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Woke book burners should wake up to themselves


Is it time for the “awake” to take a nap? I am so glad that younger generations have awakened society to our many inequalities and hypocrisy, but when it comes to literature, I think they should hit the snooze button.

Authors from Salman Rushdie to Philip Pullman are baffled by the revelation that Puffin dipped Roald Dahl’s wickedly crude prose in antiseptic so as not to offend modern readers. Augustus Gloop is released in the cleaned editions Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer “fat” but “huge”. Matilda‘s terrifying Miss Trunchbull no longer has a “big horse face” – just has a “face”. Mrs. Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but simply “beastly”. And oh, the Oompa-Loompas are gender neutral.

Author Kathy Lette, on Elouera Beach, Cronulla, and a scene from the movie Puberty Blues. Credit:Louise Kennerley, delivered

These kinds of corrections are not uncommon. Most publishers now use “sensitive readers” to nitpick through an author’s work and remove anything deemed disrespectful. This total humor ectomy and mollycoddling would not have impressed Dr. Johnson, who remarked, “The true purpose of literature is to enable the reader to enjoy life better or better endure it.”

In the current climate I doubt it Puberty blues, my first novel (co-authored with Gabrielle Carey), would ever be published. The graphic depictions of sex and racism on Sydney’s beaches would send today’s sensitive readers into collective cardiac arrest. I just hope our publishers don’t feel the need to subject our ’70s cult classic to a Dahl-esque revamp. Imagine: “Rack off, you fish-faced moll”, revised as “Please leave my presence, you water-themed erotic adventurer”. And what about a surfie boy’s comment to a passing girl, “Jeez, you’re rootable”? “My loins are stirred by your beauty features” doesn’t quite cut the linguistic mustard.

The enduring appeal of Puberty blues is the raw realism. And isn’t that the whole point of being an author? To grope in dark corners, expose uncomfortable truths and tell it like it is?


Even if my publishers don’t subject me to the censorship of sensitive readers (censoractivity readers, surely?), my 15 novels are still at risk of being labeled with trigger warnings. I am triggered by trigger warnings. Authors painstakingly plan plot twists and lay these romanistic land mines in hopes of astounding readers. Trigger warnings deprive the author of the element of surprise in both plot and character development.

Readers need to trust that the writer will get them safely from cover to cover with empathy, emotional intelligence, and integrity, without having to strap a giant shock absorber to their brains. A book is not a packet of cornflakes – it doesn’t have to have a list of ingredients on the cover, which kills all the tension. (A grain killer, if you will.)

Another new constraint placed on writers is the pressure to have the same sexual orientation or ethnicity as our protagonists. Despite being Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s cabin helped end slavery, would it struggle to get published today? Booker Prize winners Bernardine Evaristo and Kazuo Ishiguro and Nigerian literary superstar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have all expressed their opposition to this grounding of writers’ imaginations.

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