Sensitivity readers: How fiction became the latest frontier in the culture wars


From Agatha Christie to Enid Blyton, the modernisation of much-loved classics has turned fiction into another frontier in the culture wars.

Take Roald Dahl, for instance.

When plans emerged to print re-edited versions of some of his classics to remove words like “fat” and “ugly” it caused an uproar, which drew in the likes of Sir Salman Rushdie who described the decision as “absurd censorship”.

The prime minister even had his say.

Some of Agatha Christie's work has been revised by publisher HarperCollins
Some of Agatha Christie’s work has been revised by publisher HarperCollins

With battle lines drawn, there is growing online outrage about how publishers are increasingly inviting ‘sensitivity readers’ to provide a sounding board to authors on areas they may have overlooked.

Experts like Helen Gould make suggestions for edits to publishers.

She told Sky News: “Despite the name, [we’re] not looking for offence – we’re looking for harm.”

More on Roald Dahl

Gould mostly works with authors early on before their books go to print and, of the 200 projects she’s worked on to date, just two works were in print already.

She explained: “People who do not experience oppression maybe don’t understand how important it is not to be reminded of all the atrocities that you and people who share your identity have gone through over and over again.”

She believes the media’s portrayal of sensitivity readers as “unqualified outside forces” is, in part, fuelling online outrage.

“We are more like specialized editors in the same way that if you’re writing a book about a hospital, you might want to go and talk to a doctor about what they do…

“A white author writing about black characters might want to go and talk to a black person about what it’s like to be black.

“I have absolutely no power over what an author or an editor wants to do,” she insists. “I just give them my opinion. They can take it or leave it as they want. My job is to give them advice.”

Helen Gould
Sensitivity reader Helen Gould

But how do authors see it?

Harlan Coben, best known for writing more than 35 thriller novels, has sold somewhere in the region of 80 million books. His latest is called I Will Find You.

Speaking to Sky News about the subject of sensitivity readers, he said: “I haven’t worked with one yet, so I can’t really judge… but I’m always willing to. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with what they have to say, does it?

“I have editors who tell me what to say, in a sense, and that’s not necessarily censorship.

“I’m still learning and developing as a human being. I mean, things that I thought when I was a kid or things that I wrote years ago, I probably wouldn’t write today, but it was a snapshot of what it was like in 1989 and 1997 or 2004 or whatever. So, I think you have to change with the times.

“The world is different, and so you have to reflect that. My novels take place in the present day, so my characters will speak now differently than when I wrote a book in 1989 or something like that. They should speak differently. The world is different.”

Harlan Coben
Author Harlan Coben

For BAFTA-award-winning writer Abi Morgan – best known for penning the scripts to The Split and The Iron Lady – giving an honest and unfiltered account of what happened to her family for her latest book, This is Not A Pity Memoir, was essential.

While she hasn’t yet worked with a sensitivity reader, she told Sky News she sees their value.

“In the same way as, you know, I think we’re trying to revise and look at history and really re-examine the way we’ve looked at history, for example, we’re going to do that with literature.

“But also, it’s important I think, that those things exist so that we can name them and expose them and say ‘that was the time when those things were written and that’s not the way we would choose to write now, but that’s what was acceptable in that time.’ And so, for me, it’s a real balance.”

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Of course, in reality, modifying what’s written with sensitivity is likely to be less about publishers riding a wave of political correctness and more practically about sales. Ensuring books have a longer shelf life, and that what’s written stays relevant.

“I think the dialogue is the most important thing that’s come out of those [debates],” Morgan explained.

“We’re talking about those books and how relevant they are or not and we’re revisiting and re-examining language that’s just not acceptable anymore.

“And I think that’s really interesting to have those conversations.”

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