Acclaimed novelist Ian McEwan voices a resonant concern about the modern literary world’s drift towards self-censorship through sensitivity readings. As literature stands at the crossroads of authenticity and external filtering, we delve into the critical balance between preserving artistic integrity and navigating the nuanced terrains of societal sensibilities.
The article “Ian McEwan criticises hiring of ‘sensitivity readers’ looking for offensive material in manuscripts” written by Lucy Knight in the Literature section of The Guardian drew my attention recently.
In the article Ian McEwan, the acclaimed novelist, voiced his opposition to sensitivity readings, labelling the practice as part of a “moral panic.” In an interview with AFP in Paris, McEwan suggested that the push for such readings predominantly comes from a subset of the young generation in relatively free societies. He emphasizes the importance of writers being brave and true to their sentiments. McEwan has never used a sensitivity reader and has expressed concerns about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” but supports demands for racial and post-colonial reckoning. Despite his criticisms, he backs young activists addressing the climate crisis. The article also touches on McEwan’s view on Brexit and his latest novel, while briefly mentioning the likelihood of him receiving the Nobel Prize in literature.
Argument Against Sensitivity Readers and Censorship
Literature, since time immemorial, has been an avenue for expression, a reflection of society’s thoughts, fears, aspirations, and changes. It serves not just as entertainment but also as a chronicle of humanity’s evolution. In this light, there is an erudite argument to be made against the use of sensitivity readers and the censorship of literature.
- Preserving Artistic Integrity: An author’s work is a deeply personal manifestation of their experiences, beliefs, and creativity. Introducing external filters in the form of sensitivity readers risks diluting this authenticity. If we seek to sanitize every possibly offensive element from a piece of literature, we risk creating an echo chamber where only certain views and experiences are deemed palatable. This could have a stifling effect on literary creativity and exploration.
- History as a Testament: Literature offers a mirror to society at various points in time. Think about the works of Mark Twain or Joseph Conrad. While some of their depictions are now considered problematic, they give readers insights into the prevailing attitudes of their eras. Editing or censoring these works posthumously risks erasing evidence of societal flaws and the journey of growth.
- Literature as a Conversational Catalyst: Often, it’s the controversial and challenging aspects of a book that spur societal discussions. By flagging and potentially altering these elements before a book is published, we miss out on these important dialogues. Constructive discourse, even when it arises from discomfort, is crucial for societal growth.
- The Subjectivity of Offense: What one person finds offensive, another might find enlightening. Sensitivity is subjective and varies widely among different cultures, communities, and individuals. Creating a standardized filter for sensitivity could be seen as favouring one group’s sensibilities over another’s.
- The Danger of Overreach: Today, the focus might be on flagging potentially offensive cultural or gendered depictions. But once the precedent for censorship is set, where does it stop? Could political or religious groups, in the future, demand changes to content they disagree with?
In conclusion, while the intent behind sensitivity readings – to create a more inclusive and empathetic world – is commendable, it’s essential to weigh this against the potential pitfalls. Literature, in its purest form, should be a realm of unfettered expression. Safeguarding the integrity of this expression is crucial, not just for authors, but for society at large.