I’m Sensitive About “Sensitivity Editing”


George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is quoted more than ever these days. He writes:

“Who controls the past controls the future . . .”

I’m indignant about Florida rejecting a high-school Black History AP text because it made our country seem too racist. The text included lessons on abominations like slavery that apparently were too sympathetic to “them” and not sympathetic enough to “us.” In other words, too “woke,” too “Critical Race Theory.”

Then I came across a story so insane I couldn’t make sense of it: some school textbook publishers were dropping mention that Rosa Parks was Black. Without that one detail, how do you tell the story, or why would you even choose to tell the story, about a passenger unwilling to vacate her seat on a bus for a white person?

It’s easy for me to condemn this right-wing, whitewashed censorship. But now I am compelled to do the same thing to the left wing. I’m hearing more and more about literature and fiction being changed to conform to specific contemporary political beliefs.

Many of the authors of these books are deceased—Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain. Their descendants who own the rights to the works, in collaboration with publishers, are making the changes. Most of the edits involve replacing or deleting a word here or there that is now considered offensive.

A few examples:

  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an “enormously fat” character is now simply “enormous.” Although, there is a growing fat acceptance movement that normalizes the word fat in reference to the shape of a body. The word is simply a descriptor, not an insult.
  • In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by American icon Mark Twain, all uses of a certain racial epithet have been changed to “slave.” Even though the other word was as common as cotton back when Twain wrote, we know it’s not an acceptable word today. But Twain wrote in the nineteenth century. Are contemporary readers and educators unable to understand this context,  maybe even learn from it?
  • In Agatha Christie’s novels, the words “oriental,” “gypsy,” and “native” have been replaced by more contemporary signifiers. In one instance, the description of a character as “a Jew, of course” was simply cut.

    You can understand why controlling parties want to make these changes. They don’t want to offend potential readers. These famous authors have a literary reputation that must be preserved. And publishers and descendants who own the rights to an author’s works might be able to make more money if they keep the books relevant and selling.

    As a writer, I can’t be more against what I call “sensitivity editing,” which I find as awful as publishers hiring “sensitivity readers” to check manuscripts for offending content before publication.

    Works of art by their nature reflect the time, place, and circumstances of their creation. They are documents of their historical moment. Changing these works to strip out what doesn’t fit contemporary thought is not only a form of censorship, it negates the possibility of critical thinking and asking questions such as: Why were these words acceptable to use then but not now? How do these historical texts reveal the social progress we’ve made?

    What’s next? Painting over nudes depicted in Renaissance paintings? Perhaps fashioning a pair of underwear for the statue of David?

    These small changes to works of literature are as bad or even worse than the book-banning social conservatives are engaging in. At least those clowns are performing their work out in the open. But this covertly changing a word here, a phrase there—that kind of censorship disappears as soon as the book is published with its new language. It’s insidious and I hope it stops.

    I’ve personally felt the pressure to conform to contemporary sensitivities in my writing. Example: in my just-published novel, In Flight, Robert and his wife are in the midst of a discussion:

    “You’ve always noticed women,” Sasha said.

    “It’s not about that,” Robert said, although what Sasha said was true: he’d always noticed women. All men did.

    While working on final edits to the novel, I looked at that sentence: “All men did.” I realized it’s not true. Gay men might not notice women. Men who weren’t attracted to women might not notice women. So in a desire to be more contemporary and accurate, I changed “All men did” to “All cis men did.”

    But then Owen pointed out to me I wasn’t using the word ‘cis’ correctly. Cis stands for cisgender, a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex registered for them at birth. I was digging myself a hole.

    I considered “All heterosexual men did.” That sounded stupid. Finally, I changed “All cis men did” back to “All men did.” It was the right decision because the character of Robert—as intelligent and well-intentioned as he may be—also may not be the most enlightened man when it comes to the language of gender orientation. The sentence “All cis men did” wouldn’t cross his mind; that was just the author intruding, feeling the pressure to conform.

    Writers—we must write what the muse demands and that which makes our characters authentic. Do not give into self-censorship or censorship of any kind. Let that stuff happen after we’re dead.

    P.S. Speaking of In Flight, have you had a chance to read it yet? Get your copy here. (I have a knack for turning everything in the direction of shilling my own books.)

    By David Klein

    David Klein

    Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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