Image by Peter Dazeley

The sludge of sensitivity

Politics is degrading our cultural classics

Artillery Row

On Sunday, 11 June, the Daily Mail reported that publishers were placing a blanket trigger warning on all new editions of P. G. Wodehouse novels, due to concerns that the books contained “outdated” social attitudes. This type of intervention by publishers is a worrying development. It appears to be on the increase to such an extent that it could become the norm if left unchecked.

Penguin Random House recently put a disclaimer at the beginning of its new edition of P. G. Wodehouse’s Thank you, Jeeves, which reads: “Please be aware that this book was published in the 1930s and contains language, themes and characterizations which you may find outdated. In the present edition we have sought to edit, minimally, words that we regard as unacceptable to present-day readers.” A not very subtle sleight of hand is used in the disclaimer, whereby “you may find outdated” becomes “we regard as unacceptable”. They might as well have written: “We have made changes to Wodehouse’s 1934 book, after deciding that the version available over the past ninety years is not one which we believe you would wish your wife and servants to read”. It is clear that the same censorious instinct demonstrated by prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC in the 1960 obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where Penguin was the defendant, is alive and well in the new edition of Thank you, Jeeves.

Wodehouse’s language is inevitably of its time and class, which is what gives his writing a good deal of its charm. Admittedly, there are rare occasions where the word he has chosen jars because it has patronising racial undertones that Wodehouse was oblivious to in his day. In Thank you, Jeeves, Wodehouse has Wooster applying boot polish to disguise himself as a member of a minstrel band when escaping from a ship he has been falsely imprisoned on. At all times, Wooster remains the butt of the joke. Minstrel bands consisting of white men blackened up to depict black American song and dance performers are thankfully a thing of the past, though not the very distant past. We are glad to see them go, but their existence should not be expunged from history. They were a fact of life when Wodehouse was writing in 1934 and long after. A good editor can improve a text by suggesting sensible changes to the wording of a manuscript submitted for publication, where ignorance or crassness amounts to an error that needs rectifying, but nobody is entitled to rewrite history.

It is fair to wonder, in all sincerity, just how thrown off balance a person could be as a result of reading the original Wodehouse prose, which radiates goodwill, wit and optimism. I doubt that anyone could detect any malice or ill-will in Bertie Wooster or Reginald Jeeves, let alone intentional racial slurs. Removing certain words and replacing them with other words, in a piece of work written by an author who is no longer around to give their consent or to refuse, is degrading to both author and reader. When I buy a P. G. Wodehouse book, I expect to get P. G. Wodehouse, not an adulterated version, however “minimal” the alterations. It is like having your wine watered down by a puritanical stranger, who has taken it upon himself to restrict your alcohol units without your permission, certain that he knows what is best for you.

Amending an author’s work to reflect changing fashions is becoming quite the thing, but this practice amounts to nothing less than rescinding the right of authors to express themselves in their own words. Publishers have granted themselves a licence to tamper with and despoil any piece of literature they can get their hands on, however precious it may be and whatever its standing in the English literary canon. A new demand requires a new profession, that of the sensitivity proof-reader. Fuelled by their own fixed idea of virtue and “steeped to the gills in serious purpose”, this new breed of proof-reader is desensitising texts like nobody’s business. The disinfection treatment is intended to reduce the chances of a book triggering a backlash on Twitter, its publication being cancelled when the publishing house caves in to what it believes to be public demand.

The gag comes as no surprise because it has been agreed upon in advance

I haven’t met one yet, but I suppose it is only a question of time before my polite enquiry at a dinner party of “What do you do for a living?” is met with “I’m a sensitivity reader for Pan Macmillan”. They might explain their job in terms of eliminating the risk of exposing readers to language that is likely to cause them to feel “uncomfortable” or “unsafe”. Presumably, sensitivity readers feel that they are acting as society’s conscience, sparing the unwitting reader any unnecessary pain. In fact the role they have assigned themselves is more like the book equivalent of the censorship function enjoyed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Office, in relation to stage productions prior to 26 September 1968 — though the sensitivities these days have a rather different focus.

If I were pathologically naïve, I could ask which particular sensitivities the proof-reader has in mind when they apply their magnifying glass to a text, but I know enough to realise that I am not going to find myself amongst the protected species. I don’t identify as belonging to a marginalised group. If I discovered my Welsh rarebit recipe in a Nigella Lawson book, I would not go researching her family history in order to satisfy myself that her genealogical roots met the necessary threshold to entitle her to plunder Welsh gastronomy. Likewise, I honestly couldn’t work myself up into a lather over somebody getting it wrong in a book when describing how a person who is follically challenged, as I am, goes about shaving what hair they have left.

The keystone holding the sensitivity arch in place is the imperative of never causing offence. The intrinsic problem with this guiding principle is that it stifles freedom of thought and expression. Lord Sumption was right when he stated, “Unless you confine yourself to worthy platitudes, you are almost bound to cause offence to someone.” Rather presciently, Aunt Agatha says something similar in P. G. Wodehouse’s Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the England of today, Bertie, there are too many people around with scruples and high principles and all that sort of guff. You can’t do the simplest thing without somebody jumping on the back of your neck because you have offended against his blasted code of ethics.” She had a point.

Taking shelter under the prevailing moral consensus on social media, in order to avoid a possible battering from a Twitter storm, is almost guaranteed to result in bland and predictable output. The aim of trying not to offend anybody is useful in the field of diplomacy, but it is enormously constrictive and unhelpful when it comes to writing and expressing opinions. In addition, it is difficult to quell the feeling that there is a good dose of cant at the heart of the battle cry for universal tolerance and sensitivity. It is abundantly clear that the maxim of not causing offence, in theory and in practice, only means not causing offence to designated categories of people. In this respect, it is anything but inclusive.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the area of contemporary comedy and satire, which relies on the assumption that the object of mockery for any given subject has already revealed itself to the group as worthy of ridicule. The gag comes as no surprise because it has been agreed upon in advance. The tepid comic effect of this form of choreographed humour is further dulled by repetition, as the same easy targets are released into the air like clay pigeons and shot down from a position of safety. Making fun of the Monarchy, patriotism and sex was genuinely amusing and subversive half a century ago when the That Was The Week That Was team were doing it. Now it is boring and unadventurous.

By what authority did some anonymous nonentity interfere with Dahl’s writings?

Christianity, for example, has for some years been a fairly common object of derision amongst comedians in Britain, with the consequence that most of the material is passé. It has lost its ability to surprise or serve as a pressure valve. By contrast, Islam enjoys a unique immunity from comedic scrutiny. Apart from a realistic and rational fear for their own safety, which is perfectly understandable, the reluctance of writers and satirists to make us laugh at the expense of this enormously powerful global institution, must also be at least partly due to their fear of being dubbed “Islamophobic”. As Christopher Hitchens said, “It is quite common now for people to use the expression, for example, ‘anti-Islamic racism’, as if an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word ‘Islamophobia’ is beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and rather nasty insinuation that needs to be met, head on.” It is much easier to crack jokes about the Anglican church, Mormons and Scientology, to whoops of approval and at no risk to your career, rather than attempting to unloosen the rich soil of comic material relating to Islam, which lies conspicuously unploughed in a neighbouring field.

The Penguin brand was built on making cheap paperback copies of books available to a wide audience. Even today Penguin Random House’s declared mission is “to ignite a universal passion for reading by creating books for everyone”. Does it really believe that sententious editorial manipulation of the works of our finest writers is the way to ignite a universal passion for reading? In my case, the desire to read a book is extinguished the moment I discover that it is the product of a sensitivity control and the application of a crude purity test. Such tests are designed to appeal to a doctrinaire constituency of readers, which in reality may be a smaller group than we suppose. Isn’t it taking a liberty for a publisher to claim that it is “creating” books, when that is in fact what the author does?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I feel unsafe as a consequence of the changes made to Thank you, Jeeves, but it would not be a great exaggeration to say that it causes a sense of disquiet in me. When I read that Puffin Books had changed the text of Roald Dahl’s Matilda from “She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling” to “She went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck”, a little wintry chill brushed the bottom of my back. A certain amount of wincing went on as well, before giving way to indignation. Who had the nerve to change the text I read as a child and now read aloud to my children? By what authority did some anonymous nonentity interfere with Dahl’s writings and intentions?

Austen and Steinbeck will eventually make way for other moral exemplars

I do not imagine that the practice of sensitivity reading is going to disappear in the near future, no matter how much I would wish it to. I expect this fad to carry on getting more intrusive and extreme. Austen and Steinbeck will probably, after much soul-searching and revisionism, be deemed to have defects in their moral make-up that make their work unacceptable. They will have to make way for other moral exemplars. When Orwell’s burden of proof for saints is adopted, i.e. “being judged guilty until proven innocent”, and nobody can remember quite why we ever embarked on this ludicrous cleaning up operation in the first place, that will be the day when “reason returns to her throne”.

In the meantime, I think it is only fair that any book that has been through a sensitivity filter should have a clear warning on it to let consumers know. New editions of old books that have been doctored to comply with current susceptibilities, should not merely contain a disclaimer, but have emblazoned across the cover the words: “This edition has undergone a sensitivity check to avoid causing offence and is not the original version.” This will avoid any confusion, enabling people like me to return the book immediately to the shelf before going to a second-hand bookshop in search of the original, uncorrupted copy. No matter how weather-worn and tattered the book might be, it would be infinitely preferable to the glossy new altered version.

Books can be a civilising force in a world full of noise and technological saturation. We should not humour those people who claim moral superiority over us by yielding to their need to decide for us what is suitable to read. As readers we should be open to being surprised and offended. As writers we should not indulge in self-censorship or submit to the censorship of others. If we give in to the impulses of those who have already started to “enclose the great common of the English language”, we will one day find ourselves surrounded by the ruins of a once great literature.

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