When it was reported last month that hundreds of words had been changed or removed in the most recent British editions of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda” and other books by Roald Dahl in an effort to make them less offensive, everyone from the queen consort and the British prime minister to the head of PEN America expressed outrage. Salman Rushdie referred to the edits as “censorship.”
This is not the first time we have had one of these extended struggle sessions about ethics in children’s literature. The decision, for instance, by the Dr. Seuss estate in 2021 to end the sale of six books because of imagery deemed offensive also led to competing cries of “racism” and “cancel culture.”
There is something absurd, however, about the amount of preening occasioned by a handful of alterations to books about Brobdingnagian fruit and talking insects. Whatever Dahl’s place in the annals of 20th-century children’s fiction, it is striking that these culture war arguments somehow always revolve around authors like him and Dr. Seuss; one is forced to confront the distinctly horrifying possibility that “If I Ran the Zoo” and “James and the Giant Peach” are the only books that millions of Anglophone readers have ever actually finished. (That the changes to Dahl’s texts first began to appear more than a year ago without attracting any significant attention until now should tell us something about the level of readerly attention brought to bear on books that sell tens of thousands of copies each year.)
Despite the indignation of the critics and the high-mindedness of the revisers, the truth is that most of the edits to the Dahl books are of very little importance. Many are slight (replacing “old hag” with “old crow”) or inscrutable (“taught him how to spell and write sentences” for “volunteered to give him lessons”). Others are needlessly “sensitive” (changing “black” to “dark,” even when the connotations are not racial, or “attractive” to “kind”) but do not seriously affect the author’s meaning. A handful of the edits are unintentionally hilarious: Insisting that “man-eating giant” be replaced with “human-eating giant,” as in the new edition of “The BFG,” sounds like an unclever right-wing parody of wokeness. But the most worrisome thing about this is the stylistic ineptitude.
The assumption that there is an urgent debate here, one of the utmost importance to the future of culture, society and so on, is politically useful to both sides. But what both sides are really arguing about is not whether it’s ever OK to make posthumous edits, but who gets to make them and why.
In the Dahl case, the changes were proposed by consultants at an organization called Inclusive Minds, which is purported to foster “inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature.” The edits were permitted by the Roald Dahl Story Company, which manages the author’s copyrights and trademarks, and which was later purchased by Netflix. The profit-seeking corporate context in which the changes were made should raise eyebrows more than the mere fact that people have been mucking around with the texts.
After all, not even the most strident critics of Dahl’s editors can really believe that it is always unacceptable to alter the texts of famous works of literature. I have never heard anyone object to the fact that in editions of “The Great Gatsby” published since 1992, numerous perceived errors of both fact and internal chronology have been corrected, such as the age of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s daughter and the name of the real hotel where the couple are married. (Though perhaps we should object, given that we might reasonably expect errors in a first-person narrative about Jazz Age boozers.)
Altering literary texts to suit various needs, including the perceived tastes and sensibilities of readers, has long been the norm rather than the exception. In his edition of Shakespeare published in 1725, Alexander Pope regularized the meter and cleaned up the grammar (“more headier” became “more heady”) in an attempt to bring it in line with the decorous norms of 18th-century prosody; countless lines that Pope considered unworthy of the author were relegated to a footer at the bottom of the page. A few decades later, when David Garrick’s performances of the plays were helping to elevate Shakespeare to his present position in the canon of English drama, the most commonly staged version of “King Lear” featured a happy ending originally written in 1681, which even Samuel Johnson preferred.
In 1818, Dr. Thomas Bowdler (the namesake of “bowdlerize”) and his sister Harriet published their second edition of “The Family Shakespeare,” in which they removed sexual and ostensibly blasphemous material from the plays, including Iago’s immortal description of the marital act. (“Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” was reduced to “Your daughter and the Moor are now together”).
It was only later in the 19th century, with the Romantic cult of the author and the rise of academic textual scholarship, that the notion of a sacrosanct authorial vision began to take hold. But even then, such standards tended to apply only to established authors. The most common English editions of many 19th-century French novels were still heavily bowdlerized; an English translation of “The Three Musketeers” that achieved a suitably high level of fidelity to Dumas was not available until 2006.
But those versions of Dumas, including the Tor Classics paperback that I still cherish, delighted millions of children, inspired countless films and gave rise to one famous candy bar. One might even go so far as to say that they have achieved classic status in their own right, in the same way that C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s English translation of Proust is (for some of us) an achievement arguably superior to the French original. In comparison with the familiar sanitized versions, Dumas’s original is an obscure, slightly seedy French romance.
All of which is to say that making changes, even rather sweeping ones, to classic works of literature is not as controversial as some would like to imagine. The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether it is ever reasonable but who should be able to do so — and in what spirit and with what purpose. (If a publisher issued, say, an edition of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” for evangelical Christian home-schoolers that excised references to homosexuality, I suspect many of the people who freely edited Dahl’s books would suddenly be extolling the sanctity of authorial intent.)
In the Dahl case, the edits were not the result of academic deliberation, like the “corrected texts” incorporated into paperback versions of Faulkner novels. Nor were they an admixture of scholarship and financial incentives, like the Hans Walter Gabler edition of Joyce’s “Ulysses” that reset the novel’s copyright status in the 1980s. Here, it was a company treating Dahl’s beloved creations as if they were merely its assets, which they in fact were.
I, for one, do not believe that philistines should be allowed to buy up authors’ estates and convert their works into “Star Wars”-style franchises, as Netflix now seems to be doing, having purchased the Roald Dahl Story Company. In a saner world there would be a sense of curatorial responsibility for these things. “Owning” works of literature, insofar as it should be possible at all, should be comparable to a museum’s ownership of a Caravaggio. Clarify and contextualize, promote and even profit — but do not treat art like you would your controlling interest in a snack foods consortium.
Which is exactly how Dahl’s new owners are behaving. As some constitutionally cynical observers expected, l’affaire Dahl has turned out to be one of those New Coke/Coca-Cola Classic gambits. After a few days of free marketing from the perpetually outraged, it was announced that a 17-volume set of the “classic” versions of Dahl’s books would soon be published. While many culture warriors will be happy to claim this news as a victory, they should ask themselves for whom.
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