I’ve been on many bookseller education panels over the years but none quite like Wednesday’s “Sensitivity Readers and Free Expression.” It was originally designed to consider an idea that had been proposed, having sensitivity readers in bookstores to inform frontlist buying and train staff. This evolved to more broadly considering free speech issues in the children’s bookselling community. The panel members evolved as well. It went from two booksellers leading an open discussion to a more formal panel with a moderator, that being Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship; Nadine Strassen, Professor of Law at New York Law School and former president of the ACLU; and three of us booksellers. One of the three booksellers left the panel to give a spot to Dhonielle Clayton, the COO of We Need Diverse Books and a noted sensitivity reader and author.
Immediately before the panel Junot Diaz delivered an impassioned keynote address describing the deep harm which the monolithic whiteness of books delivered to young readers of color. In the wake of Diaz’s speech the other bookseller resigned from the panel, leaving me as the lone bookseller.
Despite the highly charged environment the panel discussion and extended Q&A session were characterized by substantive and constructive argumentation. Here is my two cents as delivered during the panel.
Everyone experiences a sense of harm from books. It is how we engage with that sense of harm, whether through critical discussion or through suppression, that is the vital issue here.
The free exchange of critical ideas is the lifeblood of the literary enterprise. There is a pervasive atmosphere of fear that has taken hold of the children’s book industry which threatens to constrict that lifeblood. Fear of having your project torpedoed, fear of being called out and dragged on social media, fear of having your career ruined.
The lever which allows fear to overturn free speech is harm, the imputing of harm to books and ideas. The principle of free expression, to me, is based on the social contract, that the only regulation which is legitimate pertains to those acts that restrict the freedom of others. The calls to suppress and filter titles is based on the idea of preventing harm. Suppression is always justified by the idea of remedying harm. However, eschewing and suppressing free speech and its forum, robust critical discussion, is itself a great harm to both the social contract, the arts, and individual liberty and well being.
Books are intrinsically figurative. They are at a great conceptual remove from their contents because readers are at liberty to experience them dynamically according to their own unique experiences and sensibilities. Imposing a literal, fixed interpretation in conjunction with a social media campaign to suppress publication of a title imposes a singular sensitivity upon a diverse pool of readers. Books are vast interior spaces and no one can know what complex connection a reader forms within them.
It is our task to engage in robust critical exchange, not suppression, particularly not suppression based on external declarative statements and opinions. Different individuals of the same ethnicity can differ profoundly in reading a book with charged content. Speaking as someone who is Jewish, my reaction to encountering anti-Semitism in a book is personal to me and differs greatly from other individuals who share my ethnic background.
Following the inferno of WWII existentialists such as John-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir saw nothing but the void in the attachment of personal identity to the isms, nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, nothing but the incineration of an individual’s humanity and self-determination. We can fight for social justice and inclusion without imposing that on ourselves or importing that into our bookstores.
Issues of exclusion, erasure and privilege are very real. They are historical facts. The means of remedy does not lie with the suppressing the speech of others. Supporting meaningful inclusion of great books by writers of color in our bookstores is a substantial remedy. By meaningful I mean by promoting them with deft and precise handselling that will support their success both commercially and socially,
Books have the right to succeed or fail in a critical marketplace, not due to fear-based suppression.