Source: Reuters.

“I might revise a page twenty times,” Roald Dahl, the popular children’s writer, once stated. “By the time I’m nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least 150 times. . . . Good writing is essentially rewriting . . . (although some may argue a piece of writing can never be finished).”

If only he’d known.

Fast forward to 2023, and Dahls’ enthusiasm for revision has taken a sinister turn, with UK publisher Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Random House, announcing they engaged sensitivity — censor-tivity? — readers to cleanse “offensive” words from Dahl’s delightfully wicked tales. Out went “fat”, “ugly”, “boys and girls” and, of course, that most highly contentious of all epithets in the English language, “female”. In the revised and sanitised Dahl, these words are either redacted all together or replaced with alternatives such as “enormous” (personally, I would rather be called “fat”), and the equally problematic “woman” — because if any character was likely to retroactively identify as a woman, it must surely be the “formidable” Miss Trunchbull.

The response from free expression advocates, cultural critics, and authors has been resoundingly critical, with CEO of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, tweeting her alarm about this apparent “effort to scrub the books of that which might offend someone,” and Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie retweeting her and adding, “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Indeed. It’s enough to want to make you mutter a few hurty expletives.

Meanwhile, Puffin Australia has downplayed the changes, stating that “it is not unusual for publishers to review and update language as the meaning and impact of words changes over time” and stressing their responsibility to young readers, whose thrilling encounter with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “might be the first time they are navigating written content without a parent, teacher or carer.” Naturally, the French are having none of it, with publisher Gallimard unequivocally announcing Dahl’s work will not be put into the editorial autoclave.

Puffin — not wanting to cash in its golden ticket quite yet — has done a little web-footed shuffle in the face of the public backlash and announced that the original Roald Dahl Classic Collection will continue to be available under the Penguin imprint, while the more sensitive among us can access their revised editions through Puffin, giving “readers the choice to decide how they experience Roald Dahl’s magical, marvellous stories”.

In response, Dahl would have undoubtedly set his famed “enormous crocodile” (note he didn’t call it “fat”) amongst the Bertelsmann Bowdlerizers. In a conversation in 1982 with his friend, the artist Francis Bacon, Dahl warned his publishers that “if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever! When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the ‘enormous crocodile’ to gobble them up.”

Which brings us to the broader issue of common sense and sensitivity. It’s hard to imagine how, without gradual exposure, a young person might develop the discrimination needed to navigate the overwhelming amount of text and media our culture bombards them with; to say nothing of navigating the often-unpleasant words coming out of other people’s mouths (or beaks). Surely reading stories is a way of play-acting life: we project ourselves onto the characters and their adventures, experiencing the frisson of toying with freedom, conflict, and danger from the safety of our armchairs.

As novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley has written, “If fiction is a simulation of the social world, one can become more skilled in that world by engaging with more fiction.” Or, as linguistics professor John McWhorter argues, rather than policing language, we should focus on educating people about why certain words or phrases are hurtful and encourage them to make more thoughtful choices in their language use, because, after all, “in order to function as adults in a diverse society, we need to learn to handle the emotional challenges that come with encountering people who use words we find offensive.”

But if even the simulacrum of risk is now considered too risky, just how will future generations develop common sense? Reading helps build open-mindedness and resilience, and teaches us that the way we now live, speak and think is not the same as it was in the past; that cruelty and inequality exist and always have, but that progress has been made and therefore can be made. If we clean up history and all its offensive words and realities, we risk giving the dangerous impression that life is and always was fair and kind, and of taking from children the opportunity to develop their own emotional strength and maturity, ill-equipping them for learning, let alone for life.

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt pointed out in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind”, this risks creating an over-sensitive mindset that may last a lifetime: “Students are not prepared for the offensive ideas and language that they will inevitably encounter in the world outside of college. Instead of sheltering students from offensive ideas, universities should be preparing them to deal with these ideas in a mature and constructive way.”

There is a medical phenomenon known as the “hygiene hypothesis” that posits a connection between the rise of autoimmune disease and allergies in modern hygiene-obsessed Western society and the lack of appropriate childhood exposure to the germs and infections that help our immune systems develop. A more updated version of the theory, which focuses on the specific set of microbial species that have co-evolved with humans, suggest that exposure to them teaches the body to differentiate harmless from harmful substances, thereby training the immune system not to overreact.

An analogy might be drawn to the inflammatory response some readers (and certainly our culture at large) are currently exhibiting to “dirty” words. If, as Sontag explored in Illness as Metaphor, “Illness expresses character” and the upsurge of a specific illness expresses the psychological health or particular dis-ease of a society at any given time, then the current demand for sensitivity readers might be said to be pointing to a more pervasive “sickness” in Western culture at large.

“It’s a very weird moment that we’re in,” McWhorter points out. “What psychology tells us are normal human coping skills, given the basic difficulties that anybody is going to encounter in life, we’re being told that that is too much to expect, that that is expecting people to be too strong, and that we’re supposed to give vent to our slightest discomforts and talk about those discomforts as if we were practically being physically abused.”

One wonders if a microbial dose of Dahl, administered at the appropriate age, might not help inoculate the next generation from the scourge of over-sensitivity and lack of common sense we seem to be collectively suffering from. In which case, perhaps we’re best to leave the unpleasant aspects of the writer and his work un-sanitised, not only because they serve an important psychological purpose, but because — as Roman poet and critic Horace pronounced in his seminal Ars Poetica in 19 BC — the function of art, after all, is to “instruct and delight”. 

Michele Seminara is a writer, poet and editor. She has published two chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections, her most recent being Suburban Fantasy (UWA Publishing, 2021). 

Jeanne Ryckmans is a former television presenter and producer for SBS Television who has worked in book publishing for two decades. She is the former artistic director of the Canberra Writers Festival and is a literary agent.

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