Rewriting Roald Dahl: Dangerous Censorship Lies Elsewhere

An odd thing about the controversy over the new edited version of Road Dahl by Puffin Books is that it doesn’t seem controversial at all.

Famous authors including Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman have voiced criticisms against the changes, which have involved expunging the word ‘fat’, increasing (or adding) feminist allusions to independent working women, and deleting racist imagery. French and Dutch publishers have already distanced themselves from the idea of translating such edited work. When even Camilla, the Queen Consort, sees fit to urge writers to ‘remain true to your calling’ despite efforts impeding freedom and imagination, to the cheers of guests at her literary reception, the so-called ‘row’ has apparently passed into the realm of a joke.

Judging from some of the ringing language however, one might be forgiven for thinking there was more at stake. There is – but the problem is more nuanced than Rushdie, among others, has presented it.

Rushdie claims that rewriting Roald Dahl is ‘absurd censorship’, of which Puffin Books and the Dahl estate ‘should be ashamed’. ‘Embarrassed’ might be more apt, considering some awkward attempts at preserving rhyme and metre. But to accuse Puffin of censorship is to indulge in misplaced hyperbole. Given last year’s attack and his own experiences of censorship, it is understandable that Rushdie should feel so strongly about editorial revisions. Yet this particular intervention is an unhelpful one which has lent credence and energy to opportunistic, often right-wing agendas.

That Downing Street has intervened with a BFG quotation in a bid to seem relatable, is one red flag. Having condemned the changes, Rishi Sunak rather pompously claims that ‘We have always defended the right to free speech and expression’. The ambiguous ‘we’ is key here, a brazen PR effort towards lazy solidarity. Although if ‘we’ means the government, one might question its occasionally arbitrary interpretation of free speech, where someone might be arrested for an anti-monarchist comment, while the likes of Boris Johnson, with a history of offensive remarks and harmful political decision-making, is let off the hook. As The Scotsman succinctly puts it, Sunak is the one who should ‘stop gobblefunking around’ when there are more urgent prime ministerial problems to deal with.

Sunak’s statement reflects how it benefits him politically to pick a side, posturing as champion of freedom when popular debate has framed the issue as another battleground in the ‘culture war’. The uproar around rewriting Roald Dahl offers an easy target for accusations of ‘wokeness’ from right-wing commentators – and the sheer glee of newspapers like The Telegraph is palpable. A rush of articles lambast Puffin for its revisions. ‘Roald Dahl is ruined’, cries Michael Deacon, who bemoans ‘our hyper-sensitive age’. Tim Stanley goes further in calling it ‘an assault on liberty by a neurotic elite’. Puffins’s new edition of Roald Dahl may have hurt the liberal cause that it implicitly promotes.

This cause is important and risks being undermined: Diverse representation in literature matters, and so does careful handling of language. It is not ‘hyper-sensitive’ to take care that discrimination, whether on the basis of race, gender, or appearance, is discouraged. It is not ‘neurotic’ to wish for a better, freer world which recognises the power of small words, even pronouns. Where Puffin made a mistake was in thinking there was an audience who wished to see that world retrospectively projected into Roald Dahl’s. No one needed a cleaned-up version of Dahl, and Philip Pullman was right to suggest his books should be allowed to ‘fade away’ in their own time. ‘Read better writers,’ he added. There are many writers out there with more exciting stories.

But sensitivity readers are invaluable if used wisely and, contrary to Brendan O’Neill of The Spectator, they are not censors. At its best, sensitivity reading can encourage empathetic, balanced portrayals which authors may struggle to achieve by themselves. The popular children’s author Robin Stevens is a good example of this, and she has described their vital role in the writing process of her Murder Most Unladylike series, helping her characters ‘to properly connect with readers who share their background’.

Over-use of the term ‘censorship’ can dilute the sense of what real censorship with serious repercussions means, at a time when freedom of expression in Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Iran and elsewhere is being threatened. ‘Policing’ language, making ‘an assault on liberty’: such phrases take on brutal, physical resonances in those contexts. Still, it would be foolish for the West to be complacent: last year The American Library Association reported an ‘unprecedented’ number of attempts to ban or restrict books. Many of these had LGBTQ+ themes, or were about race, and this trend of book banning is predicted to increase in 2023.

By contrast, the changes made by Puffin tend to be misguided and ineffective efforts to reverse a rise in bigotry, and to assuage concerns that Roald Dahl himself was prone to problematic prejudices. Examples of Puffin’s ‘censorship’ can be seen in the addition it makes in The Witches, assuring readers ‘there is certainly nothing wrong’ with wearing wigs – a reasonable comment insofar as it addresses the social stigma around hair loss, which often impacts those already suffering from health issues. Meanwhile in Matilda, Puffin replaces Dahl’s allusion to Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling (both controversial for their colonial writings) with Jane Austen, who is often regarded as a feminist author. In a similar spirit of inclusivity, the ‘Cloud-Men’ in James and the Giant Peach have been altered to ‘Cloud-People’. It is true that such edits can seem trite, anachronistic, and at times overly critical. Nevertheless, the voices condemning such changes should also keep in mind the wider context of censorship, placing the aims of Puffin’s edits in perspective when there are far more insidious examples, with actually dangerous ramifications, happening today.

So yes, there is plenty of censorship going on, but the truly absurd and shameful example is not Puffin’s editorial changes to Roald Dahl – only, funnily enough, that’s the subject upon which the British political establishment and some of its newspapers has preferred to expend all their eloquence.

Rewriting Roald Dahl might have been well-intentioned, but the fall-out was certainly not worth the trouble, unfortunately serving as a distraction from deeper conflicts.


Illustration credits: Yii-Jen Deng