The Psychology of Censorship: Changes to Roald Dahl's Words
When society changes, should literary classics from a bygone era be updated too?
Changes to works of celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl to reflect modern views of language have provoked widespread condemnation.
This raises issues surrounding censorship and how to best address culturally significant works when society changes.
Rewriting works from a bygone era may potentially lead to canceling the past and preclude opportunities to learn for the future.
Some works of literature are concerned with the impact on society of censorship. An obvious example is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which language itself is altered to prevent thoughtcrime. Another is Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, originally published in 1979 while the author, a Czech dissident, was living in exile in France. The book is composed of various parts that explore censorship (a.k.a. “forgetting”) in life, society, and politics while living under communist rule in Eastern Europe.
But last week, the literary world was rocked by the news that the publisher Puffin (an imprint of Penguin Random House) had made hundreds of changes to the works of celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl to reflect modern views of language. This prompted international condemnation by many, with author Salman Rushdie branding the decision “absurd censorship,” and with even the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, weighing in on the debate, stating: “we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with [Dahl’s] words."
But some expert commentators were more equivocal. Most surprising perhaps was the reaction of the novelist Philip Pullman, ostensibly an opponent of censorship. Pullman declared last week, on BBC Radio, that the publisher should simply stop publishing the books altogether, allowing them to go “out of print” rather than rewriting them. This appeared to be an implied endorsement of the perceived lack of “sensitivity” in Dahl’s books that makes them unsuitable for a modern audience—the ostensible justification used by Puffin to make the changes, with their explanation “words matter” in introducing the revised editions.
Needless to say, Roald Dahl ferociously guarded his words, and he largely refused to allow changes to be made to his works against his wishes during his lifetime. Some of his works contained racist language, and he did agree, under pressure, in 1974, for changes to be made to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published in 1964, to remove perceived racist terms. But in guarding against edits, Dahl was no outlier. Authors including Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill ferociously prevented edits that they didn’t approve of.
Ultimately, last week, after days of fierce debate across social media and in the press, Puffin performed an about-face, and announced they would continue to publish Dahl’s original works, alongside the revised, "sensitized" books.
But this still begs the question, is the use of "sensitivity readers," now a common practice in the publishing industry, an act of censorship when applied to older works, and to an author long dead who can’t object? Or is this simply something that renders works reflecting an earlier time more relevant for today’s society?
What was the fuss about?
It was first reported on February 17, 2023, that in the rewritten versions of Dahl’s classics, Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer “fat” but “enormous” and Oompa Loompas are gender neutral. Mrs. Twit is now just “beastly” rather than “ugly and beastly,” and "a weird African language" is no longer “weird.”
Many of the changes center on preventing reinforcement of perceived negative social stereotypes. Descriptions of characters as "fat," "ugly," and "crazy" have been removed to reflect body positivity and to provide arguably more sensitive depictions of mental health. Moreover, gendered descriptions have also been changed, where "boys and girls" now becomes "children."
But in places, the rewriting is more extensive. For instance, in Matilda, the protagonist no longer reads the works of Rudyard Kipling but Jane Austen. And the rewriting of some passages includes changes to descriptions that Roald Dahl would not have recognized in his lifetime and would most certainly have refused to accept.
So why the fuss?
The fuss actually boils down to the very statement with which Puffin introduces its rewritten editions: “words matter.” And authors do not compose their words in a vacuum. Writing reflects the societies in which authors live and breathe, the same societies that they respond to and write about, and which provide the imaginative seeds that they turn into words, descriptions, characters, and books. While society moves on, Dahl’s words are frozen in the time in which he lived. If we judge him, then we should judge the society he grew up in, too, the same society that led to our own.
And it was, in part, this that provoked the backlash against Puffin’s decision, which the publisher could have reasonably anticipated. To, in effect, change substantial portions of a writer’s works—more than deleting or changing the odd word—is to change the works themselves.
Written works, once signed off by an author and published, travel out into the world on their own, of course. Some works are revised, abridged, and translated. And each revision or translation changes the works in some way. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, for example, has two authorized editions, a US and UK edition, which differ quite markedly because of the author’s engagement with two different editors. Some, like the Wordsworth narrative poem The Prelude, has two editions by dint of being published by the poet at two different points in life, following years of revision, the so-called 1805 and 1850 editions.
Other works, such as the Bible, or the works of Shakespeare, that have become cultural and literary cornerstones over centuries, have been edited, revised, bowdlerized, and translated. Historically ancient works, such as Petronius’s Satyricon, arguably the first novel in the western world, survives only in fragments, which means only part of the novel’s words have passed down to us.
But the difference with the works of Roald Dahl is that, unlike Shakespeare, his works remain under copyright. Hence, the original decision by Puffin to simply rewrite the books and allow the originals to lapse was controversial to say the least. And there is no waning in popularity for Dahl to support the proposal of Philip Pullman to just unpublish them.
After all, Roald Dahl has sold more than 300 million copies, and his work has been translated into 63 languages, while there have been numerous adaptations of his work for both the big and small screens. He is the author of characters such as Matilda, the BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Willy Wonka, and the Twits. His characters are part of our cultural legacy. And, as just one example, Roald Dahl was the sixth most borrowed author on the British Library Public Lending Rights children’s list of 2020/2021.
Canceling the past damages the future.
Ultimately, any decision to rewrite a body of popular and culturally significant work that is copyrighted, without retaining the original versions in print, does amount to cultural vandalism and is an absurd act of censorship, as aptly stated by Salman Rushdie.
Censorship of this kind affects us all, as stories give life to our mental lives. To rewrite is, in effect, to cancel the past. And, without the past, we have no opportunity to learn, and we lack purchase for the future. This is always the error of censorship—to cancel aspects of culture, ultimately, has an adverse impact on material life, as in the case of Mao Zedong’s attack on literature in public book burnings during the so-called Cultural Revolution in China.
It is right and fitting that the original works of Roald Dahl continue to remain in print. And readers are now free to choose which versions—original or sensitized—they consume.