Notebook: (2) Sensitivity
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Read Part One of this post here
It was a shock to me to learn that posthumous changes to authors’ work are apparently, as the publishers’ statement in the new Roald Dahl editions indicates, now routine. In an essay for Publishers Weekly that appeared before the Dahl controversy, questioning the role of “sensitivity readers” like the ones behind the Dahl edits, agent Jeffrey Hermann wrote,
sensitivity reads are a recent and potentially powerful layer of scrutiny some books are subjected to. Evidently, they have been in use by some children’s publishers for several years … sensitivity reads can be beneficial for all stakeholders, especially authors. Any manuscript can be potentially infected with inadvertently offensive content that serves no meaningful purpose. For instance, I represent many older backlist titles that possess unacceptable language by current standards but that, when written, seemed innocent. We make an effort to discover and rewrite those segments without distorting the (often deceased) author’s meaning.
However, he goes on to lament that sensitivity readers for living authors can exercise “unilateral power” to demand changes without deliberation. He said of a sensitivity reading of one of his clients’ books: “This person was hired by the publisher, and no information about their qualifications, or who might have reviewed their review, was provided. No appeals or rebuttals were allowed.” He asks, “how are sensitivity readers recruited and what qualifies them? Are their personal views and experiences taken into account? More problematically, how can a person’s feelings qualify as objective or open-minded?”
In a discussion of sensitivity readers publishing observer Jane Friedman quoted sensitivity reader Georgina Kamsika’s observation that “something in a manuscript might not bother her but still be problematic for someone else … ‘You have to say, “This is my experience.”’” The company that worked on the Dahl revisions, a “collective” called “Inclusive Minds,” did not register any such constraints, saying with confidence they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity.” “Any”? I know writers who have been subjected to sensitivity readings at the level of subtlety of the Dahl effort and still struggle with having submitted to them.
The need for “sensitivity readers” in modern publishing has emerged as an antidote to the industry’s failure to hire significant numbers of people who are not white and prestigiously educated, but I am struck by how—outside the sensitivity reading biz—one is usually advised not to expect individual members of oppressed groups to represent the whole. Writers of the present should not have to bear the brunt of publishers’ hiring failures: sensitivity reading in practice seems liable to be an over-compensating and thinly considered penance extracted from writers and literature for sins by management still only faintly recognized or acknowledged. Many major works of the past would not pass a contemporary sensitivity review. I am just now reading one whose name I fear to mention (prefatory to a trip to Florida—take a guess) lest I summon the avenging angel’s red pencil. This uproar should compel publishers to become more accountable for these readings and their outcomes. We should now be told—post Dahl—which works of the dead have been altered and how; and sensitivity readings should be incorporated into a deliberate editorial process, in which editors consider and take institutional responsibility for their recommendations. I do wonder how The Telegraph cottoned on to the Dahl changes, and how long it would otherwise have taken readers to notice what went down.
Our reverence for the sanctity of an author’s language is a feature of our time and an emanation of the copyright regime (which codifies authors as invested in their own work, rather than laborers producing work for others). It’s open season on recasting work in the public domain, as Lincoln Michel and Christian Lorentzen note; Shakespeare was widely rewritten in the nineteenth century, routinely given happy endings and having the unpleasant bits swept out, and is never performed with complete fidelity to the text. Thomas Bowdler’s sanitized volume of Shakespeare stories is the origin of the word “bowdlerize.” As Geoffrey O’Brien reminded me, hardly any children encounter the often horrific tales of Grimm and Andersen and Perrault as written. The wish to preserve something precious about art, especially for children, but modify it to meet contemporary ideas of pedagogy is hardly an invention of “woke-ism.” Perhaps it is an aspect of living in a more diverse society, grounded in political values rather than a common culture, a “marketplace of ideas,” that we recognize a need to honor the truth of what was written in the past as we adapt it to the needs of the present, rather than simply transmogrifying it into the image of one shared culture.
PEN’s Susanne Nossel argued that “better than playing around with these texts is to offer introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read, and helps them understand the setting in which it was written.” It is hard to imagine subjecting eight-year-olds to an introductory text about Dahl’s bigotry and the historical valence of his understanding of social cruelty. Disney puts a warning in front of older movies that contain racial stereotypes, but would this work for Dahl? What menaces in his work is too deeply woven in and subtle. One thinks looking at the changes enumerated in The Telegraph that the editors were less after particular lexical infelicities than an overall emphasis in the way—particularly—women and other-than-Northern-Europeans are portrayed, something the librarians and editors seem also to have flagged in Dahl’s lifetime, but in the end the changes, while disfiguring, did not seem to solve the problem.
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Geoffrey and I talked about how, though we would not ban or revise it, Huckleberry Finn can no longer be taught to young children; its place in the history of race and the language has to be part of how it is read. If we honor the fact that many, many living Americans, including all women, and all descendants of enslaved people and other discriminated-against groups, grew up absorbing culture that was belittling to them, we have to want to alter these circumstances for the children of the present and the future, at the same time respecting the integrity of the canon of art we receive. There is not going to be one simple answer.
It is hard to hold in one’s head a standard with which to judge the Dahl revisions, the purging of books from school libraries, and the wish to redress generations of unequal presence in culture in the way we present it to children. The endurance of harms past in our cultural artefacts is too potent to ignore, but those who resist efforts to shape the culture children receive are not completely wrong in sensing the shadow of propaganda. There are meaningful distinctions between electing not to invest resources in publishing a book, removing it from a library shelf, altering a few words with attribution, deforming an author’s meaning, and banning a book. I think if we are willing to be a society that is both sophisticated and committed to equality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that there is going to be an uncomfortable area around literary work where labor and discernment are inevitable and answers are not straightforward. One can (must) in a classroom recognize that a book can, at once, cause hurt and bring illumination, and not stop there.
To me, you cannot “fix” Roald Dahl’s books by changing a word or two: what is offensive about them cannot be unwound from what they are, which arises from his particular artistic vision, his (sometimes questionable) character, and the history in which he sat. Is it possible that there is some casual, now unacceptable language in some children’s book that we otherwise value that we could elide with a light, justified, acknowledged alteration to the text? Maybe. I would like to see examples. I would also like to see some serious evaluation by serious artists and critics from a variety of backgrounds of the criteria at play in sensitivity readings and decisions like the Seuss estate’s. Is the corporate ass-covering correspondent to the actual cultural need?
With some work and contextualizing, we can, with children, reduce the harms of books that insult or diminish them, but under what circumstances is it worth it? We should be ready to let some things we loved pass away, or pass into a different status—the status of memorabilia perhaps, or personal bibliography—because they no longer suit the lived world. Philip Pullman, maybe not without a touch of rivalry, suggested on Radio 4 that a Dahl backlist to be found in used bookshops, making shelf and promotional space for writers crowded out by the blockbusters, might not be such a bad thing. There were many books my mother loved and handed on to me that were no longer comprehensible to my child. I don’t think that Roald Dahl should be suppressed, but I also don’t think we should be surprised if his work does not remain salient in the same way for children of the future; we should question those who want to deform it in order to continue to reap its commercial reward. Dahl objected to moralizing and sermonizing in literature and his children’s books were a tacit rebuke of such postures. But sermonizing about his own literary sanctity is a related offense. Maybe the experience of books as books is what requires safe harbor; maybe creating a circle of care around books and lived reading—rather the commercial mummification of celebrity authors—is what this situation is asking of us.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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"We should be ready to let some things we loved pass away, or pass into a different status—the status of memorabilia perhaps, or personal bibliography—because they no longer suit the lived world."
This is so smart, and thoughtful as always, Ann, on a complex and divisive topic. I admire that you wade right in! Two things that really jumped out at me here: great point thar lack of diverse (on all levels) hiring in publishing is somehow left out of a conversation about sensitivity readers. Also, yes, as Chris notes here, and you do in your piece, books are of their time and it's foolish to pretend they're not. Kids may be the most honest readers, let's pay attention to them.