Over the weekend the internet exploded with takes on the news that many of Roald Dahl’s books have been edited to remove content that could be deemed offensive. Books editor Claire Mabey summarises the issues.
On February 17, UK newspaper The Telegraph revealed that Puffin, Roald Dahl’s publisher, has made extensive edits to many of Dahl’s books with the intention of removing offensive content.
According to The Telegraph’s (paywalled) interactive tool, which shows alterations in each book, edits are largely to do with depictions of women, weight, gender, and language relating to mental health (e.g. the words “crazy”, “mad” are deleted or replaced). The example below shows an edit to Dahl’s world in which witches are women with bald heads and who therefore must wear wigs when in plain sight, and is one of 59 changes that The Telegraph found in the novel The Witches:
“Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “You can’t go around pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” (2001 version of The Witches)
“Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons that women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” (2022 version of The Witches).
Edits to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a novel which has sold over 13 million copies worldwide) include the removal of the word “fat” when describing people; and the muting of such outbursts as:
“She wants a good kick in the pants,” whispered Grandpa Joe (2001 version of CATCF)
“She needs to learn some manners,” whispered Grandpa Joe (2022 version of CATCF)
And as for Matilda, the story about the little girl with an enormously powerful brain, changes include such literary reference substitutions as:
“She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling” (2001)
“She went to nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck” (2022)
Reactions to the article and the concept of editing Dahl’s work to make him more palatable to the contemporary reader have been many and passionate. Below are a collection of takes, with some analysis of our own.
Salman Rushdie, writer (who was recently attacked ahead of a live event)
Rushdie is of course no stranger to censorship. His books have been banned, he has been violently attacked and has lasting damage to his eye because of it. The question here, however, is whether what is happening with Dahl’s books is censorship or a necessary editorial refresh to books that continue to be read to, and by, millions of children.
It’s important to note that this is not the first time that Dahl’s books have been updated, as the Telegraph article itself reports: “In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the Oompa-Loompas were black pygmies, enslaved by Willy Wonka from ‘the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle’ and paid in cocoa beans. Dahl rewrote the characters in the late 1960s to “de-Negro” them, in his words. For Mel Stuart’s 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, the Oompas became green-haired, orange-skinned figures. By a 1973 edition of the book, they had become ‘little fantasy creatures’.”
So the precedent for making Dahl’s books less racist at least was set by the author himself. This kind of update is also not a new process for children’s publishing. For example, in 2010 it was widely reported that Enid Blyton books had been edited to update the language for new generations of readers.
Rushdie brings up Dahl’s estate (the Roald Dahl Story Company) who, at the time of writing, has not made any statement on its own website regarding the edits, but who has, according to The Telegraph, defended the edits saying: “When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout. Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”
As Rushdie noted, rather mildly, Dahl was no angel. What you can read on the Roald Dahl Story Company website is a published apology for Dahl’s anti-semitic comments which were appalling and regular.
Joyce Carol Oates, writer (who was recently interviewed by Kim Hill in a conversation equal parts excruciating and utterly fascinating)
Oates makes several logical points here. It seems fair that readers have the opportunity to know (before they buy) that what they’re reading isn’t the original text as the author, now dead and who can never approve the changes, intended. If you buy a new edition of a Dahl novel now, you’ll see this statement somewhere in the frontmatter: “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous 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.”
But is this enough? Should the cover include words to the tune of, “Edited by Puffin for contemporary readers. This is not the original text.”? Should there be a further page dedicated to explanations on the nature of the edits, and pointing to where readers can find the original texts? Even an appendix so that readers have the options of viewing the before and afters, all within the same package?
Oates also raises the issue of why republish Dahl at all, if his work is no longer aligned with Puffin’s values. This is a fair question but one perhaps easily answered in a word: money. Dahl makes money. In 2021, Netflix purchased the entire Dahl backlist from the Roald Dahl Story Company for a sum of USD$986m. According to The Telegraph’s investigation, the book edits were well underway before the sale with Puffin and the Story Company working with a company called Inclusive Minds to help them navigate “inclusion and accessibility in children’s publishing.”
Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to suggest that the two things are linked: when Netflix releases Dahl adaptations you’d expect a boost in book sales to go with it. The books then, would ideally reflect a contemporary Netflix-watching family audience, so an update to the books’ outdated bits may seem wise, particularly given that modern film translations almost always perform similar updates to the original story.
In short, you re-publish Dahl because his books still make a company or two a lot of cash.
Richard Blandford, writer
Certainly an idea.
Dewi Hargreaves, writer
Well this is a good point, Dewi. However I think we’ve established we’re in a capitalist world here, and Dahl sells. But the ethics of editing a dead author’s work is the sticky bit. I think we can point back to the precedent Dahl himself set of updating his work (see above) to suggest he might have understood the arguments in favour of the practice. However, more discussion below.
PEN America “champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”
It’s easy to see why Dahlgate is worrying for an organisation like PEN. The point that this kind of editing could, in the wrong hands, be problematic is a fair one. What could happen when this same principle of editing to remove clashes with contemporary ideas is employed by those who might seek to do the opposite of promoting inclusiveness and accessibility?
Like Nossel, many on the internet have suggested that the texts should be left as is but re-printed with contextual information to enable the books to be read within their historical context. But, do the current edits to Dahl’s books “dilute the power of storytelling” as Nossel suggests? From what we’ve seen so far I would venture to suggest that no, the edits haven’t fundamentally watered down Dahl’s signature dastardly dastards nor diluted the comedy and heroism.
But PEN’s worry over where to draw the editorial line is a fair concern. Perhaps the finer question is: Is it OK to do this for children’s books given we’re talking about kids here and not adults who ought to understand context and the realities of reading historic texts? More on this below.
Anita Singh, erts & Entertainment editor at The Telegraph
Anita Singh is the author of the Telegraph article that blew all this up. She makes a point. The word “fat” is subject to a lot of conversation – fat activists such as the late Dr Cat Pausé argued for the word fat to be reclaimed and used with the intention of negating the ways in which fat bodies are dehumanised in society at large. The issue with Dahl is that he often equated fatness with negative behavioural and psychological traits: greed, villainy and cruelty. Not always, but often. Singh, then, makes something of a point: the word fat is removed but the underlying clanger concepts are still there after the edit.
Maria Popova, creator of The Marginalian (formerly, Brain Pickings)
The concept of “ahistorical entitlement” is an interesting one. It is unfair to overlay contemporary ideas onto authors of the past. However, the comparison with Beloved is totally off. Firstly, Beloved is an adult novel (or at least upper YA) and Dahl’s work is for children. Secondly, Beloved was written by Toni Morrison, a writer and woman of colour whose work influenced progressive conversation around the world. This is not to say that Dahl hasn’t been influential or even progressive. Nevertheless, Morrison and Dahl were writing from very different places and with very different audiences in mind.
What is complicated about Dahlgate is the fact that this is children’s publishing we’re talking about (not just “publishing” as Popova tweets). It’s the young we have to think about, not our own nostalgic memory bites being undone by the so-called “woke”.
We’re a Dahl household, I’m happy to admit. We have so far read aloud The BFG, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Giraffe, the Pelly & Me, and Fantastic Mr Fox. And we started The Witches. For me, a parent who grew up on Dahl, I felt an unexpected, unwelcome cringe reading The Witches (some bits I still loved – the grandmother; and the depiction at the start of blindly adoring parents of little toads is genius). I found that Dahl’s particular witches collided violently with the kind of ideas about women that I want my son to grow up with. There were grating concepts in that novel that undid years of feminist work and I had no desire to resurface those in my young child’s developing brain, particularly at this alchemical, pre-school stage. It wasn’t a cringe for myself, it was a cringe for the unknown consequences of consciously embedding Dahl’s ideas about witches in my son’s head. For this reason we gave up on that particular novel and doing just that would seem to support an argument for simply not buying or reading books you don’t agree with.
And yet, when I found that the descriptions of the three farmers (Borris, Bunce and Bean) in Fantastic Mr Fox made me squirm – knowing those ideas were landing in my son’s ears via my own voice – I edited as I read aloud to soften the language. Again, it wasn’t that I was personally struggling – I’m an adult and have no problem reading the past knowing the context within which it was written is different to today. The issue I had was to do with the responsibility of being a parent – and not knowing what was going to be creating new neurological pathways in my child’s brain and what wasn’t. It’s hard to tell sometimes what random specifics children will absorb from stories.
I don’t think that my on-the-fly edits did, in any significant way, change the overarching nasty/kind dichotomies of Dahl, which are thrilling and important. We’re all drawn to Dahl because of the vicarious experience of cruelty and beastliness, the compellingly brutal worlds in which kind, vulnerable and curious children/animals/giants win out in the end. But my edits did make me feel less of a mouthpiece for outdated ideas that could have been an unwelcome distraction and resulted in the necessary unwinding of those ideas in post-reading-Dahl conversations.
I’m aware as I write that it’s precisely those kinds of tough and useful conversations that many with the anti-edit stance feel is the fairer outcome as opposed to editing to prevent them in the first place. Ultimately though, I think I’d have to conclude that while some of the Puffin edits seem unnecessary, others appear in line with Dahl’s own, prior updates, and don’t mess with the delightfully acidic characters and storylines.
The lingering thoughts on this one are: that the question of the editorial line is a fair one. And, is this actually all about money? Because, after all, multi-millionaire, best-selling contemporary author David Walliams seems to get away with quite a lot worse than vintage Dahl ever did.