Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company are in hot water for publishing new, bowdlerized versions of that awful, hilarious old monster’s books. There’s been a lot of braying about the sin of tampering with the classics of children’s literature. “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,” yelled Salman Rushdie, inaccurately, on Twitter (the books aren’t being censored; they’ve been edited for republication).
“Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,” he added, accurately.
I dislike the alterations very much, but they were made for business reasons, not literary ones, and so the conversation has missed the point, so far.
These books were edited because of a decision made by their rightsholder and publishers, whose aim is to sell these new books to modern readers whose tastes have grown substantially more humane, more intelligent and more inclusive than they were when I was a kid, and we all delighted openly in the various grotesque fates that befell Dahl’s hapless victims. I don’t know that changing the description of Augustus Gloop from “enormously fat” to “enormous” will do much to alter the essential viciousness of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s tontine-like atmosphere of brutality and dread, but in the current atmosphere of book bannings, (real) censorship and generalized panic around children’s books in schools and libraries, it’s not surprising that big publishers would take steps to keep their wares as inoffensive as possible. Ka-ching!
In the case of Dahl’s books, though, the fact is that these publishers and rightsholders are still trying to profit from stories that should have entered the public domain long ago, where their barbarities could remain in the soft-focused sepia tones of the bad old days. Dahl’s stories really are anachronisms, curiosities that belong in history’s attic along with all the other crazy, bloodthirsty, misogynist and racist literature—which it is imperative to keep around, for context, as well as the wonders, horrors and, yes, the pleasures of reading it all. How else can we understand these writers as they really were? How else are we supposed to remember how things used to be?
But modern copyright laws favor profiteering at the expense of the natural evolution of literature, and it’s the copyright laws that have made these foolish dust-ups more or less inevitable. James and the Giant Peach was first published by a card-carrying Global Elite member of the patriarchy in 1961, at the pinnacle of that era’s insouciant cruelty, you say? Its (incredibly clever) prose is jarring to the modern parental ear—its point of view woefully out of step? Too bad!! The publishers, and the author’s estate, will continue to pump the last drop of milk that can be tortured out of their menopausal cash cow anyway.
Had the (not great, but better) pre-1976 copyright laws still been in effect, James and the Giant Peach would have entered the public domain in 2017—56 years after its first publication. In that case, starting six years ago, anybody would have been free to alter and publish the story in any way they saw fit: by modernizing the language or translating it into Chaucerian English, by softening the cruelty, or making it meaner still; rewriting it as a comic book, or an opera, or a YouTube performance. James and the Giant Peach is a very weird classic that really belongs, not to today’s young readers, but to the generations of older people who grew up on it, and who might have a lot of interesting new things to make of it. But none of that is possible now, because its owners alone control the fate of this story, and they decided to wreck it—just a bit, they say—to force it to fit in with the commercial requirements of modern publishing.
Philip Pullman was closer to the mark than most critics, on BBC’s Radio 4. He advised young readers to “read all of these wonderful authors who are writing today, who don’t get as much of a look-in because of the massive commercial gravity of people like Roald Dahl.” (He recommended Malorie Blackman, Michael Morpurgo and Beverley Naidoo.) People who own copyrights that should have expired years ago are preventing cultural evolution not only by forbidding the creation of new forms, but by shoving their wares ahead of younger talent, and grabbing money that in a better world would be building new careers and seeding new works, not padding the coffers for the heirs of the old ones.
If the Centipede in James and the Giant Peach had been forced to sing his witless new song in the original book, he would surely have remained in bland and well-deserved obscurity:
Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute
And deserved to be squashed by the fruit […]
Aunt Spiker was much of the same
And deserves half of the blame
[that doesn’t even SCAN wtf]
Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat
And tremendously flabby at that […]
Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire
And dry as a bone, only drier
To advise them on these alterations, the publishers apparently hired Inclusive Minds, a consultancy founded in 2013 “for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature, and are committed to changing the face of children’s books.”
I am a fan of this kind of work, in principle. But sensitivity readings are for new books; they are a step in the editing process. “Changing the face of children’s books” as they emerge into a radically more open, accepting and egalitarian world? That is a great idea. “Changing the face” of an old friend, though… a 62-year-old friend? That is just exactly what it sounds like; plastic surgery, and liable to be botched.
My biggest worry is that the Dahl affair is going to give sensitivity reading a bad name, and unjustly. The distinction between messing with the past, and improving on the present, is a critical one.
And there can be no doubt at all that today’s megapublishers are flagrantly lacking in sensitivity. The biggest publishing corporations in New York, for example, fought over the right to pay a reported seven-figure advance for American Dirt, a tenth-rate racist romance by Jeanine Cummins—the white lady who explained that she’d written a clankingly terrible book in order to “give a face” to the “helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass” of Mexican immigrants at the U.S. border. Macmillan might have saved themselves a lot of grief, had they availed themselves of the services of Inclusive Minds that time.
Sensitivity readings: YES. For new books.
But republish Roald Dahl as he wrote, or don’t publish him at all. Do I support the wife-abusing womanizing creepiness of Roald Dahl, I do not, I would have left a guy like that like a shot, just like Patricia Neal did, even after 30 years, and he was a racist jerk too but that is what he was, and what the man was is inextricable from what he wrote. He was a savage, mean dude, the product of his times, too tall and too clever for his own good, one can’t help thinking. Was he hilarious yes, did he suffer gravely, he did, was he an incorrigible prick, also yes. What are we to make of all this?
We have to tell the truth about it!