Notebook: (1) Sensitivity
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
There’s a new way of being a “contrarian,” best executed on Twitter or in an op-ed, according to which one advertises one’s intellectual independence by denouncing some contemporary trend, usually speaking up for people’s selfish needs, or the institutional status quo, in the face of some call for society-improving change. I certainly don’t want to be this kind of person. But I also sometimes feel like the two sides in some public discussion conceal all sorts of complicated realities that many are too busy waving the high hand to wrestle with. Such a case is the controversies over Puffin Press’s recent bowdlerized editions of the works of Roald Dahl.
On February 17 the relatively conservative British newspaper The Telegraph published a detailed expose of new editions of the children’s fiction of author Roald Dahl, disclosing multiple changes to the texts. A not-very-conspicuous note on the books’ copyright page explained: “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
Writers and readers were quick to denounce. Salman Rushdie, whose whole life has been a parable of free speech, tweeted “this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” PEN America director Susanne Noselle summed up the case against on Twitter, writing, “the problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas” and “so much of literature could be construed as offensive to someone—based on race, gender, religion, age, socio-economic status or myriad other factors. Such portrayals are vital topics for discussion and debate, leading to new insights.”
Indeed the changes to the Dahl texts were over the top. The word “black” was removed from descriptions of objects; “men” and “women” were turned into “people”; we are informed in a new aside that there is nothing wrong with wearing a wig; women secretaries are transformed into scientists; and the precocious Matilda reads Jane Austen instead of Kipling and Conrad. (One chuckles a little that Austen herself is not free of ties to colonialism, presumably the charge against Kipling and Conrad. Maybe she’ll come out of the next edition.)
An important caveat here is that these changes are being made by the copyright holder, the Dahl estate, not under threat from a government or institution and in all likelihood with commercial interests more firmly in view than cultural sensitivities (as argued by critics Lincoln Michel and Christian Lorentzen, among others). The entire Dahl “catalog” was acquired recently by Netflix for, reportedly, $386 million, on top of a $1 billion previous rights deal, in what seems to me an unprecedented arrangement, giving a production company control over all rights in an author’s work, with the priority not resting on books but adaptations and other commercial exploitation. All involved say that these textual changes were in the works before Netflix took over, but surely market considerations were not out of mind with a prospect like this in the wings.
When Dr. Seuss’s estate announced its intention to retire And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, among other less-known books, from publication because of the depiction of racial stereotypes, I defended it, saying copyright holders have the right to make such decisions and sometimes creative work falls away from the times and there has to be a way for it gracefully to retire. “Free speech” does not oblige rightsholders and publishers to continue to invest in and promote work that has become obsolescent; certainly there are plenty of things I watched and read as a child that would offend now and have quietly been shelved, though a modern kid, or some modern kids, may well be amused by them (The Three Stooges, Little Rascals …). I was in rooms in which publishers could not decide whether to include in their list the works of Nazi equivocator but clear genius Ernst Jünger. To publish is a positive act, not just a withholding of censoriousness. The Seuss books would remain in libraries and available as out-of-print books; they were not being made illegal to read or own.
The Seuss estate earned $33 million before taxes in 2020, the year before it removed these books from the market, like Dahl’s estate benefitting from streaming revenue from Netflix. Netfix said of the Dahl deal that, more than just series and films, it presents the opportunity for “the creation of a unique universe across animated and live-action films and TV, publishing, games, immersive experiences, live theater, consumer products, and more.” Financial filings for the transaction said, “new TV productions and feature films are important to introduce new generations to the worlds of Roald Dahl, and to build a consistent brand identity which can be rolled out to other areas of the business.” In other words, sanitizing the literary legacy, and insulating it from PR vulnerability, may not be exactly about the experience of reading the books, it may be about protecting the brand.
I read every single Roald Dahl children’s book, I believe, aloud to a twenty-first century child, and there were things about them that were hard to take. Revenge is an operative trope in the Dahl world. The cruelties of Dahl’s English-boarding-school childhood and his sense of abandonment (harrowingly recounted in his memoir Boy) fed a lifelong attunement to the mortal vulnerability of children. In his books extreme measures, unilaterally applied, are necessary to protect the innocent from the forces arrayed against them. Violence is gleefully celebrated. Antagonists are identifiable by despised physical traits like ugliness and fatness and deformity. Readers are encouraged to see themselves as uniquely deserving and their persecutors as getting what’s coming to them: always a pleasant exercise but a bit self-exonerating perhaps.
Dahl’s most famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, struck me as a parable at times smugly celebrating the morally cleansing benefits of postwar British austerity: all the failings for which children are punished in the book originate in their indulgent, too-prosperous parents and the temptations of economic expansion, whereas Charlie is kept honest by his family’s privation; self-renunciation and endurance of humiliation at the end mark his elevation. Dahl himself had a real-life history of demonizing difference: his family in 2020 apologized for his open antisemitism, another brand-protective move concurrent with the Netflix negotiations. It has been a bit discomfiting to see the hackles rise in defense of Dahl’s inviolable texts among members of the British royal circle.
This is not to say that I was not myself charmed by Dahl’s disinhibition and wickedly inventive mechanisms of comeuppance, and my own kid, a bit of an outsider himself, was certainly fortified by them. (The autobiographical Boy and Going Solo were also welcome reading: Dahl’s tendency to demonize in fiction was leavened by an anti-heroic self-understanding, at least as an author, that made him a subtle observer of his own circumstances.)
It’s interesting to me that this legacy remains such a financial engine in a world where book culture is undergoing such transformations. How much actual reading is going here? I knew a few emphatic Dahl-world types among my kid-and-parent circles, but mostly not. Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian, observing that Dahl represents “a high cancellation risk,” noted that schools are now “kinder and gentler places than Dahl’s sadistic-sounding prep” and “these cultural shifts do create an unmistakable gap between today’s under-10s—the actual audience for children’s books—and nostalgic adults.” Margaret Talbott wrote thoughtfully in The New Yorker years ago about how children do not have to be literally beaten by their teachers to have the sense of imperilment Dahl speaks to, yet the commercial impulse to wield the editorial pen here, given the stakes, must have had some real-world calculation behind it.
I should declare myself here as a bit of an authors’ rights absolutist. I am a literary executor myself, and have always adhered to the standard that an author’s work should be preserved according to their judgment—not so much because there is anything sacrosanct about it, but because as a practical matter they know what’s going on more than anyone else is likely to, and their decisions about what to publish are as much a part of their aesthetic legacy as their characters, plots, sentences. I would have said—before addressing the quality of the edits themselves—that if you were going to do this, you should identify the books as “Young Readers’ Editions” or something, and declare explicitly somewhere what alterations have been made, and the original works should remain available. (As Puffin has now done, post-criticism, redoubling, observers note with a sour laugh, their yield.)
But there are serious arguments against this position. Most notoriously, Kafka’s executor Max Brod ignored Kafka’s wish that his unpublished works be burned, and W. H. Auden made late-in-life revisions to his poems that many readers have resisted. According to what measures do you intervene in a dead writer’s work? I generally oppose publishing for a general audience an author’s unpublished writings, though there are tremendous commercial incentives to do so, and many don’t hesitate. I wonder how those who object to changing Dahl’s corpus after his death feel about bringing out an author’s unfinished books wrapped up by another person, or publishing their partial drafts. (Joan Didion once wrote brilliantly on this subject.)
Dahl himself resisted editing in life from those trying to tone him down, though he did finally—apparently willingly—revise Charlie so that the Oompa-Loompas travelled voluntarily to Mr. Wonka’s factory rather than being enslaved by him. In Dahl’s era children’s librarians were particularly known for their conservative force in the editing of children’s books. Matthew Dennison, author of Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected, told The Telegraph that Dahl did not have “any truck with librarians who criticized his books as too frightening, lacking moral role models, negative in their portrayal of women, etc.” It seems likely, as Dennison remarked, that Dahl “would have recognized that alterations to his novels prompted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children, and this always inspired derision, if not contempt, in Dahl.” That said, Dahl’s first biographer (also an editor) Jeremy Treglown recounts the extent to which Dahl’s American editor Stephen Roxburgh, among others, had a hand in making the contrarian, but ultimately bottom-line-driven, author’s work publishable even by contemporaneous standards.
It was a shock to me to learn, though, that posthumous changes to authors’ work are apparently, as the Puffin statement indicates, now routine …
Read Part Two of this post here!
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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