Sensitivity Readers

When Roald Dahl married the actress Patricia Neal, he was so little known that the headline in the local paper about their wedding was ‘Patricia Neal marries writer.’ Gradually his fame grew and his name became associated with gripping/gruesome yarns for children that still have the power to entertain the modern child.

As his reputation as a writer grew, so did his reputation for selfishness, misogyny (especially in relation to his wife), and antisemitism. But his characters – especially the fat, ugly, mean, horrid, cruel, and all-round nasty ones – seemed to rise above the general condemnation of the author’s own character, and lead a life of glorious imperfection in the minds of his readers.

Then came the sensitivity readers. I have discussed them before in relation to Kate Clanchy, the poet who wrote about the children she had taught poetry to and won a prize for this memoir. A couple of years later, she found her publisher had bowed to pressure from a couple of complainers about her work by submitting it to three sensitivity readers before agreeing to re-publish it. As the sensitivity readers couldn’t even agree among themselves what counted as racist, cultural appropriation etc, Ms Clanchy sensibly changed publishers.

In regard to Mr Dahl, the recent outcry about his work being ‘censored’ has been even more vocal – from the Queen (apparently) down. I understand that the publishers have swiftly back-pedalled, and his work will be re-published as he wrote it, alongside a ‘sensitively edited’ version; so buyers can choose which they prefer.

I do have a smidgen of sympathy for the concept of a sensitivity reader, at least in regard to new books. ‘Classics’ from previous decades may remain untouched with, if necessary, a forward explaining the context in which they were written, and that some words used, or incidents described, are now deemed racist, homophobic etc. As Philip Pullman said, in regard to the row about Dahl, we should leave the books as he wrote them – and if readers (or their parents) don’t like them, they won’t buy them. After all, there’s plenty of other books out there to choose from.

People writing now on what might be deemed ‘sensitive’ issues may want to pick their battles and avoid gratuitous offence. It is possible to convey historic behaviour and language – references to women, race or different sexual orientations, for example – as being different from now, without repeated use of offensive terms. Most writers succeed in this, albeit it sometimes takes a fellow writer to give a nudge in the right direction. I once read a manuscript for a friend and said I felt the repeated use of a stereotypical term every time a certain character appeared on the page was likely to alienate his intended readers.

On a different occasion another friend advised me to remove a substantial amount of the swearing from one of my ‘gritty’ novels (Girl Friends, now re-published as Saving Grace). Apart from anything else, she said, it all becomes a bit boring. Removing all but a few expletives certainly reduced the wordcount – and probably made it more acceptable to my American publisher at the time. And there was plenty else in the book to make it clear that the main characters were not brought up in a nunnery.

However, there is a real danger that a writer will self-censor to avoid being over-ruled by an over cautious publisher, or a zealous sensitivity reader. Worse, they may avoid contentious issues all together. Which would be much worse for readers and the literary world than the occasional inopportune adjective.

Links to my books and social media – including Saving Grace.

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Saving Grace. What kind of trouble has Grace got herself into? And can Courtney save her before it is too late? £6.99, e-book £1.99. Free on Kindle Unlimited.