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Roald Dahl Gets a Rewrite
March 8, 2023
The day comes when remaining the same becomes more painful than the risk to grow. And when that happens there are many goodbyes. We leave old patterns, old friends, old lovers, old ideas, and some cherished beliefs. Loss and growth are so often one and the same.
-Phoebe Eng, lecturer

The British publisher Puffin has released new editions of Dahl’s children’s stories, each now stating, "The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today,"
In an editorial for the Atlantic, Helen Lewis notes:

Reading through the extensive list of changes…I first felt revulsion: Roald Dahl without nastiness is not Roald Dahl. Something about the process feels dishonest …My second thought was this: If his work is really this bad, why even try to save it?

…Some of the new edits are minor and defensible, such as changing the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach to be Cloud-People. Some reflect adult pieties far more than the protection of children: Matilda is no longer allowed to read the colonialist Rudyard Kipling and is given Jane Austen instead. A few edits, though, are so contrary to the spirit of Dahl that they feel like a violation.

Exploring motivations from social justice to capitalism, Lewis concludes:

Dahl staggers on, embarrassing the cultural gatekeepers by remaining popular despite being so thoroughly out of tune with the times. The work does so because of the dirty secret that children, and adults, like nastiness. They enjoy fat aunts and pranked teachers and the thrilling but illegal doping of pheasants. Today’s corporations want to have it all, though. They want the selling power of an author like Roald Dahl, shorn of the discomforting qualities that made him a best seller. They want things to be simple—a quality that we might call childlike, if Dahl hadn’t shown us that children can be so much more.


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Comments (6)

Displaying 5 of 6 Comments   [ View all ]
Kirsten Haugen · March 09, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

I am so thankful to each of you for your passionate and informed responses. I shared this story, not to endorse Puffin, Dahl or Lewis, but to hopefully inspire deep discourse and reflection on the complex intersection of many issues - bias, hate, negative role models, censorship, commercial self-interest, and on and on. Please keep the dialog going. We'll be sharing more in Exchange Every Day. An update: as this debate has roiled in public, Puffin decided to release a 'classic' unedited set alongside the new edited versions, in an attempt to appease both sides. I hope Exchange Every Day is a space where we can continue to share and learn from one another by discussing and debating critical issues. Again, thanks for joining this conversation with each of your perspectives.

Kay Peterson · March 08, 2023
Los Angeles, CA, United States

Yes, Yes, and YES!!!
Thank you "Helen Lewis" for presenting clearly the obvious...
"Something about the process feels dishonest…" If Dahl's "work is really this bad, why even try to save it?"

Danielle Davis · March 08, 2023
Victoria, BC, Canada

I do wonder why we are sharing the opinions on social justice in writing and editing from someone who is an open Terf. Hellen Lewis has been under fire for comments she has made about trans people.

Pat · March 08, 2023
Minasville, NS, Canada

The work of any writer should never be tampered with in this way. Each is a product of their time. We love the writings of Roald Dahl precisely because of his language, his over the top descriptions of people. As a school librarian I read his books to all my classes because they are so engaging, and most of them poke fun at our faults and foibles. Roald Dahl being a known antisemite is not the issue here. Many of our most renowned writers were not nice people. Yet as writers they delivered us emotional truths that resonate to this day.
Dostoyevsky and Walt Whitman and hosts of others would not meet the standards exacted on Dahl. Neither should we expect them too. We enter in to their worlds when we open a book and always have the privilege to close it again if we do not like what we find there. Expecting any writer to live up to the standards of any particular society at any particular time and then expunge bits or rearrange bits to suit is censorship and ,frankly, misrepresentation. I can only imagine what Mr. Dahl would have to say to the misguided staff at Penguin.

Pat · March 08, 2023
Minasville, NS, Canada

Altering the work of any writer just should not be done. Dahl is a product of his time and, as noted, we love his writings precisely because of his use of language. As a school librarian I read his books to my classes because they are so engaging. And, for many of them, they continue to point out human foibles and weaknesses in a uniquely Dahl way. The fact that Roald Dahl was a known antisemite is not the issue here. Nothing is being glossed over. Many of our most renowned writers were not nice people but the emotional truths that we find in their work continue to resonate. This is true of Dostoyevsky as it is Walt Whitman, with his racism. The thing is, as readers, we enter in to their time, not insist that they meet the standards of ours. And every reader has the choice not to engage.

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