’s insane what the world is coming to. I can’t stand racist/prejudicial/sexist/hateful people. Why does there have to be so much judgement?

    1. I’m stumped, Tiffany. I honestly thought we’d seen the end of this forty years ago . . .

  20. I am in agreement with you, Susan when it comes to a writer, or anyone for that matter, to be able to voice an opinion, no matter what anyone else thinks if it is indeed what they really feel in their heart and truly believe it 🙂

    Awesome thought-provoking post!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. We just have to be able to, don’t we, Joan. It’s at the very heart of what we do.

  21. As I writer, I strive not to offend people but to stimulate the reader to see the world in ways they hadn’t before. To start a conversation that just might lead to someone looking at themselves and their world in new ways.

    I find it interesting to hear about ‘sensitivity readers’, although if it is strictly for political correctness, then I have mixed feelings about it. It then sounds more like ‘censoring’ the writing and ultimately supresses freedom to express ourselves. I do know the publishing world is having challenges, but this will only add to the problem, won’t it? It’s funny how when we don’t agree with someone we can become so opposed to their message being heard and yet without both sides of the conversation, we are living in a world skewed to our point of view. Like you Susan, I do not like how ‘politically correct’ we’ve become, however, I also fear that many people’s discernment abilities are being corrupted and lost. Thanks for sharing this with us all!

    1. I agree entirely, Beverley–this will only add to publishing’s problems. And yep, through it all, discernment is getting lost in the mix!

  22. There are a lot of books out there I wouldn’t read for whatever reason and that’s the great liberty. If I don’t like something I won’t read it

    1. And isn’t that just the solution, Saidah! Nobody is forcing anyone to read anything.

  23. I agree that there is a fine line… PC as in representing yourself in a manner that is ethical and moral and then the “story” you tell, is basically an opinion.. not everyone everywhere is going to agree.. EVER, and THAT is a fact.. so basically you are telling a story from your opinion, your point of view and there will be other sides, other opinions and well… as long as you are truthful, ethical and moral… hey, whatever.

    1. And that’s the whole point, Kristen–to tell your story as you know it. Never will everybody agree with you!

  24. You are so right. Nowadays, it seems like everyone became so sensitive. Gone are the days of compassion and understanding. Well, this is what is happening with globalization. The funny thing is this is not only in books. Even with the news that is being spread. Well, I think this dilemma is here to stay. I guess this responsibility of being correct is now a new source of income for some.

    1. I too think this dilemma is here to stay, Lorii. And also our need to fight it.

  25. Great article Susan very thought provoking am definitely going to be thinking deeply about this and what my truth is on this subject over the next few days xo

    1. I love that you’re taking time to chew on it and find your own truth, April!

  26. Even if the truth is not beautiful, I believe that writers should tell the truth. They owe that to us the readers. Concerning sensitive readers, I have heard of that before, and I know a few with these attributes

    1. I so agree, Apolline–writers should tell the truth, and we owe that to our readers!

  27. I have mixed feelings about the sensitivity readers. I feel like people are so programmed to go off the deep end anymore that they will do so whether a sensitivity reader flags the content or not.

    1. So true, Jennifer. It seems like there are folks just waiting to be offended so they can scream about it!

  28. I can understand publishing companies wanting to sell more and not offend. However, freedom of speech in the written word must always come first. It’s history’s way of judging the times. We learn so much about people, their beliefs and how the events were viewed from different perspectives. Imagine a hundred years from now someone trying to understand the early 21st century and only being able to things that have been sensitivity edited?

    1. Isn’t that the truth, Joyce. Freedom of speech must come first, and yes, it’s how history will see us all. The idea of folks 100 years from now only seeing things that have been edited for “sensitivity” gives me the screaming willies!

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