The Modern-Day Blue Pencils Of The Sensitivity Readers

There is no point in trying to make yesterday’s literature inoffensive to easily offended modern readers.

If nothing else, announcing that you will be censoring editing classic books – beloved classic books at that – to appease the sensitivities of modern readers that you have mostly imagined rather than actually encountered is a good publicity stunt. I doubt that Roald Dahl has had quite this much press coverage for a long time – at least not positive press coverage. Well done to Puffin for creating a scandal out of thin air.

Dahl is one of those writers who you can no longer discuss without having to first preface your thoughts with the caveat “well, of course, he was a terrible man”. Just how terrible remains in the eye of the beholder – there are things we know, things that are open to interpretation and things that are mere accusations. But yes, he seems an unsavoury sort all in all and exactly the kind of Bad Egg whom the phrase ‘love the art, not the artist’ was invented for. I am not planning to mount a defence for Dahl as a person.

As for his work – well, here’s a confession. I’ve read very little of it. The two Charlie books and… actually, that might be it. I feel like there must be another but I’ll be damned if I can remember what, so perhaps not. A quick scan of his bibliography shows that most of his children’s books were published long after I’d left children’s books behind and his adult work never really came my way. I’ve probably read a few short stories but that’s it.

What I’m saying here is that reworking Dahl’s stories does not hit me on an emotional level because I have no emotional attachment to them. My utterance of “oh, for fuck’s sake” at the announcement that sensitivity readers have been pouring over his novels and changing ‘fat’ to ‘enormous’  and so on is less because I believe his novels are inherently untouchable – though I do, the same as I do with anyone else’s work – but because all this just seems so damned pathetic and pointless.

Sensitivity Readers are quite the thing with modern publishers these days, but I’d generally assumed that they were there to ruin new novels. That’s annoying enough, but having them working their way through older works is beyond the pale. Sensitivity Readers are going to be, by definition, quite sensitive souls – there would be no point employing someone who isn’t offended by anything to do that job I imagine. They are probably going to find all manner of things offensive that the rest of us would overlook, which I might suggest is less about protecting the reader as it is reducing us all to the level of the most delicate who are unable to see anything – a word, a phrase, a description – in the context of the wider narrative and instead simply see the bad and the unacceptable. This, I suspect, does little to free the creative writer who might sometimes want to make a wider point or give insight to a character or, yes, simply shock and offend. There’s a lot to be said about the freedom to offend and if you have people examining manuscripts who want to take away that ability, you’re probably going to end up with rather bland writing.

In the case of Dahl, I do at least understand the motives. I even sympathise. This is not exactly new when it comes to children’s fiction. Enid Blyton has had her work rewritten more than once and even Dr Seuss has been found lacking in our newly sensitive world. It’s this that makes me wonder if this is all as much a publicity stunt as anything – no doubt those unexpurgated Dahls are now flying off the shelves at a speed unseen since the movie versions came out. If it really is about preventing offence and stopping children from using those offending words as insults, then I can only assume no one involved has ever met a child. We’ve seen all this before – a once-normal word takes on a negative meaning and becomes the stuff of playground insult and so that word is removed from use. the problem is that kids are very good at quickly picking up on the new word and turning that into an insult as well. When the Spastics Society in Britain changed its name to Scope, kids were quick to use ‘scoper’ as a new insult. The idea that changing ‘fat’ to ‘enormous’ will stop obese kids being mocked is astonishingly naive. Joey Deacon’s appearance on Blue Peter did not result in kids admiring his battles against adversity and his struggle with cerebral palsy in the way that was intended – it simply made ‘joey’ a new playground insult. Children can be horrible little shits with an endless capacity for cruelty.

However, the bigger issue is whether or not we should be retrospectively editing and rewriting work based on current sensibilities. It’s something fraught with dangers, especially now, where cultural mores shift so quickly and today’s new ‘polite’ word might be tomorrow’s forbidden term of abuse. As much as we might be annoyed by living artists tinkering with their work, at least they are the original creators*. Having the work of artists interfered with years after they died feels very different and unsettling. Yes, times change, but shouldn’t we simply allow existing works to exist as examples of what was once considered acceptable but is now too much? I’m not suggesting that we ignore the sins of the past – quite the opposite. It seems that retro TV channels like Talking Pictures have the right idea with the pre-broadcast warning that this film from the 1950s – or even 1990s – might not reflect current sensibilities in its dialogue or narrative and so should be approached with caution. We could easily do that with books – an introductory warning that contextualises everything might even create talking points between children and their parents about why the book used certain words in certain places and how that might or might not be OK today. We could give these stories historical context and meaning, leading to a wider understanding of the past and the events that made things what they are now from what they were then. Having the modern-day literary censors insensitively putting their blue pencil through old text without even thinking about what that text means or imposing their own worldview on a writer’s work – and enough authors across the board are complaining about this now to suggest that this is what is happening a lot of the time – does not seem like a step forward.


* Even this is questionable with filmmakers, even if we leave aside the collaborative nature of the medium – George Lucas might have had the right to tinker with the first Star Wars film as its director, but the next two that he didn’t direct are a more ambiguous case.

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  1. I know this wasn’t the point of your article but thanks for the paragraph about “Children can be horrible little shits with an endless capacity for cruelty.” Whenever we hear about kids doing something horrible (particularly teenage boys to girls) people are quick to blame film, TV, porn and social media, and as someone who was bullied in school because I was the only one who was well behaved (something i’m proud of, also i have aspergers) all I can think is no, the reason boys are doing awful/criminal things thing’s to girls is because kids are just horrible narcissists who really get off on causing pain to others, and don’t think girls are angels there just as bad. I do tend to wonder if the reason people keep blaming everything but the kids is because the ones doing the blaming were also the ones who didn’t get bullied and therefore doing the bullying and have no understanding they were the very attitude there trying to fight against?

    1. I think you have a point. The ones who get into those positions of power where they can blame other people were probably the bullies who took no responsibility for their own actions.

  2. I agree with everything you say. Even if we are to judge people from the past, how are we supposed to do so if we remove all evidence of what they thought or how they acted?

  3. I think of it this way: if we were really making progress, there’d be no need to censor anything. We’d all be nourished spiritually, intellectually and emotionally to the point where we’d laugh off silly words, which cannot hurt us, unless Dastard Magicians work some voodoo that turns them from mere emissions of air or symbols on a page into needling instruments of torment – and this involves much warping of the social fabric. I do think Lenny Bruce had a point – he might have been utopian in his thinking but why’s that become so noxious? I mean the alternative is to blithely accept we’re gonna shovel shit in a near-hell til we drop. To hell with damnation. Apart from this censoring shit being a cynical ploy, to get us inmates of yay or nay persuasion into a highly-aroused state of anxiety (Dr Pavlov, your work is done …), it represents the coalition of cynicism and stupidity that defines the internment-net. Everything is a gimmick in a Total-Marketing environment, a total-marketplace. The new Joy Division box (£400!!! With ‘free’ tat, vegan goatskin manuscript (‘… and ye, on the second twilight of …’ etc.) and red cloak incl.) is to be called ‘Leaders In The Marketplace’, the title rendered in Germanic script. Personally, I love Roald Dahl, and was unaware of any controversy, though I heard third hand there was a recent fuss about something or other in the books, i took this to be clickbaity shite dreamed up by tabloid(and tabloidesque) hacks like Jeremy Vine, and in this case I think I was right. I love how all these sensitive souls seem so unconcerned by sundry raging wars, preferring to direct their energies onto more pressing matters, like decades old books. Oh, of course, ‘they’ are in fact figments from a lamebrain’s ‘mind’. THIS may well be the ‘nightmare from a damaged brain’. I shouldn’t reach so readily for vulgarity, but from me, they can all go fuck themselves, whether they be real or imaginary. It’s small wonder GFY has become such a mantra. There’s almost no other adequate response! ‘Kindle’ means book burning, right? Just to stoke that paranoia fire! A ‘bodysnatchers’ shriek when the forbidden words are heard? We need a new Johnny Ray, tears flowing, singing ‘Sugar Baby Love’. At least the Cowsills’ ‘Largo Nights’ is great!

  4. had this thought today: previous history was necessarily subject to interpretation. From 21st c on, there’s so much documentation, interpretation might go under, unnecessary or impossible. Yet i feel like every moment is like a budding blossom that reveals a tree, with labyrinthine root network, even in these days of millions of pics. The truth like a receding horizon … i figure thats where power makes a stand and puts up fences, expedience, ‘this is what we have decided is what’s good for you’. Sorry, I’ve gone off on a tangent. It’s a bit groovy, feel like a sci-fi crusoe, putting messages in a bottle and watchin em float off … maybe somebody in a bunker in fifty years might read this, or a martian, who knows? Or whoever is running the experiment. If it’s my future self, I’m yawning.

  5. Dahl once ran into the back of my car on the A40 near London in the mid 80s. He was a most unpleasant person from the experience I had with him. However I see no value in retrospectively going back to literature that was written many years ago and changing things to make them more palatable to some peoples current views. And why Dahl? Why not go the whole hog and blue pencil Chaucer plenty of references to fat and ugly in the Canterbury Tales, Plenty in Shakespeare that would need changing.

    1. Dahl is very heavily marketed to kids and families, that’s why. There’s a lot of cringey sub-Disney merchandise with his name on it. But as far as I am aware, this is an odd decision on the publisher’s part, not due to external pressures If there’s a large mob of parents and teachers clamoring for safer versions of this books, they’ve sure kept quiet.

    1. This is the sort of compromise that might have been sensible from the start. Though of course, it also lends fuel to the idea that the whole thing was a publicity stunt.

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