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Literary vandalism or necessary edits?


By Laura Leggetter

Why are we airbrushing literature?

News that the publisher of Roald Dahl’s fabulous children’s books has removed the author’s more fruity and colourful language has provoked wide condemnation. 

However, after strong pressure, the publisher, has announced the original works will continue to be published.  Is this right?

Personally, rarely do I revolt at news in the way I have in this instance. As an avid reader and fan of his text as a child and a mother, I am horrified.

Dahl’s ability to spark even the most reluctant reader’s interest, as is the case with a non-fiction preferring son, is nothing short of brilliance. His moulding of fantastic tales with messages of kindness in The Twits and a story of friendship in James and The Giant Peach are just a handful of reasons why my temper has been raised by this news. 

Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), now owned by Netflix, have given a rewrite to make the stories more suitable for modern audiences. This act of censorship was brought about by Netflix’s 2021 acquisition of RDSC with the media giant hiring in 2020 sensitivity writers and working with children's literature collective Inclusive Minds to go back into Dahl's works and review the author's language, so the books 'can continue to be enjoyed by all today'.

But the decision sparked immediate pushback, with British-American novelist Salman Rushdie saying they should be “ashamed” and free expression group PEN America saying they are “alarmed”  - even Rishi Sunak waded in and spoke out against the move with  Cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch hitting out at the “problematic’ move by Puffin.

My view is that it is 100% literary vandalism and how dare this happen to a late author who took so much time and care with his words. As his biographer, Matthew Dennison, said last year: “The process of editing often focused on individual words or particular expressions, as Dahl kept faith with some of the interwar slang of his childhood, and aspects of his vocabulary up to his death continued to recall the enthusiasms of English prep schoolboys. This was both natural to him and deliberate, and he resisted interference.”

This then brings us to why do we need sensitivity writers?

Even the term beyond the literary world is relatively new and industry is split over the increased usage of such readers and writers. Many authors say they would rather quit than have their work sanitised, but checking manuscripts to ensure the quirks and details are correct is surely no bad thing?

In the case of American Dirt, the Jeanine Cummins novel which was dubbed as the new Grapes of Wrath in 2020, if only sensitivity and fact checking had occurred, there wouldn’t have been outrage at the white author’s depiction of Mexican people as stereotype riddled and flawed.

So, perhaps there is a place for early checks but most certainly not a rewrite of our most treasured, and deceased authors who took so much time wordsmithing.  

Puffin is right to backtrack, but this sorry episode should have been avoided in the first place.