Sensitivity, our 1984 moment

( I wrote to Puffin, following the news about new editions of Roald Dahl’s books being edited for…”sensitivity” reasons. Telegraph article here or un-paywalled here for context )


I just wanted to write a quick email to say how worried I am by the news of you editing out “sensitivities” in Roald Dahl’s writing. As a life-long reader and lover of Dahl’s writing, it troubles me deeply to read that you are applying this new “sensitivity reading” to his work.

Books are of their time. Some are – of course – unpalatable. But: we should never try and re-write history – instead we should be brave enough to stand up and say “yes, this was how it was, but now things are a bit different” and try to explain why. This is particularly important to audiences that include children.

Which of these scenarios leads to a better-adjusted child: one where you simply whitewash all “sensitive” mentions away and pretend they never happened and describe a grey, flat and featureless world with no bumps, or one where you sit with your child and work through difficult phrases and words, and examine when things might no longer be ok, or ask who it hurts, and why? The answer is of course blindingly, startlingly obvious.

The problem with “sensitivity” is that it has no end. At any moment someone or a group of someones could appear and suggest that they’re “triggered” by being identified as A Thing and could you as publisher please remove all references to Said Thing because it makes them sad – and then where do we go next? Removal of all content that makes us sad, or anything that affects us and makes us think?

This is the absolute centre of what writing and art is about – stuff that pushes us, makes us cry because it’s sad, laugh because it’s irreverent, angry because it’s outrageous. A world in which we’re all utterly terrified in case we write or say the wrong thing is not a world in which real human experiences can flourish.

I understand that you are probably terrified of some kind of litigous future where X person is triggered because they’re overweight and read the F word and descended into some kind of terrible spiral, but as publishers you can also have a considerable impact on pushing back against this. A simple “this book may contain words, phrases or ideas that could cause upset” might even do it. But not – please – re-writing of original texts.

Thank you

Mike Ellis

I was interested to see almost universal condemnation of this move – in this thread on Reddit for example it’s pretty hard to find people who think it’s a good idea. Over on Hacker News, there’s a bit more noise, but still not much support.

Finally: this comment from Reddit…

If you’re as pissed off as me, you can write to Penguin / Puffin at [email protected]