Books

Editing Roald Dahl isn’t ‘woke’. It’s capitalism

Plans to edit Roald Dahl's books to take out offensive terms aren't opening a new front in the culture wars, they're simply about continuing to make money.

Children's books by Roald Dahl and others

Roald Dahl remains one of the most-read children's authors. His estate wants to keep it that way. Credit: Flickr/solarisgirl

Outraged splutters were heard and pearls were clutched this weekend after The Telegraph revealed the Roald Dahl estate was tweaking the beloved author’s work for new editions. People – adults, incidentally – have been quick to cast the decision as another battleground in the culture wars: the woke mafia swooping in to sanitise another cherished pillar of British heritage.

Even from the more considered corners of literature the response has been broadly critical. “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,” Salman Rushdie posted on Twitter. Discussing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Augustus Gloop, who in the new versions is “enormous” rather than “fat”, children’s author John Doughty told BBC Radio 4: “I think if you’re going to decide that, then the only answer is to put the book out of print. I don’t think you can say, ‘So let’s change Dahl’s words but keep the character’.”

Philip Pullman, arguably one of the best authors writing for young people today, broadly agreed, saying Dahl’s books should be left to go out of print rather than changed if people were unhappy with them. Even the Prime Minister has stuck his oar in, saying via spokesperson that “when it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”

It’s easy to cast this stuff as culture war fodder. We’re living in a state of perpetual outrage of one form or another anyway. This is just another flaming bottle of petrol to fling into the melee. “How dare these sanctimonious wokies tinker with the sacred texts of snot and filth that have so delighted children for decades?”

Most people are missing the point. It was Philip Pullman who eventually hit the nail on the head. “It depends what sort of life we want them to have,” he said on Twitter. “If we want an old text to live as entertainment, there are plenty of dull things to cut as well as ‘offensive’ ones. But why not just let it go out of print? Oh. Of course. Money.”

The Dahl estate, which is already sensitive about this stuff having issued a full apology for the author’s notorious antisemitism a few years back, knows the value of its product. Many years after his death, Dahl is still widely read by children – and with good reason, his books are wonderful. Just as revolting, just as funny, just as wildly imaginative as they always have been. This is about ensuring that children continue to think so. The suggested tweaks to the text might feel fairly incidental at the minute, but that’s not always going to be the case. Language changes, it becomes recontextualised, its power shifts. Societies change too. Our priorities evolve and swirl. Younger people have different cultural values to their parents.

In making these edits publishers are attempting to future-proof Dahl’s work. They’re not doing it for adults – adults don’t care. They understand the context. And they’re not really doing it for the good of children either. It’s about keeping the books selling. If kids sense a book is outdated, they’re going to close it pretty quickly and not pick up another one.

Thirty years ago the two most read children’s authors in the UK were Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. A look at Amazon’s children’s book charts show us how much things have changed. Blyton still sells, but she’s way, way down the ranks, while Dahl is still selling by the great glass elevator-load. The Dahl estate will be eyeing the chart positions of The Famous Five and wondering if that’s the fate of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Twits in a few decades’ time.

Blyton’s work has dated horribly, full of “swarthy men” and “gypsies” up to no good. Her heroes live unrecognisable lives and talk in ways children simply don’t any more. Of course young people aren’t going to respond to characters drinking lashings of ginger beer after thwarting the plans of a dark-skinned petty criminal. It’s language from another time.

It’s the same reason that children in the 1950s read Tom Brown’s School Days and Robinson Crusoe, but those in the 1990s largely didn’t. This isn’t about making Matilda’s language more socially responsible. Not really. That’s a by-product. It’s about making Matilda, a book published in 1988, still have a chance at feeling relevant in 2028, 2058 and 2088. It’s about being able to continue to sell a shed load of books. That’s it.

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And do you know who understood this? Roald Dahl. The Oompa-Loompas in 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were originally described as dark-skinned pigmies who had been “smuggled” out of Africa to replace Wonka’s local workforce, working in return for chocolate. In 1974, following criticisms from NAACP, the descriptions were revised, and the Oompa-Loompas suddenly had white faces and green hair and came from “Loompaland” (though their wages are still a mystery). Dahl kicked and screamed for a bit, but eventually he saw sense. In one letter on the issue he argues that a classroom of 1970s school children would struggle to pay attention to Little Women and Robinson Crusoe. Fifty years on, his estate can’t be blamed for worrying that Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach might go the same way.

These changes aren’t about being woke. They’re about staying relevant and continuing to sell. Because if you can still sell books, you can still sell branded T-shirts, branded chocolate bars, everlasting gobstoppers, giant peaches and lucrative movie rights.

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