Great literature, as everyone knows, is made by committee. Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Tempest -- all were shaped early in the editing process by contact with hordes of perpetually outraged tweeters. The Inferno initially included an extra circle of Hell for people who chew with their mouths open. Readers of advanced copies were troubled by Dante’s privileging of Eurocentric table manners. Louisa May Alcott originally titled her masterpiece Big Women, until a Facebook coalition of gender non-binary advocates and body-image activists called her out for hetero-normative fat-shaming. Alcott then proposed Little Persons, but pushback from the Lollipop Guild led to the eventual compromise of Little Women.
The great tradition continues today. In The Washington Post, Everdeen Mason tells the brave story of author Keira Drake, whose young adult fantasy novel The Continent was just weeks from publication when the Twitter Mob began howling about advanced copies. The Continent, they shrieked, was racist.
Quoth one: “I’m still in shock at the Native American representation in The Continent BTW,” one person said. “This book could really do some damage.” People actually “warned their friends not to read it,” according to Everdeen.
Drake refused to be bullied and mounted a dogged, months-long defense of her creation, her intentions, and her right to think and write as an individual … nah, just kidding. Within a day she folded like a French infantry division and asked her publisher to delay the book’s release so she could produce what she called “the revision of my heart.”
How does one produce “the revision of my heart?” Well, start by hiring “sensitivity readers” (no, really) to make sure your heart is in the right place. Everdeen explains, “Sensitivity readers — hired to look for offensive content — have become more common as the publishing industry becomes more aware of its own biases.”
According to Everdeen, “Drake and [publisher] Wilson maintain that the book was never supposed to be about race.” And it should have passed social justice muster. “‘The main theme of ‘The Continent’ is how privilege allows us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others,’ Drake said in a phone interview in February.”
Everdeen gives us an idea of the revision process:
Drake also changed the name of the [Topi race] to Xoe because of their similarity to the Hopi, a federally recognized tribe. She added more detail to the description of their home town and removed all 24 instances of the words “savage,” “primitive” and “native.” These terms have been used to dehumanize and justify the systemic discrimination of Native Americans throughout U.S. history.
All kinds of identity politics rules Drake flouted in her first edit were treated with veneration in the revision. “The main character is now part Aven’ei [mixed race] to avoid ‘the trope of the dark-skinned aggressor or white savior narrative,’ Drake said.
Best of all, as shown in the Post’s helpful before-and-after comparison, “Drake offers a less militaristic approach to resolving conflict than in her previous version.”
Will Drake’s efforts satisfy the ever-offended identity obsessives?
“She’s confident that this revision says what she wanted to say. ‘There are certain people who feel the book is unfixable,’ Drake said. ‘That was not something I ever agreed with. I felt that the story of The Continent was an important one to tell.’”
The story better be important, otherwise Drake let Twitter trolls and sensitivity readers neuter her book for nothing.