Roald Dahl, and the ‘challenge of tact’ | Ivan Callus

Prof. IVAN CALLUS – who lectures contemporary fiction and literary theory at the University’s English Department – argues that ‘tactless’ re-editings of children’s classics, might be a sign of ‘culture wars to come’

Prof. Ivan Callus
Prof. Ivan Callus

There has been a lot of controversy, recently, surrounding Puffin Books’ decision to ‘re-edit’ Roald Dahl’s children novels, to make them ‘less offensive’. First of all, do you agree with the assessment of many academics, that this is represents a case of ‘political correctness gone too far’?

“This is a tactless re-editing intervention.” That was my first reaction. It was the kind of instinctive response articulated by Salman Rushdie in a tweet: “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship.” (He also added, “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed” – those are strong words.)

Without equating this with other, more oppressive forms of censorship that we’ve read out about in the past few days (for instance, Russia making it a criminal offence to publicly criticise the Wagner group, which amounts to a wholly different order of speech control), I’m uneasy about Dahl’s texts being re-edited as they were.

In my own work with editing – admittedly, of a different kind and in a different sphere – changes made to an author’s text happen according to certain protocols (interestingly, just this week R. L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series, was reported as not having agreed to edits, similar to those on Dahl’s text, made to his books).

From that standpoint, what Francine Prose, the former President of PEN American Center, had to say in an article in the Guardian last Monday – “Yes, Roald Dahl was a bigot. But that’s no excuse to re-write his books” – pretty much expresses, better than I could, my immediate perspective. She refers to groups of “censors” (“let’s call them that”, she notes), on the left and the right, “who pursue tighter control over what kids read”.

There are all kinds of thin wedges and slippery slopes there, we could say. As Prose asks, “And where would all this end?”

However – because there’s always a “but”, or multiple ones – we have been hearing a lot about critical thinking. Everybody invokes it (which perhaps should make us suspicious). But critical thinking, if we’re going to commit to it, is not there merely to find vindication, from noted commentators, for the positions and perspectives we’re inclined towards. We should not be surprised to find that other writers and critics who disagree with our opinions will be quoted, counteringly, back at us.

It’s curious, and amusing, how quickly it’s overlooked that “critical thinkers” (an inelegant term, but anyway) will not necessarily align with each other’s ideas. Who are we happy delegating our critical thinking to? Critical thinking, surely, should confound us and trouble our certainties. Or, at least, give us a more rounded, empathetic background to the ideas we hold. So I ended up asking myself, what ought I also to keep in view, in this controversy around the edits of Roald Dahl’s work?

And where did that question lead?

Well, I wanted to see how some broader issues might come into play. Readers can decide for themselves if they might conceivably nuance the case of the Dahl edits.

The text of children’s books has always been up for revisitation and re-editing. The best-known practice, and a very intrusive one, is that of abridgement. Generally speaking, abridgement is uncontroversial. I remember my own curiosity, as a child, in seeing the word “Abridged” in the paratext of a book I was reading. It would make me quite cross! What had been left out? What was this other material that was not coming my way? What was I not being allowed to read? And what was this ‘safe space’ – to use modern-day idiom – that I should stay in just a bit longer?

There is always a cultural politics to abridgement – starting from the fact that it is anonymous (you rarely read, “Abridged by …”). It comes with a set of cultural, pedagogical and editing assumptions, themselves worth scrutinising. I’ve been looking at some old and some recent abridgements of classic texts. Let’s just say that there are various other talking points that emerge there. If nothing else, about why it was that certain passages and episodes were not, so to speak, ‘abridged away’, whereas others were; or about the dubious elegance and reach, for instance, of some “translations into modern English”.

And then, Thomas Bowdler. His name keeps coming up, also around the Dahl edits. We read in his ‘Family Shakespeare’ that “nothing is added to the original text” (interesting), “but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family”. That “aloud” is more interesting, but let’s take the word, “propriety”, here.

Being “proper”: the connotation of primness is inescapable. Is this, by extension and analogy, what the edits in Dahl reduce the books to? Conformity to a set of contemporary pieties? Even when invoking the power of literature and the arts for subversion and radical thought?

But Swinburne (hardly a straitlaced writer, of course) defended Bowdler’s work, for helping to disseminate Shakespeare among child readers. Are there any lessons there in how we perceive the Dahl edits? What is it that’s salutary: if not in the Dahl edits themselves, then in the broader tendencies to revisit texts?

In fact, Roald Dahl is far from the only example of literary “revisionism”. More recently, there has been talk of re-editing Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels – now deemed “offensively racist and misogynistic” – and in the United States, there have even been sporadic calls (by academics) to remove classics such as Homer’s The Odyssey from the university curriculum, altogether. What are your thoughts on that?

I’ll come to Fleming and Homer soon. There is a broader drive to what you describe. To stick with Shakespeare for a second: take the case of gender-blind, age-blind, or race-blind casting (for instance, Maxine Peake or Michelle Terry in recent years as Hamlet; or Ian McKellen playing Hamlet while he’s in his eighties). We forget that this sort of thing was happening decades, indeed centuries, ago.

Sarah Siddons played the part of Hamlet many times in the eighteenth century (though, very interestingly, not on the London stage). As it happens, the first filmed performance we have of ‘Hamlet’, from 1900, has Sarah Bernhardt as the Prince. People flocked to those performances. And who wouldn’t want to see either of those two great performers in the role?

Something is generously at work there. True, this is the kind of move that tries to unsettle attitudes. But I think that readerships and audiences will, in the main, be curious, and ready to give these kinds of revisitations a chance: if they see that they’re not being done tokenistically, or merely faddishly, or for the sake of latter-day proprieties – and that there is, in fact, a new understanding that’s thereby brought to the work; an added edge to the relevance of these texts and their capacities for reinterpretation.

This, I think, is the real problem with the Dahl edits. The changes (certainly, those cited again and again in the press) came across as perplexing; worse, leaden. And Dahl’s words were not so obviously problematic as what can be encountered in Fleming’s work, with its depictions of women; or, say, ‘Gone With the Wind’ (the film even more than Margaret Mitchell’s novel), with its representations of slavery and racism. There wasn’t the perceived need for, let us say, trigger warnings, that become relevant in the case of ‘Gone with the Wind’ or, arguably, Fleming’s novels.

And Dahl himself is not leaden. Let’s go to his texts (on whose magic one intervenes with trepidation). The opening to his “Cinderella” is interesting in the context of what we have been discussing. I’m reading from ‘Revolting Rhymes’: “I guess you think you know this story. / You don’t. The real one’s much more gory. / The phoney one, the one you know, / Was cooked up years and years ago, / And made to sound all soft and sappy / Just to keep the children happy.”

We get the point – if anything, let’s restore the old menace to the old stories – though perhaps we also get the subtle self-irony. Let’s remember also that Dahl was himself happy to write proactively, directly, in support of certain causes. ‘The Vicar of Nibbleswicke’ – “written for the benefit of the Dyslexia Institute”, as the blurb has it – has a particular cleverness to it. It starts in an almost pedestrian way, and then it suddenly becomes uproariously funny, blending on the one hand that kind of playground humour and language play which has children (and adults) chortling merrily, with, on the other, a resolution that avoids any laboured messaging.

Dahl may not have got it right in his private life and public statements – the problems there are well known, and Margaret Talbot’s article in the New Yorker from some years ago is penetrating on the issues that emerge – but the books themselves have a truer wisdom.

What about Homer, though? Are you concerned at what appears to be a growing ‘intolerance’, among contemporary readers, to literary perspectives which in any way contrast with their own world-views?

In her article on Dahl, Francine Prose refers, interestingly, to “teachable moments”: in other words, those opportunities that arise when world-views around a text’s constructions, and reception, conflict. Do we deal with that conflict by removing texts, or by reading more? Not, I’d like to think, the former.

Similarly, with Homer: do we decolonize the canon by denuding it, or by refashioning it? There are rich and creative routes to refashioning: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopeia’ pointed to one. ‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’, edited by Joan Anim-Adoo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay, points to another (I do, in all honesty, have some issues with this book: not because of the idea or the philosophy or the politics, but with the execution and some of its assumptions – but that’s another discussion).

In fact, what this whole controversy has got me thinking about more, is that question of ‘tact’. I mentioned it at the start. Not, of course, the question of which version of a Dahl text (to get back to that), the original or the edited one, is most ‘tactful’ to buy as a gift, now that Puffin has decided to keep both options in print (some people will call that arrangement a fudge, others will call it a compromise).

To put that another way: “Will they be offended if we gift them the original? Or will they be more offended if we give them the edited version? Oh, bother, I’ll give them a Goosebumps instead. Oh, hang on...”

There is a history, in literary criticism, to thinking about “critical tact”, and what it demands: for instance, which methodological or theoretical tools to deploy in interpretation; or how to square the tact owed to certain groups of readerships, with the fidelity owed to a text; to its background, to its art.

What all these questions come down to, in the end, is this: “To what, or to whom, is the greater tact owed?” And, as it happens, just this week there have been articles published in PMLA (the journal of the Modern Languages Association) about “sensitivity” and its contemporary challenges. Not, to be clear, sensitivity as understood in the phrase “sensitivity readers”. The sensitivity at play is not about retooling the language of literary texts, past and present, in propitiation of contemporary world-views.

And in fairness, if we’re going to discuss sensitivity readers, let’s recognise that they are by no means all as they have been portrayed: jobsworths or commissars in publishers’ offices, blue pencilling everything that they prime themselves to be personally or vicariously offended by. We cannot be badmouthing an entire practice, simply because one instance of it is seen as ‘insensitively’ executed (the irony!)

At their best, sensitivity readers offer another layer to the kind of literary editing that has been a part of the publishing industry for years. For readers who are interested in this, an article in The Vulture, “What the job of a sensitivity reader is really like”, is worth looking at.

But, back to those articles in the PMLA, with titles like “Becoming Sensitive”, or “Sensitivity Training”, or “Criticism as the Practice of a Commons”, by Elaine Auyoung and Erica Fretwell and Joseph North, respectively. The articles speak about the balance between aesthesis, “aesthetic education”, “sensus communis”, “emancipatory cultural commitments”, and how “one task facing critics today is to find a way to make aesthetic judgments without simply reinforcing pernicious power relations”.

What we see there, I think, are literary criticism and the humanities thinking through the 21-century challenge to critical tact: the responsibilities to different constituencies and their world-views, in our increasingly variegated societies with their complex and sometimes irreconcilable demands. If there is any doubt about how those demands are growing ever more pressing, it’s telling that just in this very hour [Note: this interview occurred partly in person and partly via email], Gary Lineker has been suspended by the BBC from presenting Match of the Day, following his tweet criticising the UK government’s new asylum policy; while the New Yorker has published a fascinating piece by Katy Waldman, on “What are we protecting children from by banning books?” (A good spur to critical thinking, that article.)

Can we doubt that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about how to understand sensitivity and “free speech” in future? The Roald Dahl edits are just a small example – and a relatively benign one – of a far bigger and intractable set of issues. And, I fear, an easy distraction from confronting what looms larger in the culture wars – and the all too real wars – in the world today.