Why did “sensitivity readers” revise Roald Dahl’s books?

Rold Dahl delighted in making readers squirm. His books for children, most of them written between 1961 and 1990, are mischievous, often with an edge of cruelty. Yet this month the Daily Telegraphrevealed, a British newspaper, that hundreds of words and phrases had been altered or removed in the latest British editions of many of Dahl’s books. In the revised “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, for instance, published by Puffin, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop is not “enormously fat” but merely “enormous”. In “The Witches” a sorceress no longer hides among humankind posing as “a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman”. Instead, she is “working as a top scientist or running a business”. The changes were made on the advice of “sensitivity readers” hired by Puffin. Who are they, and why do publishers hire them?

Publishers hire sensitivity readers to offer an extra layer of editorial oversight, usually before a book is published. Their individual areas of expertise usually match their own identities or experiences—a given ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation, say—which, publishers hope, makes them best qualified to spot troublesome phrasing. This might include clichéd or demeaning descriptions of groups seen as “marginalized”: mockery of their speech patterns, for example, or a gratuitous emphasis on the color of their skin.

Sensitivity readers have generally been employed to check children’s and young-adult fiction. But recent controversies have prompted their use for adult fiction, too. Irvine Welsh, a Scottish writer of gritty novels, praised a “trans reader” who had helped him refine a transgender character in “The Long Knives”, published last year. In 2020’s “American Dirt”, a much-hyped novel about a family of immigrants by Jeanine Cummins, was lambasted for its crude depictions of its Mexican characters. Some critics pointed out that its stereotypes could have been picked up if the publisher had hired sensitivity readers with Hispanic heritage. (It still topped the New York Times‘s bestseller list.)

Dahl certainly had prejudices. In 2020 his family apologised for his anti-Semitism (it is not clear whether any of the recent changes relate to this). And this is not the first time that Dahl’s books have been updated. In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964, the Oompa Loompas were black pygmies from the African jungle. In response to criticism, in editions after 1973 Dahl gave them a “rosy-white” skin instead. The new editions remove references to their skin tone altogether. Puffin did not publicize its latest revisions to Dahl’s books. But a note inside the new editions explains: “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.” A statement from the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the rights to the author’s estate, has defended the changes as “small and carefully considered”.

Publisher many see sensitivity readers as just one group among an array of Specialists employed to protect their reputations. But that there is a perceived need for them also reflects a broader problem in places where publishing industries lack a diverse staff. Some critics distinguish between using sensitivity readers to help authors develop realistic characters for new novels, and deploying them to revise classic works. Dahl spent his career ridiculing pride. And, since he died in 1990, he has no opportunity to answer back.

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