Sensitivity readers and publishing: Who decides?

10th March 2023

This astute piece on sensitivity reading gives new angles on why publishers may use outside readers.

But making changes for sensitivity is not new. Roald Dahl’s witches and Ian Fleming’s James Bond are not the only ones to face calls to adapt or die. Shakespeare also has been amended and cut.

In 1681, the poet and librettist Nahum Tate successfully adapted King Lear to give the tragedy a happy ending: (spoiler alert: instead of going mad in a storm, Lear gets his kingdom back and Cordelia lives).  This cleaned up version was an immediate hit and ran for decades. Why was it rewritten and why did it succeed?  Apparently because in the aftermath of the Civil War the audience preferred a drama about restoring the monarchy rather than one about it losing the plot.

In 1807, Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet edited Shakespeare’s plays to produce texts which could be ‘placed in the hands of young persons of both sexes’. The Family Shakespeare was an edition ‘in which nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read to a family’. References to sex and dodgy innuendos hit the cutting room floor. Again, the publication was a big success and this polite edition remained in print into the 1880s.

If each age gets the version it deserves, original or lite, who decides what’s right for us now?

Law and convention point in different directions.  While the social demand to respect sensitivity increases, the law robustly allows the publication of words which may cause alarm, distress or offence: “freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having …free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence” – Redmond-Bate v. DPP, affirmed in OPO v James Rhodes and Canongate Books [UKSC] 2015.

Publishers are cynically using ‘sensitivity readers’ to protect their bottom lines Zoe Dubno As books become intellectual property assets, publishers become asset managers trying to future-proof their toxic investments