The times they are a-changin’ as Bob Dylan said.
As new generations come and go, what was acceptable then, is not so much now. This is no more obvious than in the written language.
Terminology used in books to describe race, gender or a myriad of other things shifts along as our society becomes more aware of giving or taking offence, political correctness or what should outrightly not be included in any book.
But in books, what some call ‘cancel culture’ proves a challenge as some look to rewrite authors’ already published words. Those most often affected are well-known books and authors of the past. And in particular, authors of books for children.
This was again highlighted with the latest kerfuffle around Roald Dahl’s books with the removal of words that may give offence, like ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’. Dahl is a product of his generation, as we all are. But is the removal of a word like ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ a step too far? Changing ‘old hags’ to ‘old crows’? Changing ‘Cloud-men’ to ‘Cloud-people’?
There are books for children that should certainly not be republished today in their original form. Open any of the original ‘Biggles’ books and you will be cringing all the way through. Some of you may have read Biggles as a child and have fond memories. But they are not appropriate for a child of today.
Here’s one of the more interesting examples of a suggested edit for a passage from his popular and loved book, James and the Giant Peach. Dahl wrote …
‘Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat,
And tremendously flabby at that.
Her tummy and waist
Were as soggy as paste –
It was worse on the place where she sat!’
New proposed edit …
‘Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute,
And deserved to be squashed by the fruit!
We all felt a big bump
When we dropped with a thump.
We left Aunt Sponge behind us
/But you needn’t remind us
That we shouldn’t feel rotten,
For we haven’t forgotten
How spiteful she could be!’
I remember, when I was a bookseller, a big hullaballoo over a series of Enid Blyton books. It was deemed highly inappropriate that Noddy and Big Ears had a bath together. Goodness! Such scenes were to be written out. Of course, kids bath with family and friends all the time. It’s the adults who had the problem.
Dahl’s books are silly, fun and dark, with much black humour. Of course, we should be able to make change here and there where it’s clearly needed. But changing an author’s words can also change the total feel of his writing, as you can read above.
Do we need to maintain books as they are forever to preserve ‘history’? Should books be adapted to our world’s values and expectations of today, or otherwise be destined for the ‘out of print’ list?
There is a lot expected of authors today. They have much to contend with. Opinions fly on social media in particular. Can authors write about a character’s experiences if they don’t have any of that experience themselves? Can a black woman only write a book about a black woman? Can a man write about a woman? Can a woman write about a man? Can authors only write about something if they have an actual lived experience?
Surely, we would be all the more poorer in our literary landscape if they could not.
Authors are pressured to be diverse, inclusive, politically correct. It’s a lot to think about when crafting a story. Of course, for authors, this mostly comes naturally anyway, as they live in the now, not last century. They are aware of all these things.
As with most things in life it seems to be all about balance. Common sense should surely reign. But who decides where that line of balance is in the realm of the unknown? I expect we will find that balance, but it will take time.
I’d like to know what you think. Write to me and we’ll publish your letters.
And Baxter, who left us on 7 March 2023. He played his role as our work life balance officer so well. He possibly took his role in security a bit too seriously. But we loved him for who he was. He will always be a part of Good Reading. We all have a very, very big hole in our hearts. He is everywhere but nowhere. I love you my little man. We both gave it our all.