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So, who exactly are ‘sensitivity readers’?

by Lynda Goetz

There has been a lot of comment over the last few days following The Telegraph’s revelations that Puffin books have “revised” Roald Dahl’s children’s stories “so that they can continue to be enjoyed by all today”. What nonsense, what poppycock, what bundongle, what rommytot! Any revisions are definitely not for the sake of children, who love Dahl’s use of language, (including his brilliant made-up words) but for the sake of certain over-sensitive adults. Who are these adults who disapprove of the word ‘fat’ or the fact that the Oompa-Loompas were male (rather than gender neutral) or that Mathilda should not be allowed to enjoy the literature of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling but should be transported instead by the works of Jane Austen and John Steinbeck? More to the point, perhaps, who are these ‘sensitivity readers’ whose job it is to excise unacceptable vocabulary from works of fact and fiction?

Until a few years ago, most of us had never heard of such people. What are the qualifications for such a position? Presumably, like critics (or indeed journalistic commentators), they lack the ability to create their own works for publication so have discovered they can earn (or possibly eke out) a living and at the same time work out their envy by destroying the creations of others. This may sound a little harsh, but the reaction of a number of writers, including Salman Rushdie, to these petty bureaucrats, for that is what they are, effectively, is that their job is essentially one of vandalism. How on earth can it be acceptable to allow B-rate sub-editors the power to decide to eradicate and revise works of erudition and literary merit, not just before they can be published, but after they have been in existence for many years?

‘Sensitivity readers’ it seems first came into public awareness in 2016, according to Reedsyblog, a website for authors. This is, however, in spite of a subsidy from the EU, an American website in origin and it is probably true to say that the notion of ‘sensitivity readers’ did not reach these shores until a few years later. Even then the term was not widely known or understood. However, as sensitivities have continued to be cultivated and the numbers of those who are offended appear to have increased exponentially, the role of the sensitivity reader has become more ubiquitous. On the whole, they have, as The Spectator observed back in June 2019 been hired by writers or publishers ‘to cancel-proof their new books’. If books ‘feature identities or experiences that are outside the lived experience of the author’ (are in any way creative as opposed to autobiographical?) then the sensitivity reader through their own ‘authoritative life experience’ can guide the author towards a more acceptable representation.

Perhaps in some ways this role is understandable, if objectionable. Editors and sub-editors have since printing and publishing existed been there to cast an eye over writers’ manuscripts; to correct their grammar, their spelling and at times the way they have presented their ideas or creation to the public. For decades books have been abridged to reach a wider audience. However, sensitivity readers are, by their very nature not true to the original author or to his time. They are also not employed by the publishing houses. They are usually part of a group of self-employed individuals; a wide cast of people with particular issues. The publishing houses are effectively outsourcing this work or requiring their authors to do so. How can it be the case that some third party with their own particular grievance against society or their own sob story should speak for the rest of society better than an author? The author may or may not be empathic, but in his or her own way they are speaking and writing for their own time. Future societies and readers might find it more interesting to have the author’s own views (complete with imperfections, failings and inadequacies) than the views of some other less talented individual (with their own inadequacies, failings and imperfections) interposed between them.

As for posthumous re-writing of an author’s work, this comes into a different category again and is even less acceptable. Roald Dahl chose all his words very carefully. The man himself was, like most of us, imperfect. His anti-Semitism does not, in spite of his family’s later apology for his views, impinge on his writings for children, who are entitled to enjoy his stories as they were originally written and published, not bowdlerised by some individual with a ‘lived experience’ of fat-shaming, gender hate-crime or anything else. Children, unlike adults, are rarely hypocrites. They find rude-words funny, and unkind and mean humans a great target for being made fun of. Dahl’s tales for children all have an intrinsic morality. Like re-writing history, re-writing authors’ books to reflect some contemporary viewpoints can lead to damage and unintentional (or intentional) destruction. Puffin and Netflix (who bought the rights to the books in 2021) should stop retrospectively messing with authorship. It is the beginning of a very slippery slope.



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