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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Don’t gobblefunk around with words

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No one would argue with the fact that Roald Dahl was plain mean. In his books, little children are eaten by giants, thrown into garbage chutes and hated by witches, and wives feed their husbands worms. Dahl also suffers the reputation of being racist and flagrantly anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, his books remain popular, and he is celebrated as one of the most prodigious and imaginative children’s writers. It was, therefore, unsurprising that Dahl’s publisher Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House, came under fire last month for rewriting portions deemed offensive so that the books “can be continued to be enjoyed by all today.” The portions changed contain references to race, weight, gender and mental health. Struggling to deal with the backlash, Puffin then hastened to say that it would release his works in their original version along with the changed versions for younger readers “who may be navigating written content independently for the first time.”

Altering old books

Regardless of this clarification, even in this age of political correctness, the idea that a group of editors can change works without the consent of writers long gone is worrying. Publishers are supposed to be the defenders and custodians of the works they publish and to promote rewriting or censoring of any kind amounts to a betrayal of this responsibility and the trust reposed in them. While publishers and copyright-holders attempt edits so that older books can be read by newer, more sensitive readers while they can continue to profit from these classic works, ‘sensitivity readings’ make sense in the case of new works, not books published decades ago. To attempt to improve on the present is distinctly different from trying to alter the past.

There is also no evidence that such changes are accepted by readers. And acceptance is important, for publishing is first and foremost a business. In 2010, for instance, Hachette had announced that Enid Blyton’s works would get a 21st century makeover. Old-fashioned words were changed: ‘housemistress’ become ‘teacher’, ‘tunic’ became ‘school uniform’, and even ‘mercy me’ became ‘oh, no’, so that the books would become more “timeless.” In 2016, The Guardian reported that this had turned out to be a pointless exercise; the response was lukewarm at best. The message from the readers was clear: Blyton’s books were timeless, and her legacy was too great to be tampered with. Readers seemed to be buying books because they were by Enid Blyton — with the insults, nastiness and anachronistic language — and not some versions of Blyton. They preferred authenticity over political correctness.

While it could be argued that several classic children’s books have been updated to remove racial and gender stereotypes, such as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle, none of these versions have changed who these writers were or their imagination of the world. It is through the original books that we have some understanding of the prejudices, cultural attitudes and behaviour of the times in which they were written. Works are a product of their times and reading them is simply a way of knowing the truth.

Furthermore, to determine which books should be rewritten, which portions should be recast, what is offensive, and who should do the rewriting is an exercise fraught with difficulties. Books, it is argued, are updated to reflect the mores of the times, but even mores are not set in stone: they are contentious, vary across geographies and cultures, and are fast evolving.

The graver danger is that if fiction is altered or tailored according to arbitrary moral judgments, this could happen with non-fiction too, especially history, which is always being sought to be rewritten to suit the ideology of the time. In India, we already see this in the field of education. The popular majoritarian rhetoric rides on the vilification of some and the glorification of an earlier past. School textbooks are changed; heroes and villains are recast. These changes, too, are directed at children. It seems that there is a stubborn refusal to challenge children in the realm of ideas worldwide.

Reading a range of books

So, how can we challenge children in the realm of ideas? One way would be to introduce them to different kinds of reading. Philip Pullman had rightly suggested that we should simply let “Dahl’s books go out of print,” while introducing children to other writers such as Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman and Jaqueline Wilson. In fact, we should do more: in this age where writers from different cultures, communities, genders and languages are being read, and translated fiction is in vogue, children have the opportunity of exploring a range of books. Second, in older works, publishers could introduce an introductory paragraph providing some context, which would help children and parents understand the times in which those books were written. Third, instead of rewriting books, publishers could encourage retelling of works. For instance, Wilson re-imagines Susan Coolidge’s classic book, What Katy Did, in Katy. While in the original, Katy is confined to a wheelchair and denied happiness, Katy has a different ending and says a lot about disability.

The uproar over edits is especially loud in the case of children’s books as they evoke feelings of childhood and nostalgia. Instead of dusting up old books, softening the cruelty in them, and, as Dahl said, trying to “gobblefunk around with words,” it would make more sense to re-centre children’s literature so that it doesn’t revolve only around the Dahls and Blytons.

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