Opinion: Will Britney Spears’ $15m biography need a ‘sensitivity reader’?
It’s not censorship, it's editing with empathy, writes Hanna Flint in this week’s column
Friday 25 February 2022 By Hanna Flint
Congratulations are in order for Britney Spears. The pop star is finally getting to speak her truth in a major way after reports suggest she has landed a massive book deal with publishers Simon & Schuster to write a memoir. Good for her. Anyone who’s followed her Instagram posts and captions know she’s not opposed to lengthy prose, and with the not so insignificant fee of $15m (that’s Obama-level book deal money), she’ll be able to give her side of her much publicised, litigated and speculated about story, and get paid accordingly. Knowing that none of the proceeds will go to her family in the name of conservatorship is another cause to celebrate.
‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ has never felt more relevant, but given the high-profile and contentious nature of this memoir, editors will no doubt be working closely with the singer’s chosen ghostwriter (I assume) and a legal team to ensure that as much as she’s free to use her First Amendment to share the Sturm und Drang of her life thus far, they aren’t leaving themselves too open to potential lawsuits.
But I wonder if Spears’ publishers might also elicit the services of sensitivity readers, too. If you haven’t heard of them, a sensitivity reader is a copy editor with an informed background on specific subjects who might be able to help an author avoid writing content that might misrepresent marginalised groups, perpetuate stereotypes, or promote bias. With Spears’ mental health experience likely to be discussed, a sensitivity reader with a strong understanding of mental illness and its politically correct terminology could be a worthwhile investment.
Not everyone is a fan, though, and in recent weeks various mainstream columnists, writers and authors have been calling the work of sensitivity readers a form of censorship. One of the most prominent critics is Kate Clanchy. Everything I have learnt about this author has been against my will, and I’m sorry, but if I have to know about her flip-flopping story then you do, too.
The teacher, writer and poet first drew attention to herself by going after a Good Reads reviewer, claiming the racist tropes they pointed out were not in her Orwell prize-winning memoir, Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. In fact, they were, and on closer inspection more questionable phrasing was found in the depiction of underrepresented groups, autistic and working-class kids caused both wider criticism from a diverse group of writers and teachers, and a staunch defence from a cabal of mostly white, prominent authors and newspaper columnists.
Maybe the rallying of the latter is part of the reason why she went from accepting the criticism to pivoting back to the position that she has been unfairly attacked. Now, after agreeing to use sensitivity readers to suggest ways in which she could reduce problematic descriptions, Clanchy is arguing that they ‘corrupt literature’. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a sensitivity reader corrupting the literature of Agatha Christie if it meant we could read Poirot novels without the xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic language that was as abhorrent then as it is now.
I wouldn’t mind using one either if I was to write a memoir; even as a liberal, woman writer of colour who considers herself pretty switched on to the ways language can be used to malign, having someone suggest ways I can make my writing inclusive seems like a no-brainer. I certainly wouldn’t want my words to make any marginalised group feel less than, whether I’m talking about easy or difficult things. Sometimes our written intentions can unconsciously cause an adverse reader impact and I’d at least like to know if the potential for undue bias is there before publication than after. Whether I accept the suggestions is up to me, not the sensitivity reader. And the reality is, every time I submit articles to be published by a media outlet, editors are checking for typos, factual errors, and legal soundness. Are these editors censors as well? All I can say is that the people I frequently see moaning about freedom of speech and censorship are doing it from their mainstream newspaper soapboxes, with a publisher’s backing, or both.
Why so sensitive, eh?
Moran’s the man
It seems that a famous comedian can’t do an interview with a right-wing journalist anymore without the issue of ‘cancel culture’ being brought up, and Dylan Moran, unfortunately, is the latest recipient of this. Unfortunate for the journalist, that is. The Black Books star refused to be fear-mongered by the suggestion that comedians are at risk of having their careers ruined over the merest hint of political incorrectness.
‘Tell me something to worry me,’ Moran asked. The Telegraph interviewer first invoked the name of Louis CK, a comedian who has been cancelled so much for getting his penis out in front of women without their consent that he continues to sell out shows after a brief hiatus. He then mentioned Moran’s former co-collaborator, Graham Linehan, whose rampant transphobia got him booted off Twitter because of his ‘repeated violations of our rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation’.
Moran’s response was perfect: ‘Graham’s free to say whatever he wants, obviously. He’s also free to be in the consequences of that. We all are.’
Consequence culture. Let’s start calling it that.