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The Editor’s Desk: Leave those books alone

When is censorship not censorship? When it’s done by ‘sensitivity readers’, apparently
Author Roald Dahl signing books for some eager fans in Amsterdam. Dahl, who died in 1990, was opposed to his words being tampered with, which is precisely what has happened. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A literary scandal erupted recently, when it was revealed that many of the works of author Roald Dahl had been heavily edited, revised, and in some cases had apologetic additions made to them prior to being reprinted last year. The changes were made at the request of the Roald Dahl Story Group (which owns the rights to the stories, the author having died in 1990) and publisher Penguin Random House, and the works include such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, and James and the Giant Peach.

The changes came about after “sensitivity readers” were hired to oversee the removal of words and phrases that perpetuated stereotypes, were sexist or racist, or were otherwise not in keeping with modern views. No one involved seems to have anticipated the backlash that came from all sides of the political spectrum, whether it was people on the right screaming “Woke/cancel culture!” or people on the left crying “Unwarranted censorship!” Consensus seemed to be to just leave the stories as the author wrote them, and let readers decide for themselves if they’re offensive.

It’s worth noting that during his lifetime Dahl did make a few changes: for example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he changed the Oompa Loompas from “black pygmies from Africa” to generic fantasy dwarfs. However, in a conversation with the artist Francis Bacon in 1982, which was recorded and transcribed, Dahl was very clear about how he wanted his works treated.

“I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!” he said. “When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.”

Bacon agreed, saying that “There must be no changes to an artist’s original work when he is dead for any reason whatsoever.” Crossing himself in jest, Dahl replied, “I just hope to God that will never happen to any of my writings as I am lying comfortably in my grave.”

Dahl made an excellent point. It’s one thing for the author to make the decision to edit his or her own work; it’s another one entirely for anyone else to make it. And why would they do it, you ask? The publisher said it was so that Dahl’s books “can continue to be enjoyed” today. Somewhat downplayed (that is, not mentioned at all) was that the Roald Dahl Story Group recently made a deal worth $820 million with Netflix. It’s not hard to see the blunt hand of corporate greed playing a large part, with all parties wanting to ensure the stories are as unoffensive as possible prior to being republished with a big “As seen on Netflix” banner across the cover. A more honest statement might have been so that the books “can continue to be profitable”.

Dahl’s works contain a good deal of nastiness, even cruelty, but that is a feature, not a bug. Generations of children have revelled in the darkness of his tales, which — especially when they were first published — proved to be a welcome contrast to the often saccharine works usually offered up to children: 300 million copies of his books have been sold over the last six decades or so.

Fortunately, the outcry prompted Penguin to announce that later this year, 17 of Dahl’s titles will be published in their unexpurgated versions as “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection”. Now, there is plenty of evidence to show that Dahl was a deeply unpleasant man, and some parents might decide that between that and the dark content of his books, they’d rather their children didn’t read them. That’s absolutely fine, although it might backfire: children are very good at gaining access to things that have been forbidden. But it should be up to readers to make that decision, not “sensitivity readers”. Censorship is censorship, no matter what fine words you try to use to soften it.

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