Voices: What kind of witless weeds want ‘sensitivity rewrites’ on Roald Dahl?

I have a few reasons to have an opinion on Puffin’s decision to rework some of Roald Dahl’s most beloved children’s books by editing, removing or entirely rewriting phrases deemed “offensive”.

One is that I’m an English Literature graduate who grew up worshiping at the altar of Dahl’s books. The other is that the changes to titles such as The Witches are made with a person like me in mind. That is, a woman struggling with hair loss.

It may seem innocent enough. Certainly, the original lines from The Witches circulating across social media (“a witch has to put [a wig] on her naked scalp”) prickle a few nerves for me as someone with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), who has spent the last few months battling hair thinning. And yet, I will argue tooth and nail for the original lines to remain unaltered.

Why? Because I believe in authorial integrity, and I believe in literature. If allowed to continue, posthumously editing the works of famed authors opens a dangerous gateway to censorship.

That’s not to mention the integrity of the author, and their right to have control over works published under their name. It’s the classic Ship of Theseus paradox – over decades or even centuries, at what point does a book that has been edited and re-edited stop being the original text?

These are not new ideas, and they certainly aren’t the sole remit of the anti-PC police. When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published under “suspicious” circumstances in 2015, many refused to buy the book out of a belief it had been published without the explicit consent of its author.

In the case of Dahl, there is no question. A dead author cannot give consent. I have no doubt that the folk at Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company are well-intentioned.

The changes were made in collaboration with Inclusive Minds, who describe themselves as “passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature” – sure, but there are many other ways to pursue that end.

The literary canon is a political machine. Those who feel that Dahl’s writing is unacceptably offensive might pursue and champion alternative authors both contemporary to him and not. They may ask why other worthy children’s writers haven’t received the same attention as Dahl, questioning the political manoeuvring which causes the canon to spotlight some and not others.

But the prerogative to avoid offence in literature, even children’s literature, is ultimately a personal one. Really, it comes down to this: we cannot and should not doctor the literature of the past to make it fit nebulous present ideals.

While there may be valid reasons we should disparage some of the views Roald Dahl held in his lifetime – even if most of these views are not reflected in his children’s books – to change his work is another matter entirely. And lest we forget: censorship can go both ways. What’s deemed “offensive” is perilously subjective.

Last summer, we watched with horror as news rolled in of the stabbing of Salman Rushdie (who has, himself, just come out against the changes to Dahl’s works). Many of us felt appalled by the “Stop Woke Act” signed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, the state law bringing with it the banning of non-vetted books.

Those unable to draw a correlation between such events in Florida and the instinct to edit Dahl over here need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. To address the question at the very heart of this debate: Is it truly the job of literature to avoid offence? I would argue, no.

Children who will – one way or another – eventually make their way into the real world, will not develop critical faculties by being sheltered from ideas which may sometimes be uncomfortable.

Ultimately, the integrity of literature lies not in the general arc of the story, nor the liveliness of its characters, but in each and every individual word crafted by the author whose name is on the spine. I will always believe that, even when those original words selected personally offend me.