I was appalled at hearing about the linguistic butchery being performed on some of Roald Dahl’s most famous works. The publisher Puffin and the Dahl estate have announced that they’re making changes to the author’s language on weight, gender and race.
These guardians of children literature are not giving children or the adults who read to them much credit. Dahl’s writing has always been full of hyperbole and even his narrators can have the bluntness and insensitivity of schoolboys. Readers expect this from Dahl, alongside humour laced with cruelty and darkness. Love it or loath it, this is the author’s voice. People who do loathe these features of Dahl’s work have a plethora of other children’s book to choose from.
This reminds me of my own childhood. I was fortunate in having my formative reading years in the seventies when America was burgeoning on the liberal and tolerance fronts. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was on the reading list but has since been banned from most States’ school curricula. Finn was the first social satire I had read outside of the comic strips in the Chicago Tribune. But it is a book that uses the n-word. Hundreds of times. Long before we read Twain’s masterpiece, my little friends and I knew that the n-word was pejorative and using it was racist. Huck and his sidekick, Jim, a runaway slave, both use the word nonchalantly. That’s not to say it wasn’t pejorative or racist even among these two friends. I believe they were portrayed as following the hierarchy of the times, unconsciously for the young Huck, but deliberately used by Jim as if to say he knew his place. Coming to understand these nuances was important for me in developing a deeper understanding of individuals battling and reflecting society at the same time and in developing an appreciation literature that could draw this out.
What is going on with the censorship of Dahl’s work is part of a bigger and worrying trend. American and British publishers have in recent years hired sensitivity readers to screen books before publication. The aim of these readers is to provide feedback on language that could offend minority groups. This feedback then becomes an editorial decision. Of course, literary editing and input from commissioning editors is nothing new, but it’s the search for offence and readily acting on this advice that is a sign of our times. In Le Monde, Clementine Goldszal reasons that this new job title has emerged as a way of avoiding heated debates on social media, many of which have spun into threats of violence against the books’ authors and publishers.
While I’ve been putting this blog together, a glut of articles about sensitivity readers has stolen my thunder. Most are against them, regarding their work as a type of censorship and inevitably quoting Lionel Shriver, who describes the practice of sensitivity reading as ‘totally subjective’ and ‘a waste of energy.’ (Cliché alert) If you can’t beat them, join them. The only piece I have seen in favour of using sensitivity readers was in The Conversation.
That article raises interesting points about this new practice offsetting the predominantly white, male and educated class of writers and publishers. To some extent this is true, but there are also ethnic minority and women writers getting published by mainstream and independent presses. If people read or listen to a book review and decide that a book might offend them, they can protest with their wallets by not buying it and expressing their feelings on social media or face-to-face at the café or pub.
A closing thought – you may have noticed that earlier I used the n-word instead of spelling the word out in full. I didn’t do this to avoid offence, and I would have preferred to use the full word – it is an example of language, just like any other swear word. What I have done is self-censoring so that the bots at WordPress do not label this blog ‘Objectionable Material.’ I’ve been punished with this label before. Sigh.