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The Sensitivity Reader : Roald Dahl and James Joyce


Publishers of Roald Dahl, the author famed for mentioning unmentionable things, are employing sensitivity readers to alter some of the unmentionable language in his children’s books. This is language deemed offensive. The unmentionable is one of the reasons readers read Roald Dahl. The publishers stand by “the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text,” so how much that changes after the sensitivity readers get to work is a fair question. ‘Fat’ and ‘ugly’ have been cut, with the result that Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but just “beastly”. Physical appearance is a main concern behind hundreds of changes. Then there is “Aunt Sponge who is terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that,” which has been changed to “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit,” leaving one to wonder if the sensitivity reader is not guilty of ageism, also revengism, but more to the point a co-author of the work, given the new couplet alters the meaning of the story and may not be what Dahl had in mind at all. The full job description for Sensitivity Reader is not readily available, but obviously extends to skill with gender neutrality, as the Cloud-Men in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ have become Cloud-People. How this alters the meaning of the story itself (cf. Aunt Sponge) is not up for discussion. Yesterday, Finnegans Wake Reading Group reached page 120: “…those throne open doubleyous (of an early muddy terranean origin whether man chooses to damn them agglutinatively loo-too-blue-face-ache or illvoodawpeehole or, kants, koorts, topplefouls) seated with such floprightdown determination and reminding uus ineluctably of nature at her naturalest…” Would a sensitivity reader alter ‘man’ to ‘people’, thereby ruining the rhythm of the passage? Can anything be done to hide the fact this is a description of defecating, when the author of ‘Finnegans Wake’ has already gone to such indulgent, overwordy trouble doing the same? Is this any way to talk about a letter in the Book of Kells and how many sensitivities must be overcome before the young reader appreciates the author’s ornate way of explaining the natural activity of going to the dunny? Like Roald Dahl, the offending passage becomes more meaningful and more funny the more times it is read, the reader becoming complicit through the humour. ‘Finnegans Wake’ is rife with interest in the problems faced by Roald Dahl. For example, the words we use now, even quite common words like ‘fat’ or ‘man’, will mean something new to another generation. Well-meaning editors alter the ur-text to suit an agenda or a readership or an in-house prescription, thus inventing a new book. Changes can turn meanings into their opposites, just so a tragic ending can be a happy ending, a comic phrase becomes a neutral mundanity, a taboo becomes a permission, and vice versa, tangoing with wobbily doubleyous across the page.


The image by Quentin Blake is of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ by Roald Dahl. Here is the inoffensive article:          


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