A group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island form a commune and survive by engaging in a Marxist dialectic. They decry adults as bourgeois imperialists, and a pig-hunting expedition ends with them all deciding to become vegans…
If you think there are elements of this synopsis which sound familiar, you’d be right – it’s based on the William Golding classic, Lord of the Flies. It is however a reimagining, courtesy of the British journalist, Peter Sheridan (The Spectator, March 2023), of how the plot might look once a modern ‘sensitivity reader’ has done their best work on it.
It’s a joke, of course, but a point well made.
As far as it’s possible to be from the horror of the tribal savagery which soon takes hold of the group of stranded boys in the original story, ending with the murder of those few who don’t want to fit in, the sanitised version sounds unlikely to cause readers of any age too much angst. Or too much thought. Or too much of anything really. All the compelling power of the original is lost, as is all its cautionary wisdom about the primitive impulses which lie beneath the thin veneer of our civilised world. And let’s face it, the new version sounds really very dull.
If you’ve been thinking about putting together a book recently, you may have noticed how much press some of the shadowy, behind-the-scenes figures in the publishing world have been getting lately. First we had Prince Harry’s ghostwriter, JR Moehringer, and then Matt Hancock’s ill-chosen collaborator, Isabel Oakeshott. (It’s very important to note here that neither the overly directive Moehringer nor the morally bankrupt Oakeshott are remotely representative of the way professional ghostwriters really conduct themselves – thankfully!)
In the last few months it’s the ‘sensitivity reader’ – another, newer kind of publishing backstage worker – who has emerged blinking into the spotlight, as the news broke that Roald Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, had brought in several of these to help redact some of his best-known children’s books. Sensitivity readers, in a nutshell, are those hired by publishing houses these days to read a text for ‘offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias and a lack of understanding of minority groups’.
The prospect of great or favourite works of literature being revised to meet the rigorous requirements of a politically correct, ‘woke’ world view has caused a huge furore, with many people fearing that we are entering a new era of censorship and cultural totalitarianism.
As someone who has been involved in book publishing for 27 years now, I’m a little cynical about the spin many publishers are giving to this new watering-down of classic works. They may claim that their only concern is to safeguard the mental health and finely tuned sensibilities of young (and older) readers, and that all they want is to make the world a better, kinder place. But, as is so often the case in business, their true motives have a lot more to do with protecting their investments and keeping the bottom line as healthy as possible. With the now very real possibility of an author in whom they have invested large sums of money being ‘cancelled’, publishers need to keep a very tight rein on their output if they’re to keep the financial show on the road.
But what does all of this mean to someone who is considering putting together a book and getting their story out into the world? Is a sensitivity reader yet another element – and cost – you must factor into the mix as you contemplate the already challenging process of getting a book written, produced and published?
My take on this is that if you are careful about choosing the right professionals to help you – ghostwriter, editor, agent or publisher – you should be OK; that in the vast majority of cases, the additional services of a sensitivity reader shouldn’t be required.
Of course, especially when writing historical fiction, or when representing the experiences of a character whose life is totally removed from your own, you will most likely want to research as thoroughly as possible the historical period and/or the cultural, lived experience of the group or demographic to which they belong. But it’s not (as yet) actually illegal not to have done such research.
When it comes to writing a memoir, you are by definition relying on the raw material of your own story and experiences, so there should in theory be little danger of you ‘appropriating’ someone else’s perspective.
Committing your story to paper and making it available publicly is, to me, an act of bravery, and if you do it with integrity and in good faith, without any malicious agenda, you should have nothing to fear – even from those whose have made it their purpose in life to find the offensive in almost everything.
It is important, however, to have people around you who have your back and will make you aware of the possible repercussions of what you’re saying: of how it might be perceived by other readers, and, most importantly in my view, by the specific individuals you mention in your book.
A good ghostwriter or editor and publisher will have your best interests at heart and be there to advise you about any passages or perspectives in your book which might be problematic for others. A publisher will, when it’s deemed necessary, have a professional legal read done, so that any potentially actionable content will be flagged up before publication. And, less formally, a trusted friend or family member should be willing to tell you honestly if you’ve inadvertently misrepresented something or if your literary creation is a ticking time bomb that’s likely to blow your personal life apart once it hits the shelves.
If you’re lucky enough to have such people around you, it’s worth at least taking their feedback into account. Although the final call when it comes to matters of taste and sensibility should remain yours – in my view, anyway.
In terms of the woke culture vs freedom of speech debate, I’ll admit to sometimes feeling alarmed at the thought of where it is all going to end. But I’m trying to take a ‘bigger picture’ view of it all and continue to hope that ultimately common sense will prevail. Although it’s possible that I’m being as Pollyanna-ish here as the plot of a sensitivity-vetted book…