The case against rewriting Roald Dahl

Should books be sanitised? And is it even possible to rewrite sections of text while remaining true to the author’s style and intentions? The debate over whether to retrofit historic literature, especially children’s books, for modern readers is not new — but it was reignited this week with The Daily Telegraph’s revelations that several of Roald Dahl’s most popular children’s titles are being released in new editions by Puffin Books with “hundreds of changes”.

These “rewrites” are not unprecedented. In 2010, Hachette brought out editions of Enid Blyton’s classic children’s books with “sensitive text revisions”, although it reverted in 2016 after a tepid response from readers.

Meanwhile, Dahl (1916-1990), who remains one of the world’s most popular children’s writers, selling more than 300mn books worldwide, is increasingly seen as a problematic figure who is known to have been bullying, misogynistic and openly antisemitic.

Some of the changes that Puffin has made are relatively minor: “queer” in The Witches (1983) is now “strange”, “mothers and fathers” in Matilda (1988) become “parents”, “Cloud-Men” in James and the Giant Peach (1961) are now “Cloud-People”. Others are major: entire sentences about characters who have “unfortunate bulging figures” or children who turn out to be “delinquents and drop-outs” have been excised. And there have been heated responses from around the world.

Joanne Harris, author and chair of the Society of Authors, tweeted her support for Puffin Books, describing the update as “just business”, but other writers have been more critical.

“Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed”, Salman Rushdie tweeted, while Indian author Indrapramit Das pointed out that the revisions raised questions about “the precedent of corporations altering authors’ books after they’re dead for marketability”. Dahl’s French publishers Gallimard said in a statement: “We have never changed Roald Dahl’s writings before, and we have no plans to do so today.”

According to news reports, the process of revising Dahl to make his books less offensive to modern readers began in 2020. Puffin Books collaborated with The Roald Dahl Story Company, an offshoot of Dahl’s literary estate that manages the rights to his stories and characters, and which was bought by Netflix in 2021 for more than £500mn. The publisher also sought advice from Inclusive Minds, a collective of “sensitivity readers” that works with publishers to make changes “to ensure that [the books] can continue to be enjoyed by all today”.

To me, these revisions — taken collectively — feel drastic, and they raise uncomfortable questions. Should you edit the work of dead authors, even if you have the legal right over their books, when it is impossible to gain the author’s consent to these changes? What are the consequences of a more censorial culture? Is it even necessary?

In India, I have seen how the current government’s active role in censoring the media, including documentaries and academic papers, has had a chilling effect. Offence laws have forced many writers to self-censor for fear of legal or other trouble if they “hurt sentiments”, particularly around religious content.

Other countries should be wary of censorship creep, even if propelled by corporations rather than the state. If the revision of texts becomes the norm — and if authors’ preferences, the historicity of books and readers’ own choices are ignored — the door is opened to more frequent and sweeping acts of erasure. Far better to leave the decision of whether to engage, or not, with individual readers.

One of my first jobs was as an apprentice nursery school teacher. The kids in my care loved all of Dahl’s ingenious but often gruesome tales — giants eat “human beans”, children are bullied by vicious adults, and the wicked meet gory ends. I skipped some of the most outrageous bits — but the choice remained with the kids and me.

Rewrites may be well-intentioned, but they can also date rapidly. One of the most famous revisionists, Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), set about expurgating the works of Shakespeare, citing “delicacies of decorum in one age unknown to another age”, and arguing that there were passages that “a father could not read aloud to his children, a brother to his sister, or a gentleman to a lady”. Today, his concerns seem fussy and old-fashioned; so may our good intentions to future readers.

In any case, a changing society self-edits over time. Many once-popular authors have since dropped out of favour; there is no longer an appetite for GA Henty’s late 19th-century tales of adventure, for example, so steeped are they in an antiquated colonialism; or for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s priggish Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).

It is understandable that publishers might wish to benefit from their lucrative back catalogues, but there are less intrusive ways to flag language or beliefs that seem outmoded or harmful — through forewords, or back-of-the-book reading guides that can be updated as sensibilities change. Every Dahl has his day, but let readers decide when they’re done.

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