The Sensitivity Reader

Posted by Wally O Neill on

Mosley is after getting himself hired as a sensitivity reader for Puffin. It’s a freelance job, now very much in demand, as legacy publishing houses scurry to scrub out anything even remotely offensive from their back catalogue.


“I’m a very sensitive person Wally,” Mosley tells me, as he runs around the bookshop waving a permanent marker menacingly at vintage paperbacks. “I was the first person in school to have a gay pen pal you know. A big fan of Chris De Burgh he was and I didn’t hold it against him. Sure, I stopped replying to his letters for a few years but those were the times we lived in. Being that way, you know, someone who openly purchased ‘Lady in Red’ and didn’t immediately return it after the first listening, well, it just wasn’t normal. Everyone told us so. The news, the church, the law. It was natural to detest Chris De Burgh fans. I was a victim of the dominant culture.”


“Keep that marker away from my books. There’s no censorship in here.”


“How dare you! I work for Puffin now. I have a license to censor. I’m not going to listen to your auld fascist ideals of freedom to read and learn. Some of these books are dangerous and pose a risk to the uneducated masses. They're not smart enough to know what’s safe to read.”


Puffin has hired sensitivity readers to locate and rewrite chunks of Roald Dahls classic children’s books to ensure that they can be enjoyed by children without any danger of offense. So they are busy editing seemingly wholesome kids books for fear that a depiction of a witch being bald might cause horror to a child – rather than the fact that these witches want to turn all children into mice!


The centipede can’t call Aunt Sponge fat anymore for fear of upset, in a story where the protagonist is a orphan, who’s parents have been eaten by a rhinoceros, who finds himself trapped in a giant peach with mutated talking insects.


Gender neutral terms are to be applied to the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but there’s no worry about them being a race of slaves forced to work in the factory for cocoa beans.


“I thought sensitivity readers were usually hired because they belong to a marginalised community Mosley?”


“I’m bloody marginalised. I’m thirty and I’ve never had a girl friend or a job. How more marginalised can I be?”


Sensitivity readers are becoming an unwanted integral part of the legacy publishing industry. Courses now exist to train individuals in the art of sensitivity editing but are offered exclusively to oppressed people, with you and the course leader being the judges of just how broken down and abused you really are and if you have suffered enough to win the right to become a censor.


Once you make it, you are the judge, jury and executioner. There is no chain-of-command, no set criteria, no democracy in the bloody world of sensitivity reading. Meaning that two sensitivity readers may not agree on what is sensitive and what is not. Best not to ask for second opinions when you are dealing with ultimate divine will.


Every sensitivity reader is their own little fuhrer.


Mosley grabs a pristine copy of the Gruffalo and begins furiously scratching permanent marker stains across the page. “Terrible. Shocking. Outrageous.”


“You’re buying that now!”


“I am not. I’m carrying out high and mighty work, far beyond your comprehension. Deus Vult.”


I pull the book out of his scrawny paws and he tries badly to stab me with his permanent marker. “You’ve ruined this book Mosley.”


“No, I’ve redeemed it. Had you looked at it at all? A mouse taking advantage of a intellectually challenged beast? Unbridled capitalism. Connotations of date rape. I saw themes of genocide and anti-Semitism in it mind.”


“Its a floppy for small children Mosley. There’s nothing in it that’s even mildly offensive.”


“Spoken like Joseph Goebbels. Ah you have the head of him alright, pushing these stories of raw unbridled hatred on toddlers.”


In 1822, the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ One hundred and eleven years later, German students fulfilled Heine’s prophecy when they included his books among twenty-five thousand titles burned across the nation for the sin of being deemed ‘un-german’. Just a few short years later, the Nazis began burning the bodies of those they deemed ‘un-german’ – Jews, non-whites, homosexuals, the mentally ill, gypsies, communists – in camps across Europe.


Sensitivity readers might not seem like totalitarianism to you. It may even seem like progressive action, enacted to rid the world of evil. But the Nazis claimed that they were only ridding the world of evil too. Goebbels told a crowd of 40,000 book burners in Berlin, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”


Sensitivity readers are the new moral guardians of the literary world, perhaps not that different from Mary Whitehouse’s campaign to ban a gay poet or Texas schoolboards banning books by Maya Angelou because they tackle sexual abuse (and she’s black).


Sensitivity readers don’t have a unifying code. Yet. But they are united in certain aims. The removal of words or passages, or even whole books that they find personally offensive. The absolute belief that any creative fiction moving outside the authors personal experience of race, sex and class is cultural appropriation and is absolutely forbidden. The shared pride and megalomania to believe that they have the right to doctor literary works, including universally loved classics, and to believe that they are doing it on your behalf. The aspiration to be marginalised, and to see this as being the most special and godly qualification needed to be a sensitivity reader.


Shortly before burning tens of thousands of books in the streets, the German Students Union issued the Twelve Theses, a declaration to purge German literature of unsavoury elements, namely Jewish influences but also writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, and to restore purity to the art.


Sounds very familiar.