We need to talk about Roald Dahl and sensitivity readers

A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look levely.

COMMENT: The outrage over the changes to the Roald Dahl books has been blown out of proportion. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions of corporate ownership of work, moral double standards, and the power to censor.

Thanks a lot mate. Here I am trying to catch up with the various shit-shows hitting the arts and now what happens? Everybody’s up in arms about Roald Dahl’s books being given the sensitivity reader treatment. And since one of the principal tenets of this blogs is being anti-censorship and pro-artistic freedom, I need to weigh into this, as this is a censorship issue.

Like many censorship debates, a lot of the commentary is misleading. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a full rewrite of beloved classic works to appease the wokie feminazis, or a long-overdue reform to make the works relevant to a modern audience. Al is usually the case, the truth somewhere in between – and a lot more boring. What it has done, however, is lift a lid on just how much power publishers have. They might not have done anything particularly dramatic, but they could go a lot further if they wanted. And there don’t seem to be any checks or balances.

None of what I’m saying is intended to be a dig as Roald Dahl’s literary estate. I don’t know who’s responsible for the thumbs up or thumbs down, but to date they seem to have a pretty relaxed attitude to adaptations of the books. They have ranged from very faithful depictions to major retellings, and the various visions on screen and stage have ranged from excellent to abominable to just weird. That’s okay: the great ones live on in memory, the terrible ones are forgotten, and nobody is ever put off the books. This, however, is complicated by rights recently being acquired by Netflix. It’s not clear if Netflix has any powers or influence that they didn’t have previously, but it would explain a few things if they have. I will return to this later.

And before we start: yes, I am fully aware of Roald Dahl’s “interesting” opinions on Jewish people. I might have discussed this if I thought it was relevant to the debate; however, my principle of separating art from artist applies here. Nothing in his children’s books has been flagged as veiled antisemitism; off-hand, the only thing I think might have any connection is towards the end of his wartime biography Going Solo (and even then, my opinion is that his anecdote about the future history of Israel and Palestine was entirely valid). There any many times when the author’s politics are inseparable from the work and the two have to be consider together. But this ain’t it.

Right, here we go.

Introducing Thomas Bowlder

First, a history lesson. If you wonder how “Bowdlerisation” is being thrown about, this goes back to the now notorious “Family Shakespeare“. In the early 19th century there was a lot on concern over the corrupting influence the nastier bits of Shakespeare might have on the fragile minds of children – and also, being the 19th century, the fragile minds of women. Thomas and Harriet Bowlder embarked on a project to remove bits of the 37 plays deemed too immoral for a family audience, without affecting the integrity of the plays themselves. It was reasonably popular at the time, and it was only around a century later that things fell out of favour.

The arguments used against the Bowderlised versions are familiar to the arguments used today. The nasty bits of the texts, the Bowdler critics argued, were integral to the story. Take it out, and you undermine the whole play. What are you trying to achieve, in any case. It’s a big bad world out there, any you can’t shelter children from it forever, so let’s uses these stories as way of getting used to it. The Bowdlers’ selective edits were also torn into, with many people arguing this it was just two people imposing their own arbitrary code of morals on the stories. What made their moral judgements better than anyone else’s?

In fairness to the Bowdlers, they did at least make an effort to not muck about with the stories more than they had to. Unlike some of their peers, who cut out whole sections or entire plays, this version largely kept the stories the same. Hamlet is still a bloodbath; it is only the innuendoes that are toned down. The rape in Titonicus Andronicus is still in that story, just some of the more overt references cut. Sometimes, Thomas Bowlder wrote a forward explaining the choices he had to make. It’s not entirely fair to equate The Bowlders with the Puritans or other censorious tyrants.

In a way, Thomas and Harriet were on to a doomed cause. Few playwrights have more protective fans Old Shakey. And, to be honest, I have no idea why you’d want a child-friendly version of Shakespeare anyway. Sorry to fans of the Bardster, but kids under 10 are more likely to be wanting to go back to Mario Kart than pay any attention the language, racy or otherwise. Stories specifically written for children, on the other hand, are a different matter. Few people are nearly so protective about the words of Enid Blyton than they are of Samuel Beckett. And it’s quite normal to expect bad things in books for younger children to be unambiguously condemned, whilst adults are given more leeway to understand for themselves what’s good and bad.

So, is the derogatory term of “Bowdlerisation” a fair description of this exercise with the Roald Dahl books? Well, yes and no. Here’s why.

The changes are not censorship – just incredibly petty

Let’s get straight to it: the panic over the changes is massively overblown. The Telegraph who broke this story summed it up as “Augustus Gloop is no longer fat and the Oompa-Loompas have gone gender-neutral.” Like many sensationalist stories from newspapers that pander to preconceptions (and the Telegraph is one of the worse offenders), nothing is outright false in the statement, but the facts are cherry-picked so heavily it’s misleading – in all probability, on purpose.

I have been through the list of edits, and I can tell you that nothing of substance has been changed. There are some artistic arguments that the changes make the stories weaker, but only small details. Certainly minor compared to the scale necessitated by any stage or screen adaptation. For anyone worrying about the nastiness of Roald Dahl being removed: don’t worry. There were still numerous children kidnapped by the BFG prior to Sophie who got eaten, George still gets off scot-free with the poisoning and murder of a defenceless old lady, the authorities callously abandoned a ostracised couple immobilised in their home until they die. Enjoy that to your heart’s content, kids.

Specifically addressing the clickbait claims: the Oompa-Loompas have not all turned gender neutral, and do not announced to Charlie their preferred pronouns are they/them. What this is referring to is the sentence “So I shipped them all over here – every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe” changing to “So, they all agreed to come over – each and every Oompa-Loompa”. If you want to dunk on Puffin for the need to be inclusive to the non-binary Oompa-Loompas, go ahead, but to claim that makes the Oopma-Loompas gender-neutral is dishonest.

Similarly, Augustus Gloop is still fat. As all Roald Dahl fans know, it is pretty essential to the story that Augustus Gloop is the size he is, because his sticky end doesn’t work without. But the change the Telegraph refers to is “A nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump” becoming “A nine-year-old boy who was so enormous he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump”. So, in other words, “enormously fat” has been replaced with “enormous”, with all the insinuations of fatness still there. Again “no longer fat” is dishonest.

But, here’s the rub: changing “every man, woman and child” to “each and every Oopma-Loompa” and “enormously fat” to “enormous” are typical examples of the edits. In which case – what is the point of any of this? I’ll concede that Roald Dahl’s depiction of Augustus Gloop, and the insinuation you’re fat because you eat too much chocolate, may well be hurtful for children who are overweight in real life. But how is “enormous” any less hurtful than “enormously fat”? What was that supposed to achieve?

One particularly bizarre edit come from The Twits. One passage which has been praised through the generations for promoting love and tolerance is: “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” They’ve now removed “double chin”. Sorry, what? Are double chins now in a different league to wonky noses and stick-out teeth? Is tell people to be nice to someone with a double chin now fat shaming? Help me out here.

But that’s enough of that. We can’t go on for ever going through these petty edits. I could go on forever taking the the piss but I shall be restrained. What I will say is that teh edits as a whole smack of performative solidarity. I notice there a lot of removals of words such as “mad” and “crazy”, which I suppose is meant to be more inclusive to the neurodiverse community, but this is a long-standing myth. I can’t speak on behalf of any other minorities, but the presumptive attitude taken with people like me doesn’t fill me with confidence they’ve listened to anybody else.

The other side of the coin is what hasn’t been edited. As I already pointed out, if you have a problem with the fat shaming in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the new version isn’t any better. But of course they’re not going to change Agustus Gloop. Not unless Puffin wants sales of the new edition to collapse. I could also point out that Esio Trot is basically a man taking sexual advantage of his vulnerable neighbour by kidnapping her pet and endangering its life. Perhaps Puffin should stop selling that book. But then they wouldn’t get any more cash for that title. Inclusivity, it seems, takes a back seat to money.

The Bowlders did at least attempt to explain their decisions over sanitised Shakespeare, but there’s little explanation here. Puffin says: “This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” In which case: I must ask the question: who has been included? I am not a mind-reader, but I cannot understand see how any child of any race, gender or sexuality is going to feel any more included then they were before. And I have to say, the target audience for these changes does seem to be adults, particularly very online adults tapping into the latest fashions on how to be offended.

Now, Puffin might have some very good reasons to justify their actions. I reckon they’re unilaterally deciding what’s offensive, but perhaps they have some proper data to back up their claims. If so, I’d be perfectly happy to see it and I’ll keep an open mind. Until then, however, I’m calling bullshit. They haven’t ruined the stories, but they haven’t made them more inclusive either. All they’ve done is earn goody points with people who approve of this sort of thing. And my hunch, I’m afraid to say, is that this was their intention all along.

The sensitivity reading process is deeply flawed

At this point, it may look like I’m laying into sensitivity readers. Actually, I don’t think they’re to blame for this. When there are fiascos such as this one, I believe the fault lies with the wider system.

Those of you who’ve followed my blog will know my reasons for being cynical when X says “You can’t say Y, it’s offensive to Z.” This is because I know that half the time, X neither knows nor cares what Z really thinks about Y. It really pisses me off when people demand you remove words such as “idiot” or “crazy” or “sanity check” because it offends neurodiverse people. I remember from my passport office days when East Asian employees expressed surprise that some white dudes said they were offended by the word “Oriental”, and deaf employees objected to being described as “sensory impaired”. The complaints were, of course, dismissed by a leadership who knew what’s best for us.**

*: That’s bullshit. I am not offended by any of those words, nor is anybody I know. I am far more offended that people are talking over us and expect to be congratulated for doing us a favour.

**: Also, fun fact: They still hounded me out when they found out I was autistic. Inclusive and tolerant working environment my arse.

Does this practice of talking over minorities happen here? In theory, it shouldn’t. As I understand it, the principle is that sensitivity readers give their honest opinion on whether they personally think there’s going to be a proper, based on their own experience as a member of the group concerned. If your book is set in South America, ask somebody from South America. Is a play is about a disability? Get the opinion of someone with that disability. The problem is that this assumes the person you’ve chosen is representative of everybody in that minority. Unfortunately, real life does not work like that, and contrary to what some people would have you believe, minorities are not monoliths and people don’t all think the same and get offended the same.

Publishers and producers know this. But it is far too easy to game the system to get what you want. Now, I could write at length about all the ways people in power talk over minorities and get away with it – and one day I probably will – but that would be too much of a digression. What I will say is that if you’ve already decided what’s offensive, it’s pretty easy to cherry-pick a sensitivity reader to validate your own opinion. To be fair, sensitivity reading isn’t an exact science, and there’s no straightforward way of telling whether one person’s opinion reflects widespread consensus or an outlier. But even when there is proper data, it gets ignored when it’s not convenient. I’ve seen proper opinion polls where minorities have been asked if they have are actually offended by something – sometimes it’s yes, sometimes it’s no. But you won’t believe the lengths some people go to reinterpret the results to the opposite meaning. And if they can’t, they just ignore it.

The other side of the coin is that even when people do have genuine grievances, often nothing happens. I’ve read complaints of this nature from script readers themselves. Yes, you can’t concede to every complaint; nothing would be published if you did, everything is offensive to somebody. But there seems to be some arbitrary double standards as to who gets their way and who doesn’t. The example I have in mind is the 2019 Christmas special of Call the Midwife, set in the Outer Hebrides. I heard a lot of complaints over the depictions of Hebrideans as backward authoritarian religious fundamentalists, who won’t sail boat on the Sabbath to tend to a woman giving birth. Everybody shrugged, and the complaints were quietly brushed aside. I’ve also heard counter-arguments that the depiction was accurate, so perhaps there was room for nuance in this debate. But would the complaints have been disregarded so casually if the same depiction was applied to Jewish, Islamic or Hindu conservatives? I’m not convinced they would.

And don’t get me started on Hershel Fink. That was as blatant a double standard as you can get. Rare Earth Mettle has an evil greedy character based on Elon Musk, who was going to Mexican-born, until the sensitivity readers felt that might be offensive to Mexicans. So they made him Jewish instead. It would have been bad enough if no-one had noticed the obvious problem, but it was worse: the problem was noticed, raised, and completely ignored. Now, to be fair, when the Royal Court realised very belatedly how badly they’d screwed up, they went to great lengths to make amends. But the fact it went unchallenged for so long is absolutely shocking. There can be few more damning indictments of a double standard as that one.

As I see it, the root problem is exactly the same as the root problem of Family Shakespeare and other forms of Bowlderisation: bias. The Bowlders were accused of applying their own biases to what was okay and what had to go, and 200 years later this doesn’t seem to have changed. The power to censor does not lie in the hands of tyrannical sensitivity readers or easily-offended minorites, but the people in charge. They get to decide who gets their way, and whose objections aren’t worth listening to. The controversial edits Roald Dahl make little sense in their stated objective of more tolerance and inclusivity. Look at it in the context of pleasing the moral sensibilities and biases of the people in charge of sensitivity reading, and it makes a lot more sense.

I don’t like making these criticisms – sensitivity reading performs a useful job if done properly and doesn’t deserve to be pushed to the front line of the culture wars. I’m aware that anything critical I say is liable to be picked up by the anti-woke crowd only want point-scoring against the NPC cuck snowflakes. It might be that most sensitivity reading goes on quietly in the background and works fine. But it’s crap like these cases that gets noticed and gives the entire profession a bad name. There’s a lot of work to do to regain trust.

As for how you regain trust – well, that’s the hard bit. I’ll make some suggestions later.

Questions need asking about the powers of publishers

There is one important point to make in defence of Thomas and Harriet Bowlder: they didn’t try to stop anyone reading the original Shakespeare texts. And even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. But that pre-dated copyright laws. Nowadays, it’s not so simple. And the fiasco has shone a light on the power of publishers.

As I said, those stupid edits to the Roald Dahl books are far too petty to constitute censorship. Contrary to what the Telegraph instantiated, Puffin has not shoehorned new woke sub-plots or removed sections decreed problematic. But what if they had? What if they’d dug their heels in and withdrawn the originals from sale? If there anything to stop them pulling that kind of stunt? Possibly not.

There is a attitude problem amongst many publishers that copyright laws are written for their benefit. That is not the case – the whole point of the Berne Convention, the basis of modern copyright law, is the they protects the rights of authors to earn money from their own work. That doesn’t stop sheet music publishers claiming copyright over centuries-old music by changing one note and calling it an arrangement (and bleating unfairness when someone photocopies the copyright-free originals); and whilst they are most blatant offenders, I suspect other publishers have a similar attitude problem claiming moral ownership over things that aren’t theirs.

Don’t get me wrong. Publishers are businesses, sometimes changes are necessary to stay in business. If a crime fiction is let down by lazy stereotypes of women, the publisher might ask for changes so it sells. Sometimes changes are also necessary after publication too; it would be commercial suicide to continue publishing And Then There Were None under the original title (if you don’t know, look that up at your own risk). Most of the time these changes are agreed with the author or, after the author’s death, the author’s estate. So far there’s enough checks and balances to keep everyone happy.

The problem arises when you start making changes that aren’t to do with money or sales. It seems (well, it’s bleeding obvious) that the people authorising these stupid edits to Dahl knew perfectly well it wouldn’t sell any better; merely that they considered the moral judgements better than the author’s. In theory, the author’s estate is supposed to be representing the author’s wishes, but I suspect they’re easily leaned on.

As you may have guessed, I am strongly of the opinion that copyright law should NOT be used as a tool for moral gatekeeping – and I mostly definitely don’t see why that privilege should go to publishers. I suppose you might have a stronger case if old text has fallen out of favour with popular opinion – but who’s to say that popular opinion is right? Who, for instance, wants to bet on public opinion in the transgender culture wars going their way? And if publishers go the whole hog and withdraw the sale of original books and ban performances of the original plays and prohibit screening of the unedited films, we’ve got a censorship problem.

In balance, it is highly unlikely Puffin could have pulled that sort of stunt on Roald Dahl and got a away with it. His books are too popular, and even the relatively minor edits were torn to shreds by fans, which is why Puffin’s been forced to make this concession of the “classic” editions. Most authors don’t have this safeguard though. Most works are a tiny entries in the IP lists of big media conglomerates. I wouldn’t be surprised if mildly controversial texts get expurgated not to improve sales – if fact, sales can collapse for all they care – but to improve the image of their brand. And, for all I know, this might already be happening. I’m thinking of Netflix here: what’s it to them if dozens of stories are extinguished if it makes them look good?

So, what can we do to stop this? I’m coming to the view that copyright law outside the author’s lifetime needs to be reformed, to the principle of “use it or lose it”. If you own the rights and you’re making money from the work, you are welcome to carry on doing so after the author’s death – after all, that’s what you paid for. But if you won’t, you forfeit your rights. The work goes to public domain early, and anybody who wants it can have it. And in the case of modifications, you have a choice: either carry on selling the unaltered versions to anyone who wants it, you relinquish your rights over the originals. You are free to claim copyright on your modifications, and we’ll find out one way or the other what people want.

This is an idea, not a finalised proposal; there’s still a lot of details to work out. Exactly how big do changes have to be to trigger this rule? Would Puffin be obliged to publish the originals as physical, or would a PDF e-book be acceptable? What if the owners of Breakfast at Tiffany’s decide to cut the bits with Mr. Yunioshi? (Again, look that up at your own risk.) Do the originals become a free-for-all? But I’m increasingly thinking that whatever we work out is better than layers of unaccountable corporate censors.

I’ve one final thing to consider before moving on. There’s one other thing that might keep Puritanical publishers in check, and that’s bootlegging. Normally, there are three things that stand in the way of a trade in bootlegged books: the convenience of buying the real thing, the moral argument to respect copyright, and actual law enforcement. Let’s imagine Puffin had gone the whole hog with expurgation. All of a sudden, a lot of people would have lost any qualms copyright (“we’re supporting the author by reading the original text”), and made the extra effort to get their version they want. Meanwhile – I suspect – the bootleg trade would balloon and overwhelms the publisher’s lawyers. That must surely function as a deterrent; for once, the bootleggers may be doing artists a favour.

But Roald Dahl should be a wake-up call. If you’re happy to entrust publishers as moral guardians of society, with accountability or scrutiny, you will regret it later.

How sensitivity reading could work better

So, two thirds of the way through writing thing, Puffin backed down and said they would also be releasing the “classic” editions of Roald Dahl without the edits. That’s I think, was the right decision – let parents decide for themselves what’s best for their children. If you really think the edits are needed buy the edited book, but nobody is stopped from buying the original. Had this been announced from the outset there would have been much less argument. (Unless, of course, it was a cunning ploy by Puffin to publicise the books. In which case, well done, you got us.)

Seriously, however, I do think sensitivity reading has a lot of uses. Should I write a play that’s going to be seen by a large number of people and it covers subjects I’m not too familiar with, I’d want to be sure I’ve got it right. I might be controversial or combative, but I’d still appreciate a heads-up if I’m going to cause offence in a way I haven’t thought of. But then you get crap like this and it undermines confidence in the whole process.

I don’t know much about sensitivity readers other than what I’ve read up on in the last few days, but her are my suggestions for what could restore confidence. This is for more for the people who make decision based on sensitivity reading, rather than the sensitivity readers themselves,

  • Work with authors, not against them: If you are warning authors they are walking into a minefield they haven’t thought of, you are doing them a favour. If a story is let down by stereotypes of rural communities, the story will be better if this is dressed. Wherever possible, present feedback as an opportunity for better writing, not hectoring and lecturing. An author who listens is worth ten dragged kicking and screaming.
  • Remember that depiction is not endorsement: I shouldn’t need to say this, but please stop treating readers like idiots. People can say bad things or do bad things in a book and readers will understand it’s bad. Nobody reads the racist language in To Kill a Mockingbird and becomes a racist – and if you remove the racism, that defeats the object of the book. Please use some common sense here. (Note: if the book is endorsing racist language or anything else, this is a different matter completely. Go ahead and do your worst.)
  • Don’t get offended on behalf of other people: Respect the agency of others. The big problem with the edits to Roald Dahl is that it smacked of meddling by a group of people who’s already decided what they wanted, with zero interest in what anyone affected actually thought. If most people within a minority don’t have a problem with someone you consider objectionable, you have no business telling them they should.
  • Recognise minorities are not monoliths: It’s not always easy to tell whether one person’s opinion is reflective of consensus amongst a minority or an outlier – but where possible, make the effort to check. Are resist the temptation to just go with one person’s opinion just because you heard what you wanted to hear. For sensitivity readers: you probably have a pretty good idea what’s only offensive to you personally and what’s going to a cause a widespread offence. Be honest about which is which.
  • Be fair: Are you really removing the biases of an author, or are are you simply imposing your own? Are you unilaterally deciding which complaints are and aren’t worth your attention? Is your first reaction to complaints against the works of your favourite artists to dismiss the complaints as invalid? The people who do thing probably too far gone to change their ways, but you can do your bit by scrutinising what you’re doing. If your latest decision consistent with previous decisions? Are you following your own precedents even when it doesn’t give you the answer you want? If you can’t, you’re in the wrong job.
  • Be realistic – you can’t catch everything: A successful book might be read by hundreds of thousands of people, all with their own opinions, outlooks, and life experiences. Somebody is bound to take exception to a work (or play, or film) in a way you hadn’t thought of. You can only reduce offence, not eliminate it. Don’t waste time trying to achieve the impossible.
  • Be realistic – something offence is unavoidable: The thing I think we could all do better on is recognising the difference between unavoidable offence and needless offence. It is never advisable to cause offence when you don’t have to, but sometimes it’s inevitable that people are going to get upset by what the author has to say. Gone Girl upset a lot of people that the main female character was manipulate and made false claims of rape – that’s understandable. But if you change that, it would be a different story (and not a bestseller). It’s at times like these you may have to remind customers that you don’t have to read a book (or see a play or watch a film) if you don’t want to.
  • Understand that “offensive” does not mean “harmful”: There is one obvious exception to the rule of “if you don’t like it, don’t read it”: where it’s actively harmful. To pick an extreme example: nobody had to read Mein Kampf, but that wasn’t much consolation to those on the receiving end. Inevitably, however, people use the excuse that something does harm just because they personally disapprove. The Roald Dahl edits were no exception, as defenders kept coming up with hypothetical examples of what harm the unedited text might cause, all of which were just shit. Always asks yourself: “What harm does this actually do?” If the answer’s “nothing”, you might suggest it’s not appropriate for this book, or this publisher – but you have no grounds to say it shouldn’t be allowed.
  • Be prepared to politely disagree: Sometimes it’s impossibly to please everybody. Try writing a nuanced and balanced story about, say, Israel and Palestine and see what happens. There are inevitably going to be times when some people take genuine offence to something, but it needs to stay in. You might not like that – I know some people are firmly of the view that if somebody’s offended, you can’t say it – but the alternative is worse. People who dogmatically claim they don’t offend invariably end up accusing people that they’re offence is fabricated and it’s not valid and they’re the real bigots the moment someone raises an inconvenient objection. Acknowledge complaints thoughtfully and respectfully, but there are times where you can only respond that this is not the book/play/film for them.
  • Sometimes legitimately objectionable content is best left in: (Hats off to Louisa Britain for this observation.) One things that is frequently raised is the portrayal of Fagin using anti-Jewish stereotypes – and, it appears, that is what Charles Dickens intended. But Jews were excluded and vilified in Victorian London, and a Jewish man could easily have ended up running a begging ring because he was left with no other option. Adaptations have their own spin on this, but you can’t erase the antisemitism with erasing the nuance that accompanies. There are times when it’s better to just let people read it as it was an understand the context of why it was written.
  • And finally, if it’s a classic text – be open and transparent: I’ll concede that it’s not practical to give the inner workings of sensitivity reading every time a new book comes to print, but if it’s an existing work – we deserve to know what you’re doing. This might vary depending on who your target audience is and what you’re trying to achieve, but explain it no matter what. If you have sound reasoning, you should have nothing to fear; but if you can’t justify your cuts without your arguments being torn to pieces in public, that’s a warning that maybe you shouldn’t be cutting that. Suffice to say I can’t believe the stupid edits to Roald Dahl would have seen the light of day if the people making the decisions had to explain them. By all means prove me wrong and show me your working, but I’m not holding my breath.

Most of all, I think that sensitivity readers – and the people responsible for acting on their feedback – have to recognise they are providing a service to authors and publishers. And publishers in turn are responsible to authors and customers if they want to run a business. It is not the job of either sensitivity readers or publishers to impose their own moral codes on society. Editing out objectionable content can be valid if there’s a good reason – but a moral crusade never is. Making books more sellable and more accessible might be a good reason, but the edits to Roald Dahl ain’t it. And if you don’t stand up to things like that, people lose confidence in the whole system.

Alternatively, if you think I’m wrong and you have a duty to impose your values and make the world a better place, keep on doing what you’re doing. But expect the same derision given the Purtians, Thomas Bolwder, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and every other petty censorious moraliser in history. You’ll have no-one to blame but yourselves for the pushback.

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