These days, scarcely a book gets published without first being pored over by so-called “sensitivity readers”, who check the text for supposed instances of racism or other insensitivities. Having had my Orwell Prize-winning memoir examined by several of these self-proclaimed experts, says author Kate Clanchy in UnHerd, I can tell you it’s a complete nonsense. Some of my infractions were graded on a scale from one to three. Sometimes these were single words: using “disfigure” to describe a landscape (infraction level three), presumably in case it triggered someone with acne. More serious (level two) was using “handicap” to mean “impede” – a clear-cut example of “ableism”, apparently.
In one chapter of my book I recalled helping out a gay former student of mine – which was problematic because it was a “straight white saviour trope”. In another, I was taken to task for mentioning that homosexuality was historically taboo in Nepal – “homophobia comes from colonialism”, apparently – and advised against describing the Taliban as terrorists. I understand where much of this comes from. Sensitivity readers originated in children’s fiction, where there are good reasons for being careful with words. But my book was written for adults. And if adults are upset by books, they can always put them down. Well-intentioned as they may be, sensitivity readers “corrupt literature”.