From rewriting classics to sensitivity readers: the battle for books

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Publishing books has never been such a minefield. Take sensitivity readers, for instance, whose job is to review submitted manuscripts for ‘problematic content’. In a world where biblioclasm in the name of modern tastes is widespread, proponents of sensitivity readers argue that they ensure no literature need ever be revisited in the future and deemed problematic – as it would be shorn of anything that might upset minority groups before it’s even published. More broadly, this means a moratorium on authors creating fiction outside of their lived experience.

It’s not just new authors writing contemporary works that find themselves in trouble. Books by the children’s author Roald Dahl underwent a sweep of edits by sensitivity readers in February 2023 after Puffin Books deemed the old work too offensive. ‘Enormously fat’ was shortened to ‘enormous’ in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the Oompa Loompas now called ‘small people’ instead of ‘small men’.

An immense public backlash led Puffin to revoke the changes, but such revisions continue to be made to other books. In 2011, American academic Alan Gribben republished Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn, replacing the use of the ’n’ word with ‘slave’. More recently, plans are afoot to republish Ian Fleming’s James Bond series to remove ‘racial slurs toward black people’.

Publishers justify updating old books as guarding against modern audiences reacting badly to outdated content. What was normal 100 or even 30 years ago might be highly inappropriate today. However, critics argue this is less about protecting readers than the publishing industry defensively accommodating to a small group of self-appointed guardians of political correctness.

There is also concern that these edits undermine the potential of novels – as historical documents – to provide unique insights. Censoring them is an affront to the artistic freedom of the author, but also insinuates that today’s readers can’t take their historical context into account. For modern writers, it’s feared that the likes of sensitivity readers can only mean self-censorship and less freedom for the literary imagination.

Are sensitivity readers merely sensitive editors, attuned to nuanced matters of representation and identity? Do they help today’s writers make their characters true to life and ensure the longevity of old books by making them continually relevant? Or is there something more at stake for literature, if classic and modern texts are subject to the whims of contemporary political debate, forever under threat from the red pen?

Phil Harrison
writer; author, The First Day; filmmaker, Even Gods

Masimba Musodza
novelist in ChiShona and English; blogger, The Times of Israel; writer

Tomiwa Owolade
writer and critic; contributing writer, New Statesman; author, This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter

Jane Robins
author, White Bodies; journalist; co-writer, People Like Us

Sibyl Ruth
writer and editor

Sheila Lewis
retired management consultant; book-club founder