Category Archives: Sensitivity Readers

Sensitivity Readers or A Dickensian Prophecy

There is a current trend for revising books by dead authors to remove words and passages that modern publishers believe would offend contemporary readers, or rewriting old literature to reflect modern prejudices.

Charles Dickens has been subjected to the latter in recent dramatisations of his works, making Scrooge a reformed sexual predator for example, with the authors of these revised versions of the stories claiming that their version is what Dickens would have written if he had been,
alive today.
or not constrained by the prejudices of his readers.

or even that their version is better than the original!

Amazingly we know exactly what Dickens would have thought of this. In his magazine Household Words (1 October 1853) he wrote a long article criticising his friend George Cruickshank, artist and temperance campaigner for rewriting fairy stories to give them an anti-alcohol message.

Now, it makes not the least difference to our objection whether we agree or disagree with our worthy friend, Mr. Cruikshank, in the opinions he interpolates upon an old fairy story. Whether good or bad in themselves, they are, in that relation, like the famous definition of a weed; a thing growing up in a wrong place. He has no greater moral justification in altering the harmless little books than we should have in altering his best etchings. If such a precedent were followed we must soon become disgusted with the old stories into which modern personages so obtruded themselves, and the stories themselves must soon be lost.

He even realises what this could lead to;

Imagine a Total abstinence edition of Robinson Crusoe, with the rum left out. Imagine a Peace edition, with the gunpowder left out, and the rum left in. Imagine a Vegetarian edition, with the goat’s flesh left out. Imagine a Kentucky edition, to introduce a flogging of Man Friday, twice a week. Imagine an Aborigines Protection Society edition, to deny the cannibalism and make Robinson embrace the amiable savages whenever they landed. Robinson Crusoe would be “edited” out of his island in a hundred years, and the island would be swallowed up in the editorial ocean.

Crusoe before he is edited away

I am sure that all of these edits (with the probable exception of the American one) would be made by a modern sensitivity reader, along with a great deal more.

Dickens alternative was, in my humble opinion, the correct one. If you want a story to confront something, a modern or past evil in society, don’t edit someone else’s work but write it yourself, after all that is what he did all the time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Charles Dickens, Literary puzzle, Sensitivity Readers