Beth Cox and Alexandra Strick, Books, Capitalism, Censorship, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Children's fiction, Inclusive Minds, Literary criticism, Opinion, Philip Larkin, Politics, Puffin Books, Roald Dahl, Sensitivity Readers, The Roald Dahl Story Company, The Twits (by Roald Dahl)
The publisher Puffin is currently preparing to issue a new edition of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novels. And for the first time, “sensitivity readers” have been unleashed upon these texts. However alien it might sound – or rather, however alien it would have sounded even a few years ago – proofreaders who are “working closely with… those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity” will arrange it so that Dahl’s books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” Alexandra Strick and Beth Cox’s campaign group Inclusive Minds has received the contract for this work.
Whereas Mrs Twit from The Twits (1980) was previously “ugly and beastly,” now she is just “beastly.” Whereas Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) had been – in a state of nature – “enormously fat,” now he is just “enormous.” Meanwhile the Oompa Loompas, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are no longer “men” but “people.” The titular characters from Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches are now operating under the incognito of “a top scientist or running a business” rather than being a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman.” In possibly the most violent disruption, the heroine from Matilda (1988) now reads Jane Austen’s stories instead of Rudyard Kipling’s.
You might argue that these changes are so minor and inconsequential that readers without any forewarning would never notice them. And you might be in sympathy with the particular reasons behind the alterations. After all, there is not a ready consensus anymore over what “fat” means and who is “ugly” and whether these are given negatives. Working women are no longer parked en masse behind tills in supermarkets and entire menial workforces of the male gender are today increasingly thin on the ground. Moreover, the children who race through Dahl’s novels at breakneck speed are probably going to be oblivious to whatever exact adjective is used to convey Augustus Gloop’s enormity.
I would still maintain that this treatment of the texts actually constitutes an unprecedented change in the relationship between readers and historical works of fiction. In fact, it involves a qualitative transformation to our understanding of what authorship essentially is.
During the 1960s “the author” had staggered out of the literary theory of thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault reduced to an ultimately organisational phenomenon, which assists in the categorisation and interpretation of texts. Despite this, the traditional role of editors had remained unaffected. Editors of classic works of literature had understood their job as being to serve the text and to reproduce it as faithfully as possible. An important battleground here was Mark Twain’s children’s story Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), from which a 2011 edition had removed the racist term “n…” and replaced it with “slave.” Even here I would ask the editor who they think they are, to dare to squash themselves between us and whatever words Twain had chosen.
Puffin is not describing its new editions as being “based on” or “inspired by” Dahl’s novels. This option would not be a problem, since it would involve the same trade-offs as when works of fiction are adapted for the stage or screen. Instead, Puffin wants to keep the “by Roald Dahl” in order to extract the maximum profit from his books, even as these books are no longer technically “by Roald Dahl.” He had thought that Mrs Twit was ugly. He had meant for Augustus Gloop to be fat. The first time that the Oompa Loompas had been ever seen was in his own mind, as men. He had explicitly required Matilda to read Rudyard Kipling’s writing and he had used this to actively shape her character. Anything else, however culturally superior, is simply not “by Roald Dahl.”
If I was at all interested in legalism and consumer protections, then I might pursue the line of whether these new books breach the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. Is it sufficient to include a disclaimer that the text has been altered or should Puffin instead expressly admit to “co-authorship” on the front page? Should the sensitivity reader’s name be included so that they can take their share of critical responsibility for the final product?
The funniest thing about Puffin’s deployment of “sensitivity” readers is that there is an obvious, screaming tastelessness to their attitude of “well, luckily Dahl is dead so we can get away with what we’re doing!” You might propose that Dahl would have welcomed sensitivity readers because he had occasionally consented to beautify his novels politically. For example, the Oompa Loompas have been on something of a journey, in that they were originally African pigmies. After a protest from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Dahl had agreed to deracialise them and to tone down the undertones of slave labour. Without any doubt, this was an improvement.
Even so, it would be absurd to think that an author should not be allowed to re-edit their own novels, out of some fear that they will blemish the purity of their original vision. It is also the case that authors will have to factor demands from their publishers, their readers and society more generally into the creative process. The ways in which they will do this are often, in fact, an interesting feature of the creative process. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is still “by Roald Dahl.” Nothing so outrageous has occurred as with Puffin’s sensitivity readers, where Dahl has been discarded during the novel’s ongoing development and partially lost along the way.
Perhaps this usage of sensitivity readers is a one off. Perhaps the Roald Dahl Story Company, which now manages the copyright for Dahl’s novels, is singularly irresponsible, in a way that most literary estates are not. That it has been recently acquired by Netflix might show this to be only more evidence of the malaise that is afflicting that corporation. Yet Puffin’s assault upon Dahl’s fiction will generate such paranoia because of the creeping, exploratory feel to it. If we eventually come to accept that “sensitivity readers” are normal or simply an inevitability of literary production, then the road is clear for them to overrun more and more historical texts.
In the future, publishers might squirm at having to issue new editions of Philip Larkin’s poems. They might think that they could attract more flies with the honey of the multiculturalist sensibility than with the vinegar of Larkin’s cultural conservatism. The solution: send in the sensitivity readers! With Larkin, a demolition team would be probably needed and we would end up with little more than mangled haikus. As the sensitivity readers grew stronger and more self-confident, and as their tithe upon historical texts was accepted ever more fatalistically, they would presumably branch out beyond mere inoffensiveness. Why not tidy up D.H, Lawrence’s rhapsodical prose, making it less startling to modern readers and an altogether smoother read?
It is important that the incursions from sensitivity readers are resisted from the very beginning and across politics. Happily, although on the right the Telegraph had broken the story about the Puffin calamity, and the Spectator has posted two good, combative articles about it, on the left the Guardian is also sounding rather more alert than it usually does these days about egregiously illiberal things.
If the sensitivity readers do ever win, one wonders how this would transform the landscape of literature. Maybe in the future, second-hand bookshops would become like stores that sell antique furniture and here older, sturdier and richer items would continue to be available. By contrast, the new Moby Dicks and Middlemarches in Waterstones would be flimsy and soulless, a ready counterpart to the Ikea bookshelves where their poor purchasers would be forced to keep them.
It is urgent that readers move noiselessly on from these ersatz Roald Dahls. Maybe they will do. Many who are parents today will have vivid memories of Dahl’s fiction from their own childhoods and they will associate it with some sacred, long-lost time when there had been a breathless exhilaration to reading. They won’t want Dahl to remind them of spats on Twitter and “equality and diversity” training workshops and frigid comments from Human Resources about how inappropriate or “harmful” language could be better rephrased. This really would be a graveyard for Dahl’s genius.
The Botendaddy said:
Directly on point is a little known town in Üngarn Austria-Hungarian Empire known as Interçeptobôł. It was in the 1975 Super Bôl whenceupon a little known linebacker name Magyár Nàgÿ Mäśžgÿascz intercepted Fran Tarkenton, American sealing the victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Magyár was born and raised in the Steel Town Clairnesson along the Monongahela River which was once rated as having the maximum theoretical limit of air contaminants possible. Thousand died every year from inversions (no-one knows what that means).
At any rate, in old Interçeptobôł for centuries, in order to ck found the Türks, the townspeople learned to intercept all thrown tossed, hurled or fired objects. This allowed the victory of Vlad Tepeč and brother Jan Sobíèškí. The tradition found itself in the mill towns of Western Pennsylvania where the exiles from this town were xcelled at Amerikanski Football 🏈 (Pronounced Fûtbôł).
On a last minute desperate drive it was Magyár who intercepted the bôl leading to the epic Steeler victory.
He is still alive today in the same small town. He will only be interviewed in Hungarian as he never leaned even a single word of the demonic Anglo-Saxon gibberish. Stop down but make sure to offer him some Hungarian cognac for God’s sake.