In the last few weeks, there have been reports about publishers editing the works of some pretty popular authors. Two of the most prominent are Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. The announcement stirred a lot of outcry. Some people said it was censorship. Others think we should leave the past in the past.
It seems like most people seem to think we shouldn’t be editing these books—for one reason or another. Here are all the arguments, some of them more persuasive than others.
Argument 1: We Shouldn’t Give in to Censorship
The first argument starts right of center on the political spectrum. Generally, the argument here is that there’s nothing wrong with old books. Ian Fleming’s work is racist, though, and Dahl was a notorious antisemite. His works have been staples of kid-lit for decades, despite the books containing uncomfortable language or imagery.
Take, for example, The Witches, which leans heavily into antisemitic tropes. Or how about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which showed us the Oompa Loompas—little orange men who work for Willy Wonka. Originally, they weren’t orange—and they’ve always been an uncomfortably racist and sizeist sort of “joke” in the book.
Those on the right of the spectrum decried the publishers giving in to what they see as “wokeism.”
The right ties this to concerns around freedom of speech and censorship. While freedom of speech and censorship are valid concerns, the right uses them as a shield to be unabashedly bigoted. Who cares if Dahl’s Witches are every antisemitic trope in the book? Free speech!
Free speech, of course, does not mean there are no consequences. That can range from a “woke mob” decrying antisemitic tropes to a publisher determining that they don’t want to sell these books any longer.
Censorship and Freedom of Speech Pertain to Government, Not Business
There is maybe a sliver of concern here about censorship. Publishers are private businesses. They can and do determine who can say what on their platforms all the time. If one publisher doesn’t like a book, there is often another waiting in the wings. (See, for example, Woody Allen getting booted by one publisher and immediately picked up by another.)
Yet, taken as a whole, publishing tends to support some voices and exclude others. That has a chilling effect on free speech. Is free speech really “free” if some authors have to undertake expensive self-publishing measures to get their voice out there?
The people who suffer the most under this are those who are already marginalized. Those who are privileged are the ones most likely to be published anyway. They also often have the means to self-publish if they desire.
So “censorship” tends to shutter out those who are already on the margins of society. I think that’s certainly something we should be concerned about. It’s not the argument those on the right of the political divide tend to make, though.
Finally, censorship is something that only the government can truly engage in. We should be much more concerned with book bans moving through the US governmental system. That is censorship in the purest sense: the government deciding what you can and can’t read. The right, oddly enough, seems to be the side supporting book bans, despite their “free speech” rhetoric.
Argument 2: Disrespecting the Author and the Past
In the middle of the spectrum, you’ll find those who decried the editing because it seemed disrespectful of the author and the past.
Dahl once told his publisher that if they changed a single word without his approval, he’d send them “an enormous crocodile.” The man has been dead for quite some time, so I’m not sure the publisher will receive the crocodile, but the point stands. Editing his work is a clear violation of his wishes.
Here, both the publisher and the estate have likely collaborated to dishonor Dahl’s wishes. In some senses, who cares? He’s dead. The problem is that his work has aged poorly, and both the publisher and the estate have a vested interest in keeping the public buying.
In that sense, though, editing the works also dishonors the past. Dahl’s works have aged poorly because society is evolving (even if it feels like we’re moving backward at times). In that sense, they become “products of their time.”
Even progressive works can age poorly, so this is not a fault. Rather, we should see it as a sign of social growth. If Roald Dahl’s antisemitic works are unpalatable for audiences in 2023, that is a good thing.
In that sense, we shouldn’t necessarily go in and edit these works. They are historical artifacts and testament. By editing them, we’re trying to cover up the past.
Argument 3: Simply Revising the Works Doesn’t Make Them Better
Finally, we come to perhaps the most persuasive argument. Revising the works to take out “offensive” language probably doesn’t change the underlying theme.
Bigoted attitudes are often creeping, and unless you’re hyper-aware of every facet of them, you’re going to miss things. An example is perhaps obvious in JKR’s work. The stairs in the boys’ dormitories will let girls enter, but the boys cannot enter the girls’ dormitories. If they try, the stairs turn into a slide and shoot them back out.
At the time of publication, this likely seemed like a bit of a ha-ha funny joke. Stupid boys, right?
But, in the wake of JKR’s staggering gender essentialism, sexism, and transphobia, that throw-away detail becomes incredibly sinister. How do the stairs know if it’s “a boy” or “a girl” on them? Why are girls allowed to enter the boys’ dorms? It’s assumed “girls” are perfectly innocent, so they couldn’t ever possibly sneak into the boys’ dorms for anything untoward. But boys—boys are predators, and the innocent girls must be protected.
This sounds strikingly similar to transphobic arguments about keeping “men” out of women’s bathrooms or other “women-only” spaces.
Amazing how such a small detail reveals so much about someone’s worldviews and politics.
But the bigger question remains. Would you see that detail and say, “Hm, this smacks of gender essentialism!” or “this is stereotyping” or “this seems a little transphobic”?
Chances are something like that is going to slide right on by the average reader, even though it is clearly telegraphing so much of the author’s worldview.
The same is true in Dahl’s work. We can take out the “uncomfortable” language or we can change Oompa Loompas from black to orange, but that doesn’t solve the underlying issue: Dahl was writing with these prejudices in mind.
Argument 4: Let’s Make Way for New Authors
And here we come to the reason why the publishers want to edit these works: they want to keep people buying. Dahl’s popularity has likely slipped in recent years as millennials become parents. We pick up Dahl’s books, crack them open, and realize that there is a whole bunch of shit we never clued in to when we were kids.
And we second-guess wanting to read that to our own kids, even if we enjoyed Matilda or James and the Giant Peach or The Witches.
Simply editing out “offensive” language isn’t going to fix the underlying worldview or the values being imparted to kids when we read these books. And we’re thinking critically about how much we want to continue engaging with these stories, even if they are “classics” or favorites from when we were kids.
The same is likely true of Ian Fleming. The James Bond novels have enjoyed some degree of popularity for decades. Now, though, readers are picking them up and finding them dated—and offensive.
The publishers are trying to retain readers by lightly revising the worst and hoping we’ll all stay on board.
But, as I noted, the underlying issues will remain—which is where we need to be ready to turn our back on these “classics” and find something new. There are other authors out there writing with twenty-first-century sensibilities, telling stories that lack the things that make us uncomfortable.
There are other older books that don’t carry the same prejudices.
An Argument for Ending Copyright Terms Sooner
Another option here would be to end copyright terms sooner. In Canada, it used to be death of the author plus fifty years. We’ve recently made our term longer. In other parts of the world, it’s life of the author plus seventy-five years and, in the US, life of the author plus ninety-five years.
So works are being held out of the public domain for almost a century after the author dies. This “locks up” works and allows an author’s heirs and assigns to benefit from the work longer. Profit-seeking is what is at stake here, which is why the estate and the publisher agreed to edit Dahl.
What if Roald Dahl works became public domain? What if someone could take Matilda and write a twenty-first century version? We’ve seen all sorts of oddball things happen with public domain works: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, wouldn’t have happened if P&P wasn’t already in the public domain.
Shortening copyright allows works to enter the public domain sooner, before they lose their cultural relevance—which is what’s happening to Dahl and Fleming here. Society has evolved and progressed, and we are leaving Dahl and Fleming behind. Their publishers are scared the works are losing their cultural cachet—so they’re trying to remodel them for modern tastes.
The best way to do that is to allow someone else to have a crack at it and completely reinvent it—like how Baz Luhrmann “reinvented” Romeo and Juliet in 1997, showing us gang warfare as the “family feud.” Shakespeare is, again, public domain—Lurhmann couldn’t have gotten away with what he did if the story wasn’t.
Leaving the Past Alone
I think any which way we slice it, the answer here is clear. We shouldn’t bother editing old works by deceased authors. We’re often disrespecting the author’s wishes, and we’re disturbing the historical record. In most cases, we’re slapping a bandage on problematic worldviews. We’re better off turning to new authors, new stories, that reflect our modern sensibilities. And there are even shadows here that ask us to question the rationality of current copyright terms, as well as whispers about “censorship” if publishers are allowed to simply edit old works continually.
The only one who benefits from the editing of these stories is the publisher, who wants to keep selling copies to keep turning profit. The edits come not from a place of truly caring,but trying to figure out how to make a quick buck from an audience that is increasingly dispassionate about these stories.
The stories are part of the past, and if modern readers don’t like them any longer, that’s where they belong: in the past.
Perhaps it is time to move forward—to other stories, to other authors and voices, who can more adequately speak to the world we live in.