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Roald Dahl's works and the role of sensitivity readers

February 23, 2023

A controversial rewriting of Roald Dahl's children's books highlights the role of sensitivity readers. DW spoke to sensitivity reader Helen Gould to learn about the profession.

Author Roald Dahl with two dogs in an old photo before his death in 1990.
Children's author Roald Dahl's books have now been scrutinized by sensitivity readersImage: dpa/picture alliance

Last week, Britain's The Telegraph reported that the publishing house Puffin had made hundreds of changes to the characters and language in British author Roald Dahl's famous children's books. This included making the diminutive Oompa-Loompas in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" gender neutral and calling Augustus Gloop "enormous" rather than "fat," after sensitivity readers were hired to read the books and flag any potential offensive content.

While a spokesman for the Roald Dahl company said the changes were "small and well-considered," the announcement prompted an outcry by a variety of literary figures, as well as the UK's new conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak, who said via a spokesperson that "works of fiction should be preserved and not airbrushed." Author Sir Salman Rushdie was amongst those who spoke out against the changes.

Yet, whether one agrees or disagrees with the way Dahl's books have been updated in English, the debate offered an opportunity to learn about a fairly new, but significant profession — that of the sensitivity reader. In short, sensitivity readers are hired by publishing houses to read for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias and lack of understanding of minority groups.

"I think a lot of people are hearing about the job in the context of 'Oh, the woke mob are coming for your favourite literature and they're debasing all the best books.' But this is a load of nonsense, frankly," says Helen Gould, a professional writer based in the UK who has been working as a sensitivity reader since 2017. DW spoke to her to learn what the job entails.

A potrait of Helen Gould smiling at the camera.
Professional writer Helen Gould has been working as a sensitivity reader for several yearsImage: Privat

A different kind of editor

"A sensitivity reader is just a different kind of editor and we're just looking for things that may not be coming across in the way that the author intended them to," Gould clarifies.

She got her start by helping a friend who created a tabletop role-playing game — think Dungeons and Dragons — for potentially offensive content, and has since reviewed content in a wide variety of mediums, including fiction. "I have even done a bit of non-fiction where people have been writing about the histories of people of color, but they haven't been people of color themselves, for example. And so they might be making tongue in cheek jokes or something in the text and it's my job to tell them 'Oh, I don't think that's going to land'."

Gold's approach to sensitivity reading is to read a text with two questions in mind: "Is this potentially going to cause harm? And if so, how can we make it not cause harm?"

She also explains that contrary to what some might perceive, sensitivity readers do not go through texts with a red pen, intoning "Oh you can't say this." Instead, she looks for nuance and complexity, citing for example characters that appear rather two dimensional and may perpetuate stereotypes. "I might say, 'Oh, this is a Black character who is almost always angry. Have you considered giving them another dimension to their personality?"

In the end, Gould sends her suggestions to the publisher who relays them to the author. Most of the time, authors are receptive and have taken her suggestions into account.

The cover of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with a golden egg in the background.
Several changes have been made to the characters and language of Dahl's booksImage: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

A sensitivity reader for every topic

Each sensitivity reader has different specialities. Gould specialises in race and politics. On the day she spoke with DW, she was working on a project where the authors were concerned about reproducing colonialist attitudes. UK agency Salt & Sage works with freelance editors and sensitivity readers, including Gould, lists profiles of the sensitivity readers they work with, and their areas of expertise — including topics related to non-binary identities, PTSD or anxiety and depression, among others.

"Some people will be best at looking at subjects with trans characters, some people will be best looking at subjects with Jewish characters. It's all going to depend on one's lived experience and expertise," explains Gould. She says she commonly refers authors to sensitivity readers with different specialities if she feels they could be best be helped by that person.

For her part, Gould believes the job of a sensitivity reader is most useful for works that have not yet been published.

Rewriting Shakespeare's works?

Gould says she finds it frustrating when asked to read something that has been previously published: "Personally I don't think that sensitivity reading is useful if something is already published because the work is already out there — the horse has bolted from the stable, so to speak." Instead, Gould says the approach that multi-national company Disney has done on its older animated films, some of which contain racist tropes, is the best. Disney put a warning at the start of these films advising that the content is insensitive. Gould feels the same could be done with books.

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"If you want to go back really far, I wouldn't say to change Shakespeare's 'Othello' because it depicts a Black man as giving in to anger and being stereotypically violent," says Gould.

"But I would say to keep these stereotypes in mind when you're reading it — keep in mind the context of the time, the racism of the time and the fact that the author was a white dude, because that will actually help you get a deeper understanding of the text and what it might be trying to say," she adds.

Yet whether the profession will become standard in the industry or fade into oblivion over time, is unclear. Gould thinks it could go either way.

"On the one hand, 99% of the publishers and editors that I've worked with have been really keen to make sure that they're representing marginalized groups and characters in the right ways, and they want to make sure that their readers are going to enjoy their work and so on. Yeah, but recently we're seeing a massive amount of sort of right-wing backlash to the various bits of progress that we've been making since the nineties."

Racism in British society

Lacking diversity

In a 2022 diversity and inclusion study put out by the UK Publishers Association, only 17% of people surveyed were non-white and there was a lack of class diversity.

In an article published on The Conversation, author Sarah Jilani, a lecturer in English at City, University London, points out that collaboration is vital in the publishing scene, and that sensitivity readers are a necessary part of the process to bringing the manuscript to print, especially considering the lack of diversity in the industry.

Gould wants the world to know that sensitivity readers are there to help authors, not censor them.

In the age of social media, it can be "scary" for authors to publish their work, as it comes under immediate scrutiny, she says: "We can help an author have the confidence that they've addressed a topic properly."

Edited by: Brenda Haas

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist