So Roald Dahl is under attack now—this time by the publishers at Puffin House.
Pausing to be fair and unbiased, I can see the argument publishers are making. Children are impressionable, and we must ensure they’re given every chance to take an optimistic, tolerant viewpoint. In the age of cyberbullying and online abuse, we must be careful what words get bandied around in front of young, uninformed, impressionable minds.
That being said, where are all the adults in this scenario?
Yes, we need to raise a more tolerant, open-minded generation, but it’s how we go about it that’s the problem. And I don’t think ignoring history is how to answer this problem.
That said, I do get the issue here of wanting to tell kids simple stories before bed without it leading to questions about race and gender and whether any one person is good enough or better than others. And there are many good stories being written, or that are written, that avoid these topics.
But still, these topics exist. And the minds we mollycoddle today are the minds that control the future. We need a generation that’s able to deal with race relations and conflict, one that can recognise obesity as a health risk, if not a moral one, and act in accordance with the facts of the world.
I also see no need to change the past to do so. It's intellectual laziness. It’s admitting that Roald Dahl’s stories, for all their lack of representation, gender and sexual difference (if that need matter), were a damn sight better than a lot of other stories out there.
So publishers try to force current thought and acceptance into the text to bring it up to standard, to keep selling something written decades ago, because the risk of trying something new isn’t commercially feasible.
Nor was Roald Dahl a massive problem, at least not in his books. Current issues were never his problem unless you count the poverty of the Bucket family. The passages being changed are baffling and are substitutions for the sake of substitutions. Orwellian Newspeak doesn’t eliminate the thought alone — if that’s the angle publishers are going for, they’ve missed language theory by almost a hundred years.
The thought is independent of the word. It doesn’t mean words aren’t hurtful and full of connotations, but it does mean we can’t purge specific ideas through language alone. As powerful as it is, language is not God.
For example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop is described as being ‘enormously fat’, whereas the change has him down as ‘enormous’. Fat is perhaps a charged word, but large readers can hardly equate their plight to that of racial subjection, mainly since the whole damn scene depends on the size of Augustus. Unless he’s removed entirely, he will still cast a big shadow. All enormous means is that Augustus has a weight problem. It doesn’t make him a bad person.* Moving on.
In The Witches, those witches posing as a ‘cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman’ are replaced by witches posing as a ‘top scientist or running a business’. For starters, these are hardly commonplace roles that a witch would choose, not wanting to draw attention to herself. Secondly, I understand that they’re aspirational goals, but they’re the goals of monsters who want to eat children. And thirdly, it hardly helps kids learn about the role of feminism to ignore the struggle altogether — unless we want to start setting all of Roald Dahl’s books in modern Britain.
These changes smack of an AI set on automatic language mode, pulling words out of their context. In The Fantastic Mr Fox, the term' black' is removed from the description of the terrible tractors. Should we then remove black from anything terrifying? Are children even relating themselves to tractors? Should they be?
Oompa-Loompas are no longer ‘tiny’; they’re ‘small’. No one is ‘crazy’; they’re ‘mad’. Regardless of the context, references to ‘black’ and ‘white’ are under revision.
It annoys me, too, that attention is being given to the age, gender and sexual identity of the new publishing team (although it probably has something to do with it). There are plenty of publishers out there who would do the same thing, regardless of their personal lives. But this issue is becoming one of the individuals unseparated from the works. Roald Dahl’s antisemitism is being bought to light in defence of the changes because the man harboured particular ‘views’.
They’re not the views we want to continue with, but they were of their time. It doesn’t make them right, but it doesn’t mean we can use them to defend changing history precisely what these edits are doing. We’re changing these works for people too young to know they’re changed, to have any idea about any of the underlying problems. And again, I get why people want a break from this in a fantasy context, but they’re missing a great opportunity.
There are plenty of other authors out there for parents to read. Look around the market. As Philip Pullman said, ‘if Dahl offends us, let him go out of print’.
But if you’re not too tired and you think Roald Dahl is worth it (which he is), then please, have the conversation. Talking to kids about political or ethical issues is the only way to advance. They’ll always find what you hid out there in the big, bad, ugly world and probably hate you for it. Instead, use the story time to discuss how we’ve moved on. Talk about what’s hurtful and what can be done better. Have a conversation with someone who will one day be an adult.
The good news (from my point of view) is that this recent revamping of history has gone too far. The original texts of Roald Dahl will still be viable. And I hope it remains.
For those who forget the past, there is no way to alter the course of the future. We can’t rewrite a better moral compass on others by blocking out what’s been. Instead, we risk trivialising history and creating issues where none were.
The ordinary woman isn’t a scientist. Nor is the common man. Bullying is horrible, but obesity still exists. We need to have young people who can recognise issues and see them in their context, just as much as we need young people who can stand on the side of right and fight for a better, more tolerant tomorrow.
The trouble is, in this area of censorship, we’re more or less all on the same side. It’s how we go about it that counts. And I, for one (although I have no kids of my own), am for treating kids as young entrants into the adult world. The less we hide from them, the less we may have to hide from them in the future. What’s important is that we have those tricky conversations with younger people, as well as with ourselves.
*Again, that being said, I understand the whole point of the scene was to highlight Augustus’ greedy appetite. He was a rotten egg but also one whose personality was tied to food.
Well, can’t we instead talk about how his lack of listening to directions and respect for others resulted in his unfortunate situation, one that wasn’t helped by his size? Can’t we explain the difference and discuss the portrayal's pros and cons? And can we please address that overeating leads to a health condition, although not necessarily making one ‘a lousy person?’