The work of Roald Dahl has been subjected to revision via “sensitivity reading.” The publisher, Puffin, made changes ensuring that his work would “continue to be enjoyed by all today.” An example of these changes, like those applied to his novel Matilda (1988), eliminated references to Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad (but perhaps surprisingly left a reference to Ernest Hemingway), because those writers are regarded as problematic in certain circles.
Supporters of sensitivity reading, dissatisfied with the idea that if one doesn’t like a book, one doesn’t have to read it, claim the move is necessary to prevent potentially harmful ideas from spreading. The decision by the publisher to apply this treatment to Dahl, who began writing children’s books in the 1960s, might be among the first time it has been applied after the fact. Ostensibly, the publishing industry is driven to change history for the better, at least in their view.
Detractors claim that the move is not only outright censorship, but vandalism. Reactions warn of a dangerous precedent, that it could sanitize history and further limit the free expression of artists. Calls are ringing out in the digital sphere to purchase copies of beloved books before they’re given the treatment, which might bolster sales in the short-term. Ultimately, however, book publishing may not be able to withstand the pressure brought by competition from more popular forms of content, and the rise of AI writing.
Sensitivity reading is another salvo in the culture wars, but faced with dwindling sales, the publishing industry has had to make adjustments. Few people read books, but far more claim that they do, and as such they wander into bookstores, or more likely log into their Amazon accounts, and make purchases. The people most likely to make these purchases are the upper-middle class, possessed of seemingly delicate sensibilities, who wince at the prospect of having to say the word “fat” to their child, or explain who Rudyard Kipling is. Sensitivity readers fill the gap on the supply side.
Legions of Bachelor of Arts recipients, freshly graduated, in debt, and unable or unwilling to work a 9-5, find themselves faced with a diminishing array of choices. If they possess qualifications (which are ambiguous), and are the right identity, they can peddle their sensitivity services in exchange for payment. This is standard operating procedure in market capitalism. Cultural sensibilities change like the weather, but the relentless quest for material security is the air we breathe.
—Follow Ryan Neely on Twitter: @ofvalleypeople