Rewriting Roald Dahl: A Society Reckoning With its Past or Posthumous Censorship?

The alterations to the stories were made by the late author’s publisher Puffin after sensitive readers flagged deemed descriptions of characters offensive to modern readers.

London: After receiving widespread criticism and outrage on cuts and rewrites that were intended to make bestselling English novelist Roald Dahl’s children’s books more suitable for modern readers the British publisher, Penguin Random House, announced last month that it will publish the “classic” editions of Dahl’s books. The plan to rewrite the book was reportedly based on concerns raised by ‘sensitivity readers’.

Penguin Random House revealed that 17 of Dahl’s books will be published later in the year under the title The Roald Dahl Classic Collection, allowing readers to “choose which version of Dahl stories they prefer,” along with the new editions.

Francesca Dow, Penguin Random House Children’s managing director, said: “We have listened to the debate over the past week which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl’s books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation.”

Puffin, the late author’s publisher, and the Roald Dahl Story Company – which is now owned by Netflix – made the changes to the stories on the advice of “sensitivity readers”, who are generally employed to check children’s books and young adult fiction.

The revisions, which were done in collaboration with Inclusive Minds, a “collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature”, also include references to obese people. It is a result of campaigns seeking to protect young people from cultural, ethnic and gender stereotypes in literature and media.

In The Twits, Mrs. Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but rather merely “beastly”. A sorceress no longer hides among humankind as “a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” in The Witches. She is instead “working as a top scientist or running a business”. In the latest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop is not “enormously fat” but rather “enormous”. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the word “black” was removed from a description of the “murderous, brutal-looking” tractors.

Sensitivity or censorship?

Working with The Roald Dahl Story Company and the organisation Inclusive Minds, the imprint said the changes were necessary because it had a “significant responsibility” to protect young readers. However, Dahl’s publishers in the US, France and Holland announced they would not be incorporating any of the changes made in UK editions.

“A fixed, stable understanding of a written text is a very small part of that work’s life. There are well-researched histories of the use of insertions, annotations and corrections in preprint manuscript cultures from across the globe,” says Keya Anjaria, a lecturer in comparative literature at SOAS University of London, to The Wire.

Anjaria, the chair of the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies, added, “The discussion, or even outrage, around the revision of Roald Dahl’s texts, therefore, speaks not to the actual history and experience of the written word, which, when we read it or read it to our children, already carries the indelible traces of previous editing, annotation and historical popularity, but to broader anxieties and reckonings of a society with its past.”

Although updating historical novels for modern sensibilities is not a surprising phenomenon, the extent of the alterations garnered harsh condemnation from global organisations like the writers’ organisation PEN America, academics, writers and authors.

PEN America’s chief executive, Suzzane Nossel, tweeted: “If we start down the path of trying to correct for perceived slights instead of allowing readers to receive and react to books as written, we risk distorting the work of great authors and clouding the essential lens that literature offers on society. Those who might cheer specific edits of Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.”

Booker-Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie is among those who have called such acts of revisions “absurd censorship”. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Matthew Dennison, Dahl’s biographer, remarked that he would have “recognised that alterations to his novels promoted by the political climate were driven by adults rather than children”.

Does good intention not risk inhibiting imagination?

The copyright page of the most recent copies of Dahl’s books has a notice from the publisher at the bottom of it. It reads: “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.”

Benjamin Wood, senior lecturer in creative writing at King’s College London, does not believe in sanitising fiction for adult readers and changing provocative work that needs to be “redacted or revisited” outside of its original context. “There is a part of me, when reading Dahl to my kids now, that actively omits some of his phrases and revises his word choices instinctively because I deem them too vulgar or cruel or stereotyping for my sons to hear,” he tells The Wire.

“This leads to a discussion about the difference between the eras we are born into, and Dahl himself was born into – a conversation about how and why the world has changed – and this is always positive,” added Wood, who believes that the updated Dahl editions have been made with good intentions, and not just out of lip service.

Queen Consort Camilla was “shocked and dismayed” to hear about Dahl’s books being altered and stressed that the freedom of writers needs to be preserved. She implored the audience to cherish freedom of expression while also making an apparent allusion to Dahl’s The Witches’ concluding scene where the protagonist is transformed into a mouse.

“Please remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination,” she said, during her speech at a literary reception in Clarence House. “Enough said! Let there be no squeaking like mice about your achievements, but only roaring, like a pride of lions.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, also weighed in. A 10 Downing Street spokesperson said: “I think it is important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed. We have always defended the right to free speech and expression.”

Satkirti Sinha, a graduate teaching assistant at DMU University, says to The Wire, “Even if intentions were good, a similar argument on sensitivity might be used by ultra-nationalist governments to censor or rewrite historical texts, especially in this pro-right-wing period around the globe.”

A poor precedent in bleak times

Dahl, who passed away in 1990, was often regarded as one of the UK’s more controversial writers. He “was no angel”, as author Salman Rushdie put it. He not only made anti-Semitic statements but his books have been also called out for being racist. “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,’’ Rushdie added.

“Despite his widely acknowledged prejudices and faults as a person, there is no doubt that there is a core of moral decency in all of Dahl’s fiction for children,” remarks Wood to The Wire.

According to Sinha, the publisher’s justification for rewriting Dahl’s work is centred on sensitivity, which has ambiguous intersectional dynamics. “In such cases, we have to look at the publisher’s history, whether, in the past, they did a similar act of editing or not,” he explains.

The French publishing house Gallimard and the Dutch publisher Joris van de Leur have criticised the revisions and distanced themselves by stating that rewriting Dahl’s book “only concerns Britain”. They have further stated that his stories will “lose their power” if “language is toned down”. In addition, the publisher which first published James et La Peche and Charlie et la Chocolate in the 1960s, said in a statement, “We have never changed Roald Dahl’s writings before, and we have no plans to do so today.”

And most importantly, in bleak times like this, “such posthumous editing of a famous author like Dahl does set a terrible precedent”, theorises Sinha.

Kalrav Joshi is an independent multimedia journalist based out of London. He writes on politics, culture, technology, and climate. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.