Two words have incensed the British right-wing media this past week, catalysing culture-war columnists to momentarily exert themselves to file on time: “sensitivity readers”. These freelance editors, typically hired by publishing companies or writers, were barely known to the average person just a month ago. Now, they’re the centre of the UK news cycle’s orbit.
It started with a Telegraph piece, which revealed that the new editions of British writer Roald Dahl’s children’s books had been edited to remove language that modern readers would consider offensive regarding race, gender, weight, and mental health. For instance, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “enormous” instead of “fat”, whilst the phrase “a weird African language” in The Twits is no longer “weird”.
This prompted quite an outcry. Sir Salman Rushdie, the author of The Midnight's Children, tweeted that the edits were “absurd censorship”. One Telegraph columnist likened it to the “disfigurement of Roald Dahl’s books”. Even the Prime Minister found time to comment: His spokesman said works of fiction should be “preserved and not airbrushed”.
So what’s the point of all this? The changes in Dahl’s works have reignited discussions over whether old literature should be modernised, triggering a backlash against sensitivity readers, who have been accused of enabling cultural censorship. To learn more, VICE spoke to Philippa Willitts, a sensitivity reader who has worked on magazines, blog posts and books to offer specialised proofreading and editing.
VICE: So, you’re a sensitivity reader. What does that mean?
Philippa Willitts: It's a relatively new role that’s grown in recent years, and it's not always a clearly defined position. But I can tell you what I do. A publishing company or an author who is self-publishing might get in touch because they are publishing something that includes issues, themes or characters that are disabled or LGBTQ+ – those are the areas I cover. As a white woman, I’m not going to do anything around race, for example.
I then go through a manuscript and just give feedback. Sometimes it's on whether something seems realistic, but at times it’s if somebody has used language that some people would find offensive. It is not my role to say, “You must say this or not say this”. It is always to provide feedback, and it is always up to whoever hired me to decide whether or not to make a change or not.
Why do you think sensitivity reading has become more popular?
The demand is definitely growing, and more mainstream publishing companies are getting in touch [with me] now. I think authors don't want to publish a book and then find themselves in a Twitter storm, or realise through Amazon reviews that they've gotten something massively wrong. I’m just a more specialised editor, as maybe the editor doesn’t have the background I do.
Are the edits the Telegraph piece states the kinds of changes a sensitivity reader would normally suggest?
I can't be sure about them all. I mean, there were a lot of edits and a lot of changes. Without having been part of that process, it’s very hard to tell.
What did you think of the changes made?
I can't be 100% sure, but from what I saw, most of the changes looked fairly streamlined. They were changes that, if I was rereading the books now, I wouldn't notice. I saw some people saying that some changed the meaning, but I didn't see much of that. Most of what I saw was pretty reasonable.
But, what's happened with Roald Dahl is multifaceted. This is a writer who I read when I was growing up—I'm 45—and it feels like, on the one hand, maybe let some other children’s writers thrive. Maybe we don't need to necessarily keep refreshing the old walls. But because of the massive names like Dahl, it's really hard for them to get through.
“I think a lot of the changes, rather than any kind of censorship conspiracy, are changing things that would otherwise take a modern child out of the story.” —Philippa Willitts
But also, I think a lot of the changes that I saw were things that if a child now read the original words now, they would really stand out in a way that didn’t to me in the 80s. I think children are a lot savvier now and would pick up on, “Why are they saying that a girl has to be a secretary?" I think a lot of the changes, rather than any kind of censorship conspiracy, are changing things that would otherwise take a modern child out of the story. The wider question is, this is an author whose family have apologised for his antisemitism. Is this really somebody we still want to be centering in children's literature?
Sensitivity readers are often thought of as a left-wing/ progressive thing. Is that necessarily the case?
I think yes, but that's not a bad thing. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that sensitivity reading is limiting what authors can say. And I can only speak for how I work, but I only ever work on books I've been asked to work on. It usually comes from the author who will say, “I want to make sure this character is right”, or, “I want to make sure in this nonfiction book that I covered this issue appropriately”. It's not something I've seen being imposed on authors. It's something that authors or editors are requesting, because they want characters to be really authentic and because they don't want to inadvertently really upset people. And so the idea that it’s any kind of authoritarian tool doesn’t match with the way I work or the people who commissioned me.
Why would the Dahl publishers decide to make these changes in your opinion?
Maybe they were anticipating that somebody would read those books with modern eyes and think “that's outrageous” and wanted to pick up on those issues first. But it may be more cynical than that. The brand is massive after all, and no doubt the publishers do very well out of it, so it may be a commercial choice. But I like to think that it’s that they didn't want modern-day eyes to think this is really irrelevant.