Where’s the Sense in Sensitivity Reading

I was appalled at hearing about the linguistic butchery being performed on some of Roald Dahl’s most famous works. The publisher Puffin and the Dahl estate have announced that they’re making changes to the author’s language on weight, gender and race.

These guardians of children literature are not giving children or the adults who read to them much credit. Dahl’s writing has always been full of hyperbole and even his narrators can have the bluntness and insensitivity of schoolboys. Readers expect this from Dahl, alongside humour laced with cruelty and darkness. Love it or loath it, this is the author’s voice. People who do loathe these features of Dahl’s work have a plethora of other children’s book to choose from.

This reminds me of my own childhood. I was fortunate in having my formative reading years in the seventies when America was burgeoning on the liberal and tolerance fronts. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was on the reading list but has since been banned from most States’ school curricula. Finn was the first social satire I had read outside of the comic strips in the Chicago Tribune. But it is a book that uses the n-word. Hundreds of times. Long before we read Twain’s masterpiece, my little friends and I knew that the n-word was pejorative and using it was racist. Huck and his sidekick, Jim, a runaway slave, both use the word nonchalantly. That’s not to say it wasn’t pejorative or racist even among these two friends. I believe they were portrayed as following the hierarchy of the times, unconsciously for the young Huck, but deliberately used by Jim as if to say he knew his place. Coming to understand these nuances was important for me in developing a deeper understanding of individuals battling and reflecting society at the same time and in developing an appreciation literature that could draw this out.

What is going on with the censorship of Dahl’s work is part of a bigger and worrying trend. American and British publishers have in recent years hired sensitivity readers to screen books before publication. The aim of these readers is to provide feedback on language that could offend minority groups. This feedback then becomes an editorial decision. Of course, literary editing and input from commissioning editors is nothing new, but it’s the search for offence and readily acting on this advice that is a sign of our times. In Le Monde, Clementine Goldszal reasons that this new job title has emerged as a way of avoiding heated debates on social media, many of which have spun into threats of violence against the books’ authors and publishers.

While I’ve been putting this blog together, a glut of articles about sensitivity readers has stolen my thunder. Most are against them, regarding their work as a type of censorship and inevitably quoting Lionel Shriver, who describes the practice of sensitivity reading as ‘totally subjective’ and ‘a waste of energy.’ (Cliché alert) If you can’t beat them, join them. The only piece I have seen in favour of using sensitivity readers was in The Conversation.

That article raises interesting points about this new practice offsetting the predominantly white, male and educated class of writers and publishers. To some extent this is true, but there are also ethnic minority and women writers getting published by mainstream and independent presses. If people read or listen to a book review and decide that a book might offend them, they can protest with their wallets by not buying it and expressing their feelings on social media or face-to-face at the café or pub.

A closing thought – you may have noticed that earlier I used the n-word instead of spelling the word out in full. I didn’t do this to avoid offence, and I would have preferred to use the full word – it is an example of language, just like any other swear word. What I have done is self-censoring so that the bots at WordPress do not label this blog ‘Objectionable Material.’ I’ve been punished with this label before. Sigh.

Summer Reading 2018

If you’re expecting light-weight, page-turners for the beach, you’ve come to the wrong blogger. For reasons unknown, I like thematic and/or challenging reading over the hot months when I don’t usually have writing deadlines and my colleagues and students are on extended breaks.

A couple of years ago I had an Isherwood summer, rereading Goodbye to Berlin and reading for the first time a couple of volumes of memoirs surrounding that time period in Isherwood’s life. I escaped into that world quite easily, making it one of my more memorable reading summers.

This summer hasn’t followed a theme, but has been a time to catch up with books people have passed on to me and those Kindle books that I picked up on sale and forget that I had them. The summer started with Jonathan Franzen’s hefty novel Purity. This dark comedy is like other Franzen novels, very much a mocking reflection of our times. It interweaves seven overlapping sections of narrative into one story of surveillance culture, social media paranoia and clumsy sex. While I did internally chuckle along the way, I was uneasy at times with his often psychologically weak and yet manipulative female characters.

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After that 500+ pager, I needed a novella. Lionel Shriver’s The Standing Chandelier is an excellent study on the psychology of relationships. It stands off a plutonic friendship with a former lover against the relationship that will end up in marriage. While Shriver exercises precision in her word-choice and descriptions, I felt it was in places a bit overwritten, with too much telling analysis, rather than showing and allowing readers to draw the conclusions for themselves. But still a worthwhile and thankfully short read.

Catching-up with my booklist has meant that I’m finally reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I’m not overtaken by the story-within-the-story, and since most of you have probably already read this, you’ll know what I mean. But the main story, set in the early part of summer reading 2018-3 the 20th century in Canada, is exquisitely written and fully engaging.

I confess that I read a book earlier this summer that for some might be deemed a beach read. Wendy Cope’s collection of prose, Life, Love and the Archers, can be read in bitesize segments, which I guess qualify it for the interrupted reading associated with beaches and sitting out in the garden. Like her poetry, her prose is accessible, thought-provoking and often humorous.

Another beach book of sorts on this season’s eclectic menu is Antoine Compagnon’s collection of vignettes from the 16th century philosopher Montaigne, couched in Compagnon’s historical and biographical commentary. Even the title suggests summertime beach reading – Un été avec Montaigne. That is, summer reading if you’re French. I’m having to look up the occasional modern French word and use context and basic Latin to guess some meanings of archaic terms. Language aside, it’s been interesting to learn that Montaigne was ahead of his time in being an anti-colonialist, drawing attention to the barbarism and oppression Europeans brought to Africa and the Americas. His comments on gender fluidity and hermaphroditism also read as if from a more 21st century liberal-minded time.

So, those are the highlights of the summer book reading, naturally sandwiched between newspapers, online magazines and short stories. Happy reading and stay cool (in every sense of the word).