PEN America pushes back against the use of 'sensitivity readers' to censor Roald Dahl's books

"Selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities" could create "a dangerous new weapon," Nossel said.

Joshua Young North Carolina

Acclaimed children's author Roald Dahl's publisher Puffin has engaged in censoring the writer's work after hiring "sensitivity readers" to go through the books and identify language that they deemed offensive, resulting in "hundreds of changes," which were later approved by the Roald Dahl Company.

In response to the censorship, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel denounced the move and said that efforts to "to scrub the books of that which might offend someone" and "selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities" could create "a dangerous new weapon." PEN America is dedicated to freedom of expression in literature.

Puffin reportedly consulted with Inclusive Minds, a "collective for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children's literature," when it came to censoring the work.

This resulted int changes regarding the language of mental health, violence, gender, weight, and race that ranged from full portions being rewritten or cut. Examples include Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory going from being called "fat" to "enormous" and the Oompa Loompas going from "small men" to "small people." 59 changes were made to "The Witches" alone.

Across all of Dahl's books references to "mothers and fathers" were replaced with "parents" and in James and the Giant Peach "Cloud-Men" became "Cloud-People."

In 2021, the Seuss Foundation pulled several of the author's books from circulation, using similar reasoning as Puffin and the Roald Dahl Company. One librarian described Dr. Seuss' beloved children's literature as "steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes."

"In some cases, including Dr. Seuss books, beloved works have been withdrawn entirely out of concern for causing offense, a regrettable outcome that is rarely, if ever, justified," said Nossel. "The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas (as has been done to Dahl's work)."

Jake Tapper from CNN argued in favor of the Seuss Foundation's censorship in 2020 and said it was their property and their prerogative to change. The dangers of Puffin and the Dahl company censoring the works, just as the Seuss Foundation, lay in the external pressures of current ideas "based on race, gender, religion, age, socio-economic status or myriad other factor," as Stossel said and how they have no "limiting principles" aside from presentism. 

The Post Millennial Editor-in-Chief Libby Emmons addressed Seuss' censorship in 2021 and wrote of Tolstoy's experience with censorship in the 1890s. In Russia at the time there were active government censors, and the external pressures on the author to censor could be severe. In the end, Tolstoy said his work was published with ideas contained within it to which he was entirely opposed.

The point is that the author, the publisher, or the estate bend to comply to the ideology of the external institutions, usually captured by one ideology. That way the supply chain of censorship begins at the source, long before the government or any overarching authoritarian voice would enter the conversation. 

"The goal is not enforcement but compliance. Tolstoy complied, and we too comply. It's still censorship. We allow ourselves to be censored, we take up the mission ourselves," Emmons said.

In January 2022 Nossel expressed her support of The Post Millennial Editor-at-Large Andy Ngo after he had a speaking event at Dartmouth College canceled by the college. Her support of free speech has been rooted in "allowing readers to receive and react to books as written" so readers can experience "the essential lens that literature offers on society."


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