45. IS THERE A WORD-SURGEON IN THE HOUSE?
The furore that has followed on from the decision to 'doctor' Roald Dahl's children's books, whether in the original or in translation, seems to know no bounds, with well-known authors (Salman Rushdie), celebrities (Ricky Gervais) and even political leaders (Rishi Sunak) weighing into the debate. I can't stay out of this ring either.
New editions of Roald Dahl's books now available in bookstores show that some passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race have been altered. Take Augustus Gloop, Charlie's gluttonous antagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published in 1964, who is no longer "enormously fat," just "enormous". In the new edition of Witches, a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may be working as a "top scientist or running a business" instead of as a "cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman". The word "black" was removed from the description of the terrible tractors in the 1970s Fantastic Mr Fox. The machines are now simply "murderous, brutal-looking monsters".
Shaken, not stirred
And take the James Bond books. Tellingly, passages that could be considered racist are being edited or removed in the new editions, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. Publisher Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, which owns the rights, had the original texts reviewed by a group of proof-readers and, following that assessment, the new versions are due to add a disclaimer that states: "This book was written at a time when terms and views that might now be considered offensive were commonplace. A number of adaptations have been made in this edition, trying to stay as close as possible to the original text and period in which it is set." While the first part of this disclaimer I think is wholly justifiable, the second sentence should not have been necessary. Why?
Context is everything – "the period in which it is set." And in this case the context is a point in time. "Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,'' Rushdie recently wrote on Twitter. "Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.'' PEN America, a community of 7,500 writers that advocates for freedom of expression, said it was "alarmed" by reports of the changes to Dahl's books. "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," tweeted Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America. It should be noted, however, that the publishers Puffin have reneged, announcing that the original versions will be kept in print, fearing anger in the marketplace and the need to placate all possible buyers.
So where does that leave us, inheritors of great and not so great literature. Should we engage in deconstruction or allow the lives of future generations of readers – a dwindling number – to be enriched by the efforts of all writers great and small? What was created in the past was done so in the context of the values of the time, whether or not those may be abhorrent as viewed from a modern perspective. To use the word 'nigger' today is deemed racist, offensive and reprehensible but half a century ago the context was different. While it was equally racist, offensive and reprehensible, lexical readjustment for today's context strips the words of a certain truth by attributing a different meaning. Yes, offence was intended – we must recognise that – but by removing the offence, you water down the written word and its intended meaning.
In his movie 'Django in Chains' Tarantino explicitly scripted the excessive use of the word 'nigger' to specifically evoke the inherent racism and caste-like world of the slavery system of the 19th century. Show it for what it was. And while the MeToo movement is a modern and very laudable phenomenon, and very necessary, the treatment of women would have been far more misogynistic and acceptable – albeit wrongly so – not even half a century ago. Should we then erase such offence, cleanse the memory … in literature? It's a conundrum … or is it? If we acknowledge the cultural distance and are sensitive to the contemporary psyche, The Merchant of Venice can still be enjoyed despite its antisemitic and misogynistic undertones. Then again, as English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton claimed in 1839, "the pen is mightier than the sword", referring to the power of the written word as a more effective means of social or political change than violence. I guess caution is urged. There might be a word-surgeon about😉.