"I have no particular power": Don't blame sensitivity readers for the latest censored books

From Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming, books are being changed — but the ones being blamed for it have the least power

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published March 12, 2023 11:00AM (EDT)

Professional proofreader (Getty Images/Maica)
Professional proofreader (Getty Images/Maica)

Words had been altered in multiple books by children's author Roald Dahl, seemingly randomly at times and with little to no context (a move the publisher soon regretted and took back). In upcoming new editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, "ethnicities have been removed," Variety reports, along with "pejorative term[s]" and descriptions. 

What is going on with books? That is, what else is going on with books? Librarians, including elementary school librarians, are under fire and being persecuted. Lawmakers are targeting dozens upon dozens of books for removal after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) championed a bill requiring approval of all books in classrooms. Some, though certainly not all, of these targeted books mention race, sexuality, gender, even the Holocaust, with many authors writing personal stories from their own experiences.

Around the same time, publishers have been changing a bunch of words in already-published books, and some see this as either an attempt at "wokeness" or possibly attempting to cut off a future attack from lawmakers. But are publishers changing the right things? Who's behind all these edits? One thing is certain: it's not the fault of sensitivity readers, though they've been targeted too. 

Variety's report about Fleming mentions sensitivity readers right away: "Rights holders Ian Fleming Publications Ltd commissioned a review by sensitivity readers." That's a group that gets the blame in the second paragraph of one of The Guardian's stories about the edits made to Dahl's writing too. "Puffin has hired sensitivity readers to rewrite chunks of the author's text," The Guardian reports, "resulting in extensive changes across Dahl's work."

The sensitivity reader did it! But what are sensitivity readers, and do they really have this much power? 

Sensitivity readers are early readers, often writers themselves, who go over a manuscript, at the request of an author or publisher, paying particular attention to certain identities, characterizations or phrases. Google the term, though, and you'll find definitions as varied as they are subjective. The University of Alberta, for example, defines sensitivity readers as "someone who reads for offensive content" while The Spectator goes with "freelance copy editors who publishers pay to cancel-proof their new books."

First of all, a technical copy edit is different from what a sensitivity reader does, which is more along the lines of a content edit. Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, a writer and sensitivity reader, actually prefers the term authenticity reader because she believes it's more accurate. The idea is that a writer may be writing from or about an experience they themselves do not share and they need the perspective of someone who's actually been there or is there. 

"I love nothing more than being able to work with a writer to make their representation more authentic," Beacom says in an interview with Salon. "I infinitely prefer having the opportunity to shape something before it's published to being stuck complaining about it after it's already out there, causing problems." Beacom usually reads for deafness and sign language usage while writer, screenwriter and sensitivity reader Lara Ameen reads for visible and invisible disabilities along with queer or Jewish characters or content.

Contrary to some circulating beliefs, sensitivity readers don't hate books. They love them. Ameen tells Salon, "As a writer myself, it feels good to help shape an author's book into the best shape it can be. I read a ton. I love reading, so it's the perfect job for me, and I learn something with each project I take on." Both Ameen and Beacom describe their process as reading carefully, taking notes and writing up their findings, questions and ideas for the writer or publisher. 

"Usually I pay attention to the character or characters the editor or the author asks me to read for, but I also look at the whole novel or nonfiction work and make suggestions to replace ableist language or phrases," Ameen says. "For disabled characters, I'll examine if the author has used any of the common tropes or stereotypes associated with disability representation."

"If I say, 'I think it would be strengthened if you did X,' and they say, 'Yeah, no, I don't want to,' that's where it ends."

While much of their work involves books, they also sometimes read textbooks, articles, graphic novels, even video games, according to Beacom, who says she "pretty much never" turns down a request. "Sometimes I take a deep breath because I know this one will be a humdinger, but that also energizes me."

Do authors and publishers listen to their suggestions? Sometimes.

Beacom tells Salon she often has to sign NDAs, "and then also just generally make a practice of not linking my name to a project unless I have read the final version and have signed off on it. Even with projects where the creators were super receptive, there are often still things that make me wince a bit, and I don't really want people to think that I specifically approved that element."

There are limits to the power of a sensitivity reader, hard limits. At the end of the day, the readers don't have the red ink ability or veto power of editors. "While writers are almost always appreciative of my feedback – they solicited it, after all – it does definitely happen too that none or only some of my suggestions are taken onboard. That's just how it goes!" Beacom says. "If I say, 'I think it would be strengthened if you did X,' and they say, 'Yeah, no, I don't want to,' that's where it ends. I have no particular power to compel them to make changes."

As Ameen puts it, "All I can do is offer them suggestions and hope they find it useful."

And yet sensitivity readers were specifically and quickly assigned the responsibility and the fault for the changes proposed to Dahl's work. The group that read Dahl's books, Inclusive Minds, does even not call themselves sensitivity readers, but instead "a network of young people with many different lived experiences who are willing to share their insight to help [publishers] in the process of creating authentically – and often incidentally – inclusive books," the organization said in a statement when reached for comment by Salon. This process "is not about cutting potentially controversial content but rather about including and embedding authenticity and inclusive voices and experiences from the outset," the statement goes on to read.

Mislabeling the group and assigning blame to "young people" for the Dahl changes seems like a clear case of punching down on the part of publishers. 

"On any project, it's the role of the [Inclusive Minds] ambassador to help identify language and portrayals that could be inauthentic or problematic, and to highlight why, as well as indicate potential solutions. The publisher (and/or author) then have all the information to make informed decisions regarding what changes they wish to make to manuscripts and illustrations. For clarity, Inclusive Minds do not edit or rewrite text, but provide valuable comments." All italics and bold statements are the organization's.

Mislabeling the group and assigning blame to "young people" for the Dahl changes seems like a clear case of punching down on the part of publishers. 

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Publishers may also not put sensitivity readers' suggestions into practice very well. Witness the initial censoring of words like "fat" in Dahl but no changes to the derogatory context in which the words appear. And while Fleming's books were edited for racist content, misogynistic content (including that women "love semi-rape") still remains, as pointed out by The Guardian. Perhaps publishers need to hire some of these sensitivity readers as actual staffed editors with more power to make nuanced change. 

Which leads to an important point about sensitivity readers. Who's doing the sensitivity reading — and who's doing the writing, publishing and profiting off these stories? 

"We don't get much representation generally, but when we do, it is overwhelmingly created by hearing people," Beacom says. "This means that many misconceptions – some merely annoying, some downright dangerous – are regurgitated." 

Sensitivity readers like Beacom and Ameen are creative artists in their own right, and they're looking for a chance. Beacom just finished writing the young adult novel that she couldn't find when she was a "newly deaf teenager," and Ameen, who is also a PhD student, is working on an adult urban fantasy novel, adapting it from her own pilot script, and has a story in the upcoming anthology "Being Ace." They're doing difficult, misunderstood and essential work as sensitivity readers, but they also want to tell their own stories too.

"It's so important for that cycle to be broken," Beacom says, "for the representation to be authentic."


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Censorship Children's Literature Disability Ian Fleming Novels Reporting Roald Dahl Sensitivity Readers