Tom Rachman is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
The vicious (but captivating) storybooks of Roald Dahl have become rather less vicious, after a cleansing edit by the late author’s publisher, which hopes for books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory never to offend again.
However, it’s the scrubbing that causes offence.
“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship,” Salman Rushdie said. “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” A literary-freedoms group warned that, even if you approve of these alterations, you should worry about those with differing morals reworking other literature.
The hundreds of changes to Mr. Dahl’s books include the removal of words like “fat” and “crazy” (Charlie); changing genders of characters (Fantastic Mr. Fox); and rewriting lines, such that the book-loving Matilda once “went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad” but now goes “to nineteenth-century estates with Jane Austen.”
All this raises a question about stories: just how moral should they be?
Parents and teachers urge reading as part of the transformation of malleable youths into decent adults, so are alert to what fiction does to our young. And yet so many successful kids’ books revolve around naughtiness. Everyone who spends time with children, or who recalls being one, knows the delight of a character who strides up to The Rules – then dares to cross that border. What happens next?
In fiction, Mr. Dahl ventured into this wild territory, telling of rule-breakers both charming and charmless, of rights trampled and wrongs avenged. In life, however, Mr. Dahl was a repellent character. His antisemitic views were so unrepentant that he once told a reporter that Hitler “didn’t just pick on them [Jewish people] for no reason.” Meanwhile, his sinister tales for adults – for instance, a man betting either to win a Cadillac or have his finger amputated – suggest what lurked within the author.
Still, nobody need invite Mr. Dahl to their fantasy dinner party of past writers, seated between George Eliot and Toni Morrison. (Though I’d pay to witness their exchanges.) The matter here isn’t an unpleasant man. It’s the work.
Mr. Dahl’s descendants sold the rights to his books to Netflix in 2021, reportedly for a half-billion pounds, or about $820-million. The streaming giant will crank out films, TV shows, plus “Roald Dahl” spinoffs, so it presumably prefers a safe commercial asset, not problematic cultural works. The productions won’t include fat-shaming, and rightly so. But to reverse-engineer the books themselves is folly.
Literature is more than distinguishing good from evil. Indeed, moral indoctrination tends to deflate a story, puncturing all magic, turning wordy daydreams into wordy preaching. Quite reasonably, most readers avoid literature that strikes them as too vile – writing so poisonous that even its art cannot compensate. Some consider Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice this way; others object to Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a matter of judgment, and one can respect varied tastes.
But a story is also a history, a glimpse at when it was created, by a certain mind at a time, embodying norms or subverting them. The past is rotten with awful acts, from the wounding to the criminal to the genocidal. We do not eradicate that by removing references to it. We can, and should, explain that then is not now, and say why.
As parents of readers, surely we have confidence enough in our standards to rebut ways of the past that perturb us. To fear that exposure to repugnant ideas – even in the authoritative voice of an author – will pervert a young soul both overvalues the story and undervalues the kid.
If you grew up when cruel remarks were brazen and shameless, how did you escape? Are you so morally warped by what you’ve read that you cannot allow others to see what you did, to learn how things have been, and are gladly less today? Or are your children moral dunces who cannot be trusted to learn similarly?
Nurturing decent people is rarely a process of restricting their awareness, leaving only the mighty to peek through the wagon windows at the upsetting sights beyond and behind.
For those who care about literature, there is a heartening side to this Dahl controversy: people still mind terribly about books, still fight over them. Those in publishing – rather than assuming the self-appointed role as cleansers of literature – should embrace this vibrancy.
Whether to read Dahl is another matter.
You may find the viciousness detestable. Or perhaps his style irritates you, and the characters seem outdated.
So spurn Mr. Dahl. The bookshop is crammed with alternatives. But the choice should be yours.