The Rewriting of Roald Dahl
And the new literary gatekeepers.
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“Words matter,” begins the notice, which sits at the bottom of the copyright page of the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books. “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.”
Read: These aren’t the words Dahl wrote.
Roald Dahl’s famed children’s books are being scrubbed by “sensitivity readers” — a laughable euphemism for censors — to remove language deemed “insensitive” and “non-inclusive,” even going so far as to rewrite the author’s words to be more politically correct.
That’s right, the publishers have taken it upon themselves to edit the writer as they see fit, not only cutting words, but adding entirely new phrases and sentences. Those who’ve defended the revisions — cranially challenged all, to be sure — act like words are extricable from meaning, as if writers just randomly pick them since any future changes won’t effect connotation. No. In fact, Dahl was very particular about the language he used. According to Matthew Dennison, who wrote a biography on Dahl, “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.”
It’s really no small matter. Dahl is one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. More than 250 million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. I grew up reading them. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, The Twits, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’ve read them all.
We’re not talking about a handful of changes, either. The Telegraph reports that there have been hundreds of alterations, and many of them mute the original sense of the work. Take, for instance, The Witches, Dahl’s 1983 novel about a boy who grows up in a world ruled by a group of secret witches. A 2001 version of the text includes the following passage about yanking women’s hair to check if they’re witches (in the story, the witches are bald):
Many of the edits have to do with depictions of women, part of the weakening of gender references so as not to be deemed offensive to militant feminists or the transgender community. “Chambermaid” becomes “cleaner.” “You must be mad, woman!” becomes “You must be out of your mind!” “Evil woman” becomes “Evil person.” “Boys and girls” becomes “children.”
Some changes involve whole lines that have been rewritten to accord with modern progressive pieties, giving the writing an entirely new meaning:
In Matilda, there’s an absurd head scratcher. A passage where the heroine is learning about the escapist power of literature has been changed thusly:
What the hell is wrong with Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling? They’re not any less known than Hemingway or Steinbeck, nor were Hemingway or Steinbeck better “role models” for kids.
In The Twits, a “weird African language” is no longer weird. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Oompa Loompas have been made gender neutral. In James and the Giant Peach, the Cloud-Men have become Cloud-People, Miss Sponge is no longer “the fat one,” and Miss Spider’s head is no longer “black.” In The BFG, the main character no longer wears a “black” coat. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, a description of tractors, “the machines were both black,” has been cut. In Matilda, rather than “turning white,” a character turns “quite pale.” Yes, it appears that the sensitivity readers1 have deemed it inappropriate to describe people, animals, and even things by color. And the words “fat” and “ugly” are now missing from every new edition of the books, according to the Daily Telegraph.
In the new version of George’s Marvellous Medicine, George’s exclamation changes to:
Even some of the cartoon drawings within the books have been changed. The Telegraph notes that earlier editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory include three sketches of Mike Teavee with 18 toy pistols “hanging from belts around his body,” but the guns have now been scrubbed out.
As he did with so many other things, George Orwell saw this coming in 1984. The government functionary Syme, doomed because he understands far too much about what the regime’s plans are, explains it all to the main character and nascent freethinker, Winston Smith:
“The proles are not human beings,” he said carelessly. “By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare,2 Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”
The New Literary Gatekeepers
In vandalizing Dahl’s work, Puffin (the publisher) and the Roald Dahl Story Company teamed up with Inclusive Minds, which is described as “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.”
Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, says they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity.” To accomplish this, they use a team of “Inclusion Ambassadors.”
The striking thing in the Dahl case is that they arrived on the scene after publication, but this is part of a general trend for “sensitivity readings,” where books are screened before publication to make sure they conform to woke sensibilities. Possible areas of expertise for sensitivity readers include seemingly everything—every medical condition, every trauma, every form of oppression. Indeed, one consultancy boasts a list of experts in everything from “BDSM/kink/consensual fetishes,” “fatphobia/body image/body acceptance,” and “transgender or nonbinary gender/two-spirit identity” to “neurodivergence/autism,” “nonconsensual/taboo fetishes,” and “poverty/socioeconomic disadvantage.”
Sensitivity readers were born in the influential corner of the literary world known as young adult (Y.A.) publishing.3 The idea is that by having sensitivity readers review your work, it allows you to write outside your identity without causing offense by “getting it wrong.” But the emerging consensus is that it’s even more wrong to stray outside your lane in the first place.4 One particularly memorable 2019 article in Vulture interrogated 10 authors about the decision to write diversely, under the contentious headline, “Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?”
Are you telling me that because of my immutable traits, the fact that I’m a straight white dude, that I don’t have the right to pen fiction from the perspective of someone completely different than me? That I can’t write a short story from the point of view of a black lesbian or something? You can fuck right off with that nonsense. As someone who occasionally writes fiction for this newsletter and has written a novel,5 I balk at the notion that being a member of a given demographic automatically confers special knowledge about how everyone else in that group thinks or feels. The irony is that sensitivity reading is literally an exercise in the very same crude stereotyping that these pretentious do-gooders claim to help writers avoid.
We are living through the era of the blue-haired Stasi. It’s a time of ascendant identitarianism in many institutions, especially the arts. I wrote a recent post about the Andrea Riseborough “race storm” in which we talked about how the WoQaeda have deemed it unacceptable for actors and actresses to play roles that don’t align with their personal identities. Sensitivity reading is part of this same insidious trend, except in this case the woke scolds have decided you’re not allowed to write outside your immediate experience. This not only stigmatizes imagination, it handcuffs writers and deters them from taking creative risks. Taken to its logical conclusion, fiction becomes impossible.
I’m a writer. Try as I might, I’m not a particularly good writer, nor a well-known writer, but I’m a writer. I write both fiction and non-fiction. And as far as I’m concerned, the whole point of writing and reading fiction is to instill empathy and insert oneself into someone else’s life. It’s about allowing one consciousness to find and take shelter in another. It is not about writing from personal experience or being able to personally relate to the writer or characters.
I recently wrote a short story about a depression-afflicted 21 year-old white girl who lives in a trailer with her mom and starts working at Waffle House. When I set out to write that story, I didn’t do so because I’m a depression-afflicted 21 year-old white girl who lives in a trailer with her mom and works at Waffle House, or because I know someone who is.6 I did so because I wanted to write the sort of thing that readers of this newsletter could feel in their nerve endings, the sort of thing that has a way of cracking open what has become brittle with certainty.
Whether or not I accomplished that isn’t for me to say; it’s entirely subjective. But it’s wholly asinine to suggest that it’s wrong for me to publish something outside of my own experiences without first getting the green light from some censorious progressives with delicate sensibilities.
And this alarming development where sensitivity morons exercise their patrician urges in posthumous invasions of fictional worlds by expurgating “problematic language” smacks of Stalinist corrections of wrongspeak. Not only are they bowdlerizing beloved books, they’re crowbarring idiotically fashionable woke political beliefs into them.
Let’s be frank about what this is. It’s stunning philistinism and cultural vandalism carried out by social justice warriors who worship at the altar of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and have decided to make that pernicious trinity into literary imperatives. It’s also the latest salvo in the culture war as the authoritarian Left runs rampant through our industries and institutions. This sanitization of literature wasn’t the result of outside pressure; there was no petition demanding Dahl’s books be rewritten. It’s because people within the publishing industry took it upon themselves to overhaul Dahl’s world of make-believe.
This won’t end with Roald Dahl. The Leftist utopians driven by self-assured unearned moral virtue are grabbing power in the present to reinvent the past in order to control our futures. They know that the key to long-term success proselytizing wokeness lies in targeting the impressionable minds of the next generations.
But those who support such Orwellian bullshit would do well to consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their sensibilities.
Bunch of little wannabe Bolsheviks.
In some quarters, Shakespeare’s work has already been defaced with trigger warnings drawing attention to its “violence, sexual references, misogyny and racism.”
Considered the most lucrative age demographic to target, as young adults tend to read more than kids or adults do. Many Y.A. books are also widely read by adults.
And frankly, I’d rather you burn my book than rewrite it, though it’s far too insignificant to warrant either treatment.
For what it’s worth, it did entail a fair amount of research.