What the title says. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
The “whole Roald Dahl thing” is basically that his estate is re-releasing a number of his books, only they’re editing those books and changing some of the language he used in them. For example, the phase “enormously fat” is now changed to “enormous.” Oompa Loompa’s are no longer described as “small men” but are now “small people.” The idea, I suppose, is that someone who is self-conscious about their weight might feel as if they were being ridiculed along with a character being described as “fat,” which isn’t an idea I can immediately dismiss out of hand, and that by changing certain instances of that language it will make the books more accessible to more people. This is being covered everywhere, and you can read about it on the web sites for NPR, CNN, the New York Times… and, of course Twitter. I learned about it on Twitter… because of course I did.
The thing is, if I had never known this was happening and someone had handed me a copy of the revised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I read Oompa Loompa’s described as “small people,” I probably never would have noticed. The changes as described are not particularly sweeping. They do not alter plots, they do not excise entire chapters, they do not suddenly save the dog’s life at the end of Old Yeller.1 And if we’re being honest, I think it’s safe to say that most of the people objecting to these changes probably never would have noticed them on their own.2
On top of this, Dahl’s estate has every right to do what they’re doing—they own the rights to the books themselves, after all! If I can support the right of a company to edit books by removing objectionable material on their customers’ behalf (sort of a bespoke, artisanal form of customer-purchased censorship) I can’t really object to the actual goddamn copyright holders doing the same thing.
So the question I’m grappling with isn’t “should they be allowed to do this?” because the answer to that is “yes, based on the rules they absolutely should absolutely be allowed to do this.” The question I’m grappling with is a lot more dangerous, which is “is it right for them to do this?”
The answer, for me, is “it depends on how they’re doing it,” and I don’t have a lot of information on that. To wit: if they are keeping the source material intact—that is to say, there is a copy of Roald Dahl’s stories where someone is still described as “enormously fat” and where the Ooma Loompah’s are still described as “little men” and this latest release is essentially just a special edition tailored specifically to engage a larger audience—then I’m not exactly comfortable with it, but it is what it is. But if this is intended to replace the original work entirely—this new version, with its changes, will be presented as the actual book Dahl wrote—then I am far more shaken by this. I find it existentially terrifying that someone might take something I wrote, change it in some way, and then present it as the something I wrote.
In other words: an artist creates a piece of art, with strengths and flaws. Sometimes it doesn’t age well, and you are tempted to fix it. And sometimes things go horribly wrong, and you wind up with Ecce Homo.
In an even worse case scenario, you could have someone “improve” the art by removing the part that makes it distinct from everything else. What if someone were to acquire the rights to the entire Dead Kennedys discography and re-record and re-release Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, only with the track list redone to make the ideas more accessible to the public? Kill the Poor is changed to Snub the Poor because the point the author is making is that the poor are considered undesirable, but the original version where the solution is to actually murder them, well, that’s just off-putting! Holiday in Cambodia becomes Holiday in Akron because really, it’s all about misery, right? We don’t need to go dragging the Killing Fields into it!3 4
“But Dahl writes children’s books,” you might reasonably point out, to which I will reply, first, that children’s books can still be works of art, and second, that for all his faults (and the man was an unrepentant antisemite—he absolutely had faults) none of his books ever went to the extremes the Dead Kennedys did. There is no Dahl version of “Kill The Poor,” or “California Über Alles,” or “Holiday in Cambodia.” I think you would be hard pressed to point to a passage in Dahl’s work that, at a child’s level, pushed limits as hard as the Dead Kennedys did at an adult level.
But he did push, as did other children’s authors: Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein both come to mind as belonging in a similar vein. I liked their books because they acknowledged things in books that adults usually didn’t like being acknowledged. They were a little bit mean, though not too much mean, and a little bit unfair, though not too much unfair, and were usually funny and chaotic. They pushed envelopes, but not adult envelopes.5
It’s easy to pick on Dahl; as a person he was kind of a rat bastard. It’s hard to feel sympathy for rat bastards, that’s why you call them a “rat bastard” in the first place. But despite his failings, he wrote some things that positively shone – art can do that from time to time, exceeding the sum of the creator’s parts in ways the creator doesn’t expect.6
Trying to make those works more accessible to more people is certainly not a bad thing. Doing it by watering it down is, a little. Though today, I should stress, it is only a little… and as I’ve already admitted, if nobody had ever told me I never would have noticed.
Still, I remember when the Department of Justice placed curtains in front of the Spirit of Justice statue while John Ashcroft was the United States Attorney General so he wouldn’t have to be seen on TV standing in front of a statue with an exposed boob, and I can’t help wonder if we’re dealing with a similar jerking of the knee… only the difference is that the statue, even while obscured, got to remain the same statue it ever was. The book is being changed.
- Though I should acknowledge that some people absolutely would, because attention to detail is a thing and some people absolutely immerse themselves in that thing.
- Sorry, Akron. As far as I know there’s nothing really wrong with you, you just have a funny name.
- Also, I should point out that a lot of songs actually do what I’m satirizing above—they’re called “radio edits”—but the radio edits never replace the originals, they’re created for markets and spaces the originals can’t run in.
- Though some adults certainly thought they did.
- And, sometimes, the creator spends the rest of their life trying to explain it away. See Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.