Sensitivity readers, professionals hired by authors for the purpose of pointing out potentially offensive content, are not a new concept. However, it is only recently that they have been discussed outside of publishing circles. The recent furore surrounding edits made to the language in Roald Dahl’s books may have had something to do with this.
In the past few months, a considerable amount of media attention has been paid to the children’s author’s estate reviewing his book collection for racist, sexist and offensive language. Words like “fat”, “ugly” and “black” were among the words removed. The books have also been updated to remove dated gendered stereotypes. For example, the line: “Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman,” has been replaced with “Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business”.
This has created a fair amount of backlash, and sensitivity readers have been blamed for the changes. One commenter on Twitter labelled sensitivity readers as “fragile vandals” of the famous texts. This is creating a negative stigma towards the profession. But what many may not know about the Roald Dahl controversy is that sensitivity readers were not involved in the alterations to the books. An organisation called Inclusive Minds worked with the Roald Dahl estate (now acquired by Netflix) to consult on edits made to his work.
The work of sensitivity readers is not a form of censorship. They don’t make edits directly to any text, but they are hired to make suggestions before a book is published. In the past few years, sensitivity readers have gained a considerably larger workload on their plate as the language used historically has been scrutinised, and concerns about it have been amplified by social media.
So, what is it that sensitivity readers actually do?
Nathaniel Glanzman, of Helm & Anchor Editing, has been working as a sensitivity reader since 2018. He says sensitivity readers typically share an identity with those that are represented by characters in the book. They can apply their own life experiences to the reading and will preferably have experience with literature.
For example, a main character in a book might be transgender, so the sensitivity reader working with the author will be from the transgender community, or familiar with it.
“When people are writing about a group of people that they don’t really know anything about, it can be really hard to know pre-emptively what’s going to harm a community or not,” Glanzman tells upstart.
Routine misrepresentation can also lead to stereotyping a group of people, even if it is not done intentionally by authors. Sometimes, it can be just a matter of cultural differences on political issues.
Glanzman explains this in the context of trafficking and slavery. Depictions of slavery, written from an Asian perspective, will differ from that written from an American perspective, and they may be read through a different lens, depending on the reader.
“If you’re a black reader who might have that generational trauma, you are going to read books through that lens, even if it is based on slavery in China,” he says.
Kristine Moruzi, a senior lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University, says creative writers are becoming more aware of the diversity needed in literature, and sensitivity readers allow us to include a wider variety of characters.
“What’s interesting and different about Dahl, is that we have taken texts that were written quite a long time ago, that reflect different cultural norms, and are now using 2023 language,” she tells upstart.
Other older, well-known authors have been targeted by readers for misrepresenting communities in society. For example, Ian Flemming of the James Bond series became subject to this kind of criticism for old-fashioned views on gender roles and race. Flemming’s novels now contain the disclaimer on the opening page: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
However, Moruzi believes that editing texts from the past comes with its own issues.
“There is an opportunity for adults to use books with such outdated language to become a springboard for discussion with children,” she says.
Sensitivity readers and authors may not always agree. To avoid conflict, Glanzman says that at Helm & Anchor Editing, training is conducted. That way, when suggestions are made, there is no comment made in relation to the author, with the book standing for itself.
“Comments made by a sensitivity reader, on minor issues, will be added to the review pane of the author’s word document, and advice given on larger issues will be delivered via a report addressing overall concerns,” he said.
Glanzman says that hiring a sensitivity reader is not a one-way ticket to get out of controversy, especially if authors don’t listen to advice.
“We don’t force anybody to make edits. We are just here to make suggestions based on the accuracy of the portrayal of people.”
Article | Sophie Neave is a second-year magazine journalism student. You can follow her on Twitter @sophieneave
Photo | I accidentally brought money to a book sale by Brittany Stevens available HERE and used under a Creative Commons license. This image has not been modified.