Defacing Dahl

Here is a not-so-secret trade secret: before each of my weekly missives is posted, Al Jazeera editors return the edited copy to me so I can review any changes they have made.

By now, the opinion page editors understand that I tend to be picayune about every word in every sentence of each and every column I write.

I sense that, on occasion, this grating habit tests their patience. Still, they tolerate my neurotic bent because the basis of any relationship between a writer and editor is mutual respect.

I respect that the role of the editor is to be, in large measure, a surrogate for the audience and that editors, in turn, respect the choices I make about what I want to say and how I want to say it.

Sometimes, we quibble. Happily, we never quarrel. Sometimes, my copy is left intact. Sometimes, it isn’t.

So, when I was asked to devote a column to the brewing brouhaha over a slew of word changes introduced to the new editions of some of late British writer Roald Dahl’s most famous children’s stories, my initial visceral reaction was that this was an irresponsible and disrespectful act.

There have, of course, been a flurry of tweets and columns from prominent novelists and freedom of expression advocates decrying the “shameful” “censorship” of Dahl’s stories by misguided puritans moved to “modernise” his popular works by draining them of their signature prickly and nasty bits.

My older and wiser sister, Kimete Mitrovica-Basha, agrees. She knows the rainbow of authors who populate the ingenious orbit of children’s books, having been the executive director of the Basel-based non-profit group, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) from 2002 to 2004.

A former teacher and librarian, Kimete remains dedicated to bringing children together through books. She calls the supposed “fixes” to Dahl’s work “shocking and wrong”.

Her overarching concern, which tilts into a palpable fear, is that the “policing of thought and language” that Dahl has posthumously and involuntarily endured is bound to happen to other writers – dead or alive.

“It’s dangerous,” she told me on Monday from Brussels. “The questions that writers and readers are obliged to confront are profound: Where will this end and who will be the next targets of the sensitivity police?”

It is a worry shared by Suzanne Nossel, the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America.

“The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas (as has been done to Dahl’s work),” she wrote.

“Literature is meant to be surprising and provocative. That’s part of its potency. By setting out to remove any reference that might cause offense you dilute the power of storytelling,” Nossel added.

While I side – wholeheartedly – with the thrust of these complaints that art should not be rewritten by anyone other than the artist who produced it, my rebuke of the publisher’s cockeyed actions has a more personal tint.

In unilaterally tweaking his stories, Dahl’s publisher, Puffin Books, and estate have insulted their patron and questioned his provenance over the places and characters that sprang like a gusher from his pen and imagination.

Once published, Dahl, alone, should own those words. And he, alone, has the right and privilege to change them.

To tinker with Dahl’s words is as sacrilegious as tinkering with an image by Francis Bacon or correcting a score by Benjamin Britten. It is also as outrageous as it is unfathomable. Dahl’s words are as sacrosanct as Bacon’s dab of colour on a canvas or Britten’s reach for a note in a tablature.

It is no surprise that Dahl was notorious for being oh-so-particular about the sweet and sour words and phrases he weaved together to tell the tales that countless children across the globe have devoured and enjoyed, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.

That editors he did not know or trust have chosen to switch the words that Dahl chose for others would, I suspect, have infuriated him.

Before any changes were contemplated or fashioned, Dahl, the conjurer of these unforgettable worlds with their fantastical characters, was the ultimate authority to reject or consent to any alteration made on his behalf.

Since Dhal died in 1990, he could not do either. It should have been apparent to anyone involved in this debacle that swapping one word for another without the author’s explicit approval is an affront to the integrity of his text.

Reportedly, editors have disfigured hundreds of Dahl’s words. The number, like the editors’ motivations – which I will address in a moment – is irrelevant. To have tampered with even one of Dahl’s printed words is tantamount to tampering with art and history.

That is not hyperbole. Dahl’s books reflect time and place – with all the beliefs and myths, rights and wrongs, strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness inherent to them.

It would be akin to sanitising Dahl’s long, repellant expressions of anti-Semitism to paint a more agreeable or palatable version of him for readers – young and old.

Being well-meaning is the antithesis of art and history.

Dahl’s publisher and the author’s estate have defended their decision to deface the descriptions of characters’ appearances, races and genders, in at least 10 of the author’s 19 children’s books by insisting that their clumsy surgery is “small and carefully considered”.

This is condescending tripe. Every small or big word Dahl wrote took considerable consideration on his part. If he had wanted to alter so much as a syllable, Dahl would have done so of his own volition.

The story and spikey, inventive language are what mattered to him – not the fragile sensibilities of anonymous editors who will not be read or remembered as the writer they deign to “edit”.

Apparently, those editors thought it necessary, for example, to “update” references to “mothers” and “fathers” to “parents” or “family”.

Their reasoning? Some readers might find Dahl’s word choice offensive because it perpetuates anachronistic stereotypes.

Dahl was familiar with his touchy critics and their pedantic criticism. Inevitably, they were adults, not children.

“I never get any protests from children,” Dahl once said. “All you get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.”

Finally, there is also the practical matter of what is to be done with the millions of Dahl’s original works taking up, I gather, disagreeable space among bookshelves in libraries, classrooms and homes.

“What are you going to do about them? All those words are still there. [Are] you going to round up all the books and cross them out with a big black pen?” author Phillip Pullman told the BBC.

The other option, Pullman suggested, was to let Dahl’s at times jarring and uncomfortable work fade into irrelevancy and go out of print.

That would be a shame, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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