I ran across a very interesting article by Ann Kjellberg the other day. She’s an editor on a blog called Bookpost on Substack. It’s well worth reading, probably more so that this rant, so feel free to go off on a tangent and read it.
The article has to do with a recent story, that the works of children’s author Roald Dahl were being altered by his publisher, with the consent of his estate, in order to appeal to a more modern crop of kids. This involved, apparently, taking out scenes of violence against children, slurs against women, and other instances of culturally inappropriate language, imagery and subject matter common to his era.
I use the phrase culturally inappropriate deliberately, to call to mind the phrase cultural misappropriation, the idea that one culture should not take from another anything that is not rightfully theirs. Taken to the extreme, this concept implies that no one should talk about what they have not directly experienced. Even including a character who belongs to another race or gender is treading on thin ice, because how could anyone adequately convey the experience of someone else, if they haven’t lived it?
This idea is being used widely, along with other tools, to rob perfectly good authors of the right to say what they mean, in any damn way they choose, through the mouths of whatever characters they happen to choose, no matter what oversensitive reader might be listening on the other end.
Tools of Destruction
When I use the phrase among other tools, I mean just that. So many different ways have now been created to slander authors, to impute prejudice or privilege or callousness to a process that is more intentionally empathetic than anything that most people attempt to do in their lifetimes.
A number of tools are being used to do the job, on both the right and left. On the right, books are being banned in our classrooms, especially here in Florida. This is some kind of attempt to protect children from the evil influence of modern ideas such as tolerance and equity across race and gender and class.
On the left, social media platforms are being used to bully and stigmatize and shun people, who might be foolish enough to make an off-color remark. The great power of technology allows us all to speak at once, and a group of people is always less compassionate and rational, than an individual. See Lord of the Flies. If it hasn’t been banned yet.
The right is causing university professors to think twice, before they discuss concepts that were, just a few years ago, considered merely factual, merely history. Now, they are considered by some to be tools of indoctrination into the cult of wokeness. The university, of all places, should be a place where free thought is allowed and encouraged. Unless a student hears thoughts he disagrees with, how will he know what he is “for?”
At the same time, bad behavior takes place on college campuses, where speakers are run off campus or shouted down because their views are too conservative for a sensitive few. Silencing a viewpoint is an invitation, to be silenced yourself.
What happened to the notion that each person has a right to choose his or her own viewpoint for themselves? What happened to presuming competence? Do adults, or even children, need to be coddled and protected from harmful ideas? Or can they make up their own minds?
The presumption of competence, like the presumption of innocence, is not necessarily a concept one arrives at intuitively. Nor is free speech, for that matter.
In the community which includes those with disabilities (and some won’t like the way I say that, even) there is a mantra: Presume Competence. It means, give an individual autonomy to do something themselves or to ask for help if they need it. Do not do for someone. Do not assume they need your help. Do not speak for them or act for them, without their explicit prior consent.
This can be a very difficult concept for parents and particularly, parents of small children or children with severe disabilities. Parents want to be protective. They are used to anticipating their children’s every need and want, and often routinize their lives without mercy.
Even into college, parents still want to be a part of their children’s lives, to interfere and help, depending on your point of view, and sometimes, they have to be told explicitly to butt out.
With children with disabilities, who do not necessarily “grow out of ” some vestige of dependence, it is very hard for parents to accept a hard break, a handing over of the reigns of power and self-determination. And yet, that’s what we all, eventually, must do.
We tell our children they can do anything, be anything. And yet we restrict their ability to interact with the world of ideas?
Taking the Good With the Bad
Anyway, back to Roald Dahl and his children (I’m assuming they are the ones who run his estate, though I may be wrong.)
First of all, Big Fan. As much as it creeped me out, that James was hanging out with insects inside a giant peach, I couldn’t put it down. Loved the Charlie and the Chocolate factory books and movies, with Gene Wilder slightly winning the battle to play the most sadistic entrepreneur, over Johnny Depp. The beauty of that story was how delightfully evil all the characters were. The seven deadly sins personified, each in a spoiled child. And they got their just deserts (desserts?) I think children today still appreciate justice, when they see it.
A book should not be altered after a writer’s death. Their words are sacrosanct. Blood, sweat and tears poured into those words. If the work isn’t GOOD, well fine, let in land in the trash heap of history. But we cannot surgically put a facelift on a book, just to suit the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of the present day.
One thing I have learned from older books is that life used to be much harder. It may be harder again, someday. Is this no longer a useful lesson to teach our children and ourselves?
When a book is changed, for example after death, it is said to be “bowdlerized.” As Ms. Kjellberg explains, this term came into the language when a fellow named Bowdler dumbed down Shakespeare’s plays for the contemporary audience, years ago.
Making something readable, making it more digestible, is an offense to the work, to the dignity of the writer. It’s as if we were to give a customer in a fine restaurant a gourmet chef’s top dish, but first put it through a blender, so the guests don’t strain their teeth. The very idea makes me feel disgusted.
If it is ever necessary to revise a work (and I doubt it) I agree with Kjellberg that it should bear a label explaining the alteration, and an unaltered version should also be available. Do we learn nothing from the bald representation of racial prejudice or sexism or homophobia or religious intolerance exhibited in old books? Often it is through the portrayal, that the author seeks to cast those practices in a dim light. We seek now to put that light under a bushel.
Twenty-First Century Problems
One of the main differences between written and verbal storytelling is that one changes over time and one remains static. The length of time some written works have been allowed to remain static is a testament, to the peacefulness of our times. It’s a testament to our improved ability to keep records such as books from being destroyed by Nature or political movements, such as the ones brewing in this country right now.
A phenomenon of modern publishing, which Ms. Kjellberg brings up, is the sensitivity reading. For fear of saying anything that might offend anybody, publishers are apparently now making authors endure the criticisms of those, whose only qualification to edit their book may be their ethnicity or background. A whole industry has grown around this concept, that the author’s voice is not good enough, but must have all the blemishes buffed out of it.
Flagging content as potentially offensive to ward off potential Twitter wars– or lawsuits, Heaven forbid—seems like striking cowardice, when practiced by an industry once known for bravery and forward-thinking. The idea, that anyone could imagine a scenario that is not strictly autobiographical, seems to have gone by the wayside. We do know that we’re talking about fiction here, don’t we? Fiction, as in made up?
Beyond Blame to Confession
I love the following quote, though it may seem harsh to the more sensitive among you. It’s time we all developed a thicker skin. Being sensitive now does not make up for hundreds of years of brutal mistreatment or neglect. And how can we ever hope to process those years, unless authors—all authors, including those with resumes brimming with privilege and histories burnished with guilt– can speak freely?
I’ll give Ms. Kjellberg the last word.
…Sensitivity reading in practice seems liable to be an overcompensating and thinly considered penance extracted from writers and literature for the sins by management only faintly recognized or acknowledged…”Ann Kjellberg, Notebook: (2) Sensitivity
It’s time to say your Hail Marys and get back to writing good books.
Copyright 2023 Andrea LeDew
For a poem on the topic read Free Speech. For the love of books and bookstores, respectively, read Motherhood and Books and The Realm of Words Gone By.
Now that I think about it, and after reading your essay, I think the whole Roald Dahl Bowdlerization situation is about money. Contemporary parents might be offended by the books and therefore not buy them, thereby impacting the publisher’s profit margins. If in fact that’s the case, then let the books go out of print. That would be the ethical thing to do.
Very true, Liz. I believe in natural consequences. If something is no longer relevant, it just kind of fades out of the public consciousness.
But to anticipate a bad reaction by the public and guard against it, by purifying a writer’s words …the first amendment expression “prior restraint” comes to mind.
In broad terms, that’s when a Government prevents publication by prohibiting in advance, a certain type of speech.
The Roald Dahl catalog has been published before and is a known quantity, which, judged by today’s standards, is potentially offensive, and therefore an ideal candidate for–ironically–whitewashing. Perhaps it would better be called “post restraint?”😊
Anyway I don’t like it. And it is sad, if publishing has to choose between the bottom line and an author’s integrity. No doubt the publishers are making the best decisions they can, in a precarious economic environment for their industry. But if the publishing industry, the very factory of cutting-edge ideas, runs in fear of controversy, we are guaranteed a milktoast public debate.
Sorry for the mini-rant on top of the foregoing one. 😊
You know, I can’t help but think that the “sensitivity” movement (in all its manifestions) is so extreme that it’s undermining its own goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion. People resent being told what to think and how to feel.
I always end up going back to my dimly remembered twentieth century law school training, on the difference between prejudice and bias on the one hand, and discrimination on the other.
These terms are constantly being conflated in the public discussion.
Prejudice and bias are two sides of the same coin. Prejudice is holding it against someone or pre-judging someone because of an inherent quality they cant do much about, like race or sex or disability. Bias is favoring or preferring a certain person or group because of the same type of immutable quality.
These are attitudes. Most people are tribal and tend to prefer people like themselves and join groups whose composition reflects their own qualities. Thru education and positive interactions with groups outside their own, they can lessen their feelings of prejudice and be more aware of and question their own biases.
Discrimination is an act. It is when we act on our biases or prejudices to favor the group to which we belong and disfavor groups which fall further afield. This is NOT cool.
Government is not allowed to discriminate. Businesses, too have restrictions, on how and under what circumstances they can discriminate. Remember theSupreme Court cake case which challenged those restrictions and won?
Im no expert, so I cant say, at what level discrimination ceases to violate law. But at some point, and perhaps increasingly, as we approach the individual level, the freedom of association and speech begin to trump the laudable and hard-won policy of preventing discrimination.
Not wanting to be told what to do, or what to think for that matter, lies mostly in that lower tier of social interaction: one on one or one to a small group.
Now people are trying to police even that. And other people want to be left alone.
I agree. You can’t legislate or bully people into changing their attitudes and feelings.
I was also horrified by the Roald Dahl censors—and never even thought of the money issue. Now I see it: it’s not morals, it‘s profit—and what else is new….
Not to be cynical or anything . . .