In February this year, following quite a bit of public outcry over plans to publish Roald Dahl’s children’s books in sanitised, non-offensive editions stripped of racist, sexist and sizeist references, Penguin Random House succumbed to pressure and agreed to publish two different versions of 17 of the writer’s classic texts.
In the Roald Dahl restaurant, you can opt for the Puffin Dahl or the Penguin Dahl. The Puffin editions will be carefully expunged of ‘offensive’ references; no characters will be “fat” or “ugly”, for example, and little bits of reassuring (but non-Dahl) prose is occasionally inserted to point out, for example, that there’s nothing wrong with women wearing wigs.
The Penguin versions, however, will remain as they always were: nasty, body-shaming, offensive stuff that could very well leave your child – or, indeed, you – in puddling tears.
“By making both Puffin and Penguin versions available,” Francesca Dow, Penguin Random House Children’s MD explained, “we are offering readers the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvellous stories.”
That’s one rationale for the volte-face. Another might be that Penguin Random House realised that their previous decision – effectively to suppress Dahl’s original texts – was astonishingly unpopular and likely to tarnish its reputation. Various big names had waded into the debate, lambasting the publisher’s decision to ‘airbrush’ the work of the beloved children’s author. Rishi Sunak, Camilla, and – tellingly – Salman Rushdie all pitched in.
Another issue, of course, and one which may have subconsciously influenced Penguin-Puffin’s hysterical kerfuffle over the sanitised versions, is Roald Dahl’s well-publicised personal antisemitism. His family, perhaps with an eye on the royalties or saleability, have apologised for the Great Author’s inexplicable faux pas. “Those prejudiced remarks”, they said, “are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations”.
The Queen of Crime: casually antisemitic
HarperCollins, the publishers of much of Agatha Christie’s significant body of work, have also been busy with the literary scalpels. In March this year, it was announced that many of Christie’s classic Poirot and Miss Marple detective novels would be issued in editions which have been carefully sifted through by ‘sensitivity readers’ for descriptions and epithets which might be construed as ‘insults or references to ethnicity’.
And Then There Were None (1939) is a book that’s currently on its third title. The original UK version, Ten Little Niggers, only gave way to Ten Little Indians in 1986. In the US, the book was known as And Then There Were None from the outset, though American Pocket Books used the title Ten Little Indians from 1964 until 1986. If you consider the dates – and the places – the tortuous publication history gives quite an insight into shifting attitudes.
By 1939, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been making significant strides for decades. Significant work by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston was well-known in the publishing world. Conversely, the UK had little experience or knowledge of domestic black voices.
In the 1980s, just at the time when Americans were developing sensitivity towards the history of indigenous peoples, they ditched the ‘Indians’ version at pretty much the same time that the British adopted it. We seem to have been just a bit behind with these things.
The book’s title, however, is not the only issue.
“That little Jew had been damned mysterious,” reflects one character early on. Then, a bit later: “That was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about money – they knew!”
Now, to be fair, I’m fine with this. Christie isn’t writing as herself. This is not the unfiltered, unmediated voice of the author. She is showing her characters, warts ‘n’ all, in the way they think, judge and speak. If we were to excise all this sort of stuff there’d be great chunks of Ulysses missing. Hell, there’d be swathes of Jewish novelist Bernard Malamud gone. I mean, surely, if you put antisemitic language into the mouths (or thoughts) of disreputable, unpleasant characters, this simply reinforces how disreputable and unpleasant they are? Look at To Kill a Mockingbird, for example.
However, when I moved on to re-read Lord Edgeware Dies (1933), I faced a bit of a problem. As Christie surely intended, I’ve come to love Hercules Poirot. He’s intolerably conceited, of course, a terrible dandy and a bit of a fusspot about symmetry, but I’d argue that, by and large, we’re encouraged to admire the egg-headed Belgian as not only a brilliant detective but, in himself, wise, humane, honest, decent and good.
It came as something of a shock, therefore, to find Poirot voicing Shylock stereotypes as part of the deductive processes of his “little grey cells”. He seems to realise from visual evidence alone that a suspect is Jewish: “You observed without doubt that she is a Jewess?” This immediately provides him with motive: “Love of money might lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path,” he ruminates darkly.
Admittedly, it’s 1933 and antisemitism is hugely popular across much of Europe. Hitler has only just been made Chancellor – still some years off him being US Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ – and there’s not even a whiff of a rumour of extermination camps. Still, you’d expect better from Poirot. You’d expect better from Christie.
The previous year in 1932, Christie had published Peril at End House, a lurid thriller set in Cornwall. In its pages we get such enlightened pronouncements as “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” Poirot, on the scene, remarks upon the oddity of the Jewish art dealer offering more for a picture than its actual worth. “The long-nosed Mr Lazarus offers too much for a picture,” he points out. “Most uncharacteristic of his race.”
Mid-20th Century literature: a censor’s delight
You read a load of Christie and you notice these things. They jar, these days, but only in the same way that antisemitic references in Graham Greene (Brighton Rock, for example) and Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Cafe) tend to jar.
If you’re going to rewrite Dahl and Christie, I sometimes think, then don’t you have to revisit much of 19th and 20th Century fiction? Get in there with the scalpels? Cut out the offensive, gangrenous bits? But no, it seems. Greene is safe, for now. McCullers is re-published intact. Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner have not, yet, been referred to the sensitivity readers.
Perhaps this is because – unlike Dahl and Christie – they are ‘literary’ authors and their grown-up, educated readers can be trusted to see their derogatory references to, and descriptions of, African-Americans, Jews, women and others in a nuanced way, able to supply the contexts of the times, aware of the pervasive nature of such attitudes in the earlier part of the 20th Century.
Not so with Dahl and Christie, however. They are massively popular authors who write for children and adult readers who may not – horror of horrors – possess the awareness of historical context requisite for a considered, rational response to screamingly offensive racial slurs, epithets, characterisations or, in Dahl’s case, sizeism, misogyny and, well, just general nastiness.
No. Apparently, we must condescend horribly to Dahl’s and Christie’s readers (and Ian Fleming’s, for that matter) and morally cosset them in a way that would be unthinkable with the highbrow readers of the great literary modernists. We can allow – for the time being at least – the intellectual film clubs to screen D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation uncut, Faber & Faber to reissue T S Eliot’s poetry un-slashed by sensitivity readers, Penguin Random House to churn out William Faulkner unexpurgated.
Censors, it seems, concern themselves with the obvious. With Christie’s And Then There Were None for example, they originally agonised about the title but did nothing about the actual paragraphs. They paid lip service. They didn’t really delve. They weren’t thoroughgoing like they should have been.
If you once embark upon a course of right-minded expurgation, I feel, you should see it through to the book-burning, Fahrenheit 451-style bitter end. Let’s have nothing, you should say, that will give any offence to anyone. We’ll tear it out, root and branch. They’d be burning books in public squares every weekend. Mark Twain – get him on the fire. Christie – consign her to the flames. C S Lewis – chuck ‘em on the pyre.
Let’s incinerate anything which is in danger of offending anyone – unless, of course, they’re books read by intellectuals who, as we all know, are equipped to deal with this sort of stuff.
Having your cake and eating it too
But it’s not like that. Censors, by which I mean publishers, want it both ways. They want the glory of having defied the harshest elements of Islamist intolerance (Viking Penguin – The Satanic Verses) and they want the post-woke kudos of showing sensitivity to a range of reader concerns (Penguin Random House – Roald Dahl).
Essentially, Penguin Random House is doing what Birds Eye and other major food production companies do these days: whilst continuing to sell products packed with animal meat, gristle, guts and fat, they also offer a range of plant-based, meat-free alternatives for those who, for whatever reason, find they can’t or won’t stomach actual dead beast. The Puffin versions of Dahl are like chicken-free chicken, or pig-free bacon. You get all the pleasure of nugget or rasher but without the ethical dilemmas or, indeed, the health concerns.
Birds Eye, like Penguin Random House, will happily sell you all the unethical, murderous hunks of traumatised animal bits you want but, tellingly, they offer you the vegan option.
The world of publishing, it seems, is in the grip of a tendency towards virtue-signalling doublethink. Still, if it doesn’t trouble Birds Eye, it shouldn’t trouble Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. They can have their guilt-free vegan burgers and eat bloody-as-hell fillet steaks too.