A few days ago, Kevin Lambert found himself at the heart of a controversy after explaining, in an Instagram post, that he had called on a “sensitivity reader” for his latest novel Que notre joie remain, (Le Nouvel Attila) . A “sensitivity reader” or “sensible reader”, in French, is responsible for defusing any word or phrase that could pose a problem for readers from minorities. However, for the author, in Quebec the word does not have this meaning.
LE FIGARO. - You worked with Chloé Savoie-Bernard, a poet and professor of literature of Quebec and Haitian origin, who helped you reread your book, check that you did not “fall into certain traps of the representation of black people by white authors.” Was this a first?
Kevin LAMBERT. - Yes, for my previous book, I had done a lot of research but I had not had the book reread. For May Our Joy Remain, it seemed interesting to me to do it, if only to avoid writing approximations and to enrich my characters. Chloé Savoie-Bernard, a writer whom I admire infinitely, an intellectual and artistic accomplice. However, the work that was done was not only linked to these protagonists, it was an editing work which also affected the form, the sentence, the narrative curve... Chloé Savoie-Bernard is of Haitian origin , she knows more than I do about the reality of a black person in a world such as that of architecture, but she does not call her work “sensitive reading”. In the Quebec edition, we wrote “editorial consultation”. She took my text for what it is: an artistic object.
Is using a sensitivity reader common in Quebec?
Yes, for about five years and all this has been done relatively normally. If there were controversies, they came from people who did not know the literary world. In Quebec, it is the authors who request to work with specialized editors or proofreaders; this is neither systematic nor obligatory. Chloé Savoie-Bernard never had the desire to censor my text and that is absolutely not what she was asked to do. It was a dialogue. I think “sensitive readers” have been around forever but we didn’t call them that. When an author says he has had his text proofread by an architect friend, or a doctor, or by his or her spouse, this poses no problem. You can never know everything and authors rarely want to make stupid mistakes. I don’t like to use the term “sensitivity reader”, the English gives the impression that we associate this practice with “abroad”. But I repeat that they have existed for almost all the time. A literary historian friend, Michel Lacroix, placed the origin of this concept of publishing at the beginnings of the NRF, with the creation of editorial committees which institutionalized this practice. He reminded me that André Gide had his texts reread (Corydon, The Vatican Caves) to ensure the accuracy of his criticism. Today, lawyers do read and censor certain books. Why are these not shocking? When we talk about sensitive reading, we give the impression that it is something new, but that is not true. It's a mini-novel that we created, with the idea of a morality coming from the United States and "imported" to France, and which risks one day (this is the fear), of us prevent reading texts from the past. It’s an anxious fable, and perhaps we’re more afraid of it than of reality.
How do “sensitive readers” therefore “amplify the freedom of writing and the richness of the text”?
Chloé Savoie-Bernard asked me questions about my characters, and her questions led me to open doors that I had not opened. To take just one example, Pierre-Moïse, one of my main characters, is an architect of Haitian origin who runs Ateliers C/W (architecture company, founded by Céline Wachowski, editor's note). He is a powerful man, who has succeeded in life. Chloé asked me in particular about her relationship with Haiti, what influence her past has on her personal mythology, her imagination. In addition, the architectural world is still predominantly white, it allowed me to wonder about what it could mean for him to be one of the rare black men working in his sector. I hadn't thought about it before, and so I added an important scene. At one point, Pierre-Moïse participates in a conference with younger students. He explains his relationship to creation, explaining that, for him, it is not the individual who expresses himself, but something greater, impersonal. The seminar students remind him of his point of view, his personal history, they question his speech: “to create without existing, how is that possible?”. I ask myself the same questions as Pierre-Moïse and his students: do we write with an impersonal and neutral force or do we write with what we are sociologically? I don't have a definitive answer, but I wanted to explore these questions in my book.
So it was not out of fear that you appealed to a “sensitive reader”?
No not at all! It was out of a desire for accuracy towards human complexity and then out of a desire to enrich editorial thinking.
Do you understand then what Nicolas Mathieu said: “Making professionals in sensitivities, experts in stereotypes, specialists in what is accepted and dared at a given moment the compass of our work, that is what leaves us circumspect to say the least”?
He has the right to disagree with the process. For my part, I believe neither in universal laws nor in absolutes in art. In a novel, we work with sensitive material, in movement, full of ambivalences, we are interested in the particular more than the general. You can benefit from specialized reading.
He also reacted to your sentence: “Sensitive reading, contrary to what the reactionaries say, is not censorship.”
Reactionaries say sensitive reading is censorship. I have often heard this shortcut. However, I never said that criticizing sensitive reading makes you a reactionary... I think that's where the misunderstanding lies. After this publication, we spoke via Instagram with Nicolas Mathieu. I believe that we each respect each other’s approach.
You cite Proust in your book, who made the difference between the social self of the artist and his deep self. Is it still possible in literature to make this distinction?
This reflection is at the very foundation of the writing of May Our Joy Remain. The novel features an architect and businesswoman, Céline Wachowski, who has skeletons in her closet. We see her react to a controversy, justifying sometimes questionable actions to herself. I make the narrative bet of never deciding, of not distinguishing the supposed “good” from the supposed “evil”. I let the reader judge with their own values. I found the idea of placing my narration above the character uninteresting. Social criticism and political reflection, in my text, are not based on caricature or dehumanization. Céline's worldview is sometimes very questionable, she makes comments that I would never say in reality, but I still embrace her point of view and her emotions to the end. Literature is not a work of personal opinion. If I want to give my opinion, I will give it in an interview, I will write an essay or an article. My job is to create characters who are plausible, coherent, who raise ambiguous political and literary questions.
This subject ultimately raises the question of the legitimacy of the author. Can a writer write about something he has not experienced, about a woman if he is a man, etc.?
I am cautious with this kind of debate and hypothesis. It’s true that today, writers are asking themselves the question of legitimacy. By what right can we write that…? But this question of legitimacy has always existed in art. If we take a little interest in the history of representations, we know that there are representations, certain stereotypes and prejudices, stagings and descriptions of certain sections of the population which have contributed to violence social. We have a form of unconditional legitimacy when we write about something that we know closely, that we have experienced, but that does not mean that if we write it, it will be good or interesting. I have the impression that in literature, we are constantly working with the multiple, what Proust called the “powers-others”. We are worked on as much as we work on unconscious, unknown, intuitive things... In my practice, I try to have a form of humility, which translates into research work and the choice of my subjects. I never wanted to write the great novel about slavery in the United States. I tend to write about topics that are in distant proximity. I don't write about my life, but I live in the same world as my characters. Today, people who couldn’t speak for decades can speak, that’s what has changed. If we write something unfair or reductive, we will be notified. There is a democratization of access to speech and that scares some people; I, on the contrary, find that it gives us a greater duty. We must live up to this responsibility.
What do you think about “sensitive readers” rewriting the works of Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming?
That's another subject, the authors are dead. When I write, I decide to ask someone to read my text. And that’s just about me, my creative process. I think in any case that fear is a bad advisor, it prevents us from thinking peacefully about the present. My thinking is literary above all. I would like the terms of the debate to shift. I would like us to give the floor to historians, academics, psychoanalysts. Let us get rid of the preconceived idea according to which a form of morality imported from the United States incorporates a new form of censorship applied to literature. It is necessary to elevate the reflection, enrich it with crossroads and above all, historical depth.