Roald Dahl is one of the most beloved children’s authors of the past fifty years. Decades of kids grew up with the likes of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, indelibly shaped by his mischievous tales of smart kids taking on messed-up worlds and cartoonish villains who feel palpably familiar. Thanks to many past and future adaptations of his books, there’s little chance of Roald Dahl going out of style, even as conversations surrounding his anti-Semitism, misogyny, and fatphobia grow in volume.
Puffin, the long-time publisher of Dahl, made the truly baffling choice to change the content of several Dahl books to make them more ‘modern’ and omit the more questionable aspects. Attempts to remove fat jokes and the like felt like those terrible parodies of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ where the smarmy singer makes it all about consent and misses the point of the song. Some aspects entirely change the point of the scene, such as a moment in The Witches where grandmother chides the hero for wanting to yank off women’s wigs to prove they’re witches. None of it makes sense.
Roald Dahl, 2001 vs 2022 editions:— Incunabula (@incunabula) February 18, 2023
In Fantastic Mr Fox a description of tractors, saying that “the machines were both black”, has been cut. “Bunce, the little pot-bellied dwarf”, is now plain old Bunce. pic.twitter.com/I9aUxqAI6Q
The usual suspects jumped to blame ‘woke culture’, insisting that these changes were something that the poor triggered cucks were demanding on pain of death. Such bad-faith clickbait claims overlooked how universally derided this move was from Puffin. You don’t have to align yourself with Dahl’s own suspect views to see the issue in changing a writer’s work decades after their death to fit into a non-existent cultural quandary. This is literally a case of ‘nobody asked for this.’
In December 2020, the Dahl family and estate issued a statement condemning Dahl’s anti-Semitism. They described repeated comments where he ranted about Jewish people as being ‘incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories.’ It was a curious and not especially thorough apology that seemed to exist mostly because the Dahl estate had signed a deal with Netflix and they hoped to pre-empt any questions about the author’s views. It seemed more concerned with their bottom line than anything else, which is so often the case here. And the Dahl family’s purse is at no risk of going empty. The BBC noted that the Dahl estate earned £26 million from the author’s work in 2019. Did Puffin worry that those profits would drop unless they changed Dahl’s works for the worse?
Publishing has had major issues with diversity for decades. It’s a majority white male industry prone to union-busting that’s more likely to give a six-figure book deal to a Trump crony than a woman of colour. The numbers on non-white writers signed with major publishers remain minuscule, an embarrassing reminder of how uninterested the corporate norm is in challenging its own status quo. This comes in spite of major best-sellers written by the likes of Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, Adam Silvera, Amanda Gorman, and many more. There are so many writers crushing it in self-publishing too, and platforms like TikTok show the real hunger for more inclusive storytelling. So, you’d think it’d be easier, or at least less creatively sticky, for Puffin and the like to invest in new writers rather than badly rewrite someone who is guaranteed to keep selling regardless.
That’s what makes those changes so redundant. Roald Dahl will never stop being a best-selling author. Generations of kids will continue to read his books because, even at their most astonishingly problematic, they’re drawn to his wicked wit and willingness to treat his audience with respect. At his best, Dahl’s children’s books are highly funny, creatively grotesque, and always rooting for something beyond the staid confines of what’s meant to be ‘normal.’ I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want their kids to read the fatphobia or weird sexism or the like, but I would hope any publisher worth their salt would be okay with parents and kids making their own choices of what to purchase.
It does far more damage to pretend that Dahl’s work is spotless, to remove its dark parts and erase from history the very real hurt he caused. The anti-cancel culture people may screech about content warnings, but surely pointing out what’s in a book makes far more sense than cutting it out? This decision had to go through so many people at Puffin. A ton of executives and editors had to sign off on this, to make the decision to participate in the smudging away of reality. Who did they think it would benefit? Dahl himself would have hated it. His readers wouldn’t support it. Schools using his work for classes now have a heap of problems to deal with. They handed a hand grenade of culture war bullshit to the right-wing, and didn’t win themselves any allies on the left. Writers everywhere must now wonder what could be done to their books when they’re not around to say otherwise.
Imagine what happens if publishers suddenly decided to do this with books to fit a dangerous political regime? What if Ron DeSantis introduces bills demanding that the books he doesn’t like outright change their content to adhere to his far-right agenda? We’re currently living through an era of hardcore censorship thanks to the likes of the GOP and stuff like this doesn’t help, even if it tries to cloak its tactics in a vaguely progressive sheen. Alas, such possibilities do not seem that outlandish.
I’ve already seen people try to compare this to the use of sensitivity readers, which is another dog whistle of nonsense. Sensitivity readers are a writer’s aid, a way to do the best work one can do. If you think that’s the same thing as changing decades’ old books then you’re beyond hope. I think it’s important to call out the nuances at play here because it’s all too easy to push back against this obviously ludicrous idea and fall into the traps that position tools of education and improvement as the ‘real’ censorship. I don’t need to hear concern trolling from the same think-piece regurgitators who think pulling books from schools isn’t that big a deal. You know who you are.
We should continue tackling Dahl’s work. It’s had a seismic impact on literature and continues to influence writers in 2023. For those of us who grew up adoring Dahl’s books, it was a wake-up call to discover his anti-Semitism and try to deal with the disconnect between his own words and the morals he offered to kids like me. But those conversations matter because he is but one example of millennia of art that falls into the same traps. There’s not a single person on this planet who doesn’t love at least one piece of art made by someone who was, at best, problematic. Such is the human condition. If the world of publishing, and wider media and politics, wish to confront this, then they must do so properly. Context matters, and so does creating a proper future with more inclusive storytelling that encompasses a wide range of voices. It doesn’t erase the past to elevate those people who have historically been left on the sidelines. Publishing should work towards opening doors rather than slamming them in everyone’s faces and taking a red pen to reality.