While we were busy poking the embers of the elusive “mother of all Carnivals,” writers were reacting to a worrying new spirit of political correctness among the big publishers.
Roald Dahl was one of the most successful authors of all time, selling more than 300 million copies of his 49 books worldwide, translated into 68 languages.
But it is for his 21 children’s novels that many regard him as nothing short of a genius. Dahl’s hallmark was his total irreverence and sending up of adults, bullies, the bad and whoever else needed to be cut down to size.
Matilda, now available as a musical on Netflix, sold about 17 million copies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 13 million, and James and the Giant Peach shifted 12 million. It can only mean that children everywhere who read his books fall in love with his stories, and adults too, who often love children's books just as much.
The news, then, that the Roald Dahl estate had edited the books to reflect modern tastes and sensibilities caused an alarmed and outraged transatlantic response.
Then more disturbing news came. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are also being modernised. Fleming, another British writer, gained massive success by creating 12 spy novels featuring his larger-than-life British Secret Service agent, 007. The books, mostly written in Jamaica at his famous Goldeneye home, appeared annually during the 1950s till after his death in 1964, with new Bond novels by other writers following on to cash in on 007’s popularity, such as Skyfall. And the fabulously over-the-top James Bond movies have ensured the endurance of Fleming’s literary spy invention.
According to newspaper reports, it is mainly racial references that have been eliminated in preparation for next month’s 70th-anniversary reissue of Fleming’s suitably cleansed novels for sensitive 21st-century readers.
They will carry a disclaimer: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”
Revising original texts is not unusual – Fleming did some sensitive racial-language cleaning-up himself – nor is remaking films, but the rationale of some redactions has raised hackles, because James Bond’s view of black people is elemental to certain novels. In addition, with titles like Pussy Galore remaining untouched, sexism remains intact.
Both Fleming (1908-1964) and Dahl (1916-1990) were, as one might expect, products of their time, in which sexism, anti-Semitism and racial intolerance were offensive only to those on the receiving end of it.
Fast-forward to the 2020s, however, and we find that the Dahl family has apologised for the author’s anti-Semitic views and words and descriptions such as “fat,” “black,” “hag,” and more menial jobs ascribed to female characters in his novels are being reassessed by hand-picked committees for the unfavourable light they might cast upon certain people.
Dahl’s estate and publishers obviously wanted to avoid future complaints and to maintain the popularity of the revered catalogue, but they have had to manage strong rebuke.
Having overlooked the fact that our books record our time, that world history is awful and each era produces its aberrations, Dahl’s publishers fortunately listened to the protests and will republish original versions of the classic novels alongside the edited versions, so readers can choose.
It could be argued that bigoted old stories reinforce stereotypes, but they also present opportunities for enquiry and learning, and the debate will continue about whether acts of literary cleansing constitute censorship and a rewriting of social history and are a huge disservice to readers.
Salman Rushdie, who survived an attempted assassination in 2022 and lived in hiding for many years after an Iranian fatwa followed the publication of his allegedly blasphemous 1980s novel Satanic Verses, spoke for many when he called the sanitisation censorship. Dahl would probably agree with Rushdie.
Dahl expressed the view that it was wrong to try to protect children from the world. That was the secret of his success. Children understand, at a very primordial level, much more than we give them credit for. They learn by challenging order and hierarchy, they can spot despotic, mean or weak adults, wicked children, beautiful objects and they appreciate the fantastical characters with strange new names invented by authors to excite their imaginations. Through enthralling stories children learn that the world is not fair, and also ways to navigate it.
Dahl’s ambition, he said, was for his books to seduce children into a love of reading, since it provides the best path to their development, and he suborned the content to that sole purpose, delivering few messages.
However, the underdog always triumphs in his comic, unsentimental, sometimes dark stories that are full of heroism and adventure and, in the end, are character building.
For my part, I advocate boldness and fearlessness in our literature that reveals the world as it is. I want more outrageous Anancy-like stories for our Caribbean children that turn them into lifelong readers.