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Charlie and the Outrage Factory

Nicola Biggerstaff

It was announced this week that Puffin, the publishers, hired sensitivity writers who, in conjunction with the Roald Dahl Story Company and Inclusive Minds, have rewritten passages in the children’s author’s novels. It is said the move was in order to allow the works to ‘continue to be enjoyed today’. But what does this say about our continuing pursuit of accountability to privilege? Is this even the way to do it?  

Matilda was my favourite book growing up. A tale of an intelligent, bookish quick learner as she navigated her way through a world of narcissistic adults and learning to find joy in education, even through its own challenges. I was truly devastated to hear of the changes to this work, including that the passing reference to author and colonialist Rudyard Kipling would be changed to Jane Austen. We all know who Jane Austen is, but it was Matilda that informed me there was a person separate from the cakes. I would, of course, later go on to learn of Kipling’s long list of horrific views and sympathies, but even just having this little nugget of information on his mere existence was enough to distinguish, enough to make the world a little bigger to this small-town girl.

Other changes in this latest announcement include the removal of the words ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ from every novel, and complete rewrites of most language now deemed offensive. This is the language that engaged children back then. When every inconvenience feels like the end of the world. When our perspectives are limited to those in our immediate vicinity, clouded by a privilege we don’t realise we have yet, that of being sheltered from the world’s real ills. Fantastical tales of adventure, ghouls and gore we never believe we’ll ever encounter, not quite realising yet that the true magic of reading in childhood is the preparation it gives us for the adult world.

Dahl has been subject to edits before, and rightfully so. Original versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made reference to the Oompa Loompas as being members of a native African tribe, of a non-descript origin, and therefore a caricature of said native cultures. This is the truly abhorrent language which should be, and promptly was, edited out of his works in his own lifetime. But we’re still aware of it, and therefore of his views and the caution we should be employing when engaging with his works, thanks to the existence of original texts that haven’t been deleted into oblivion. While the RDSC released an apology in 2020, you cannot Ctrl+Alt+Delete a legacy. Whether that legacy is good or bad, whether you think it should exist or not, is all down to interpretation.

I often found myself arguing during Statue-gate that the physical thing is only part of the story. Yes, something exists that brings into the physical realm a piece of the time, but it’s only ever a singular dimension. This is the foundation to the study of historiography. Only once we consider the whole context can we debate historical events and artifacts of the time: why is it here now? Who brought it here now and what were their motivations to do so? Who funded its creation? Why does it stand where it does? All a part of its history which will still exist when the statue is removed, whether put into a museum or chucked into a river in front of a roaring, and rightfully angry, crowd.

This is not separating the art from the artist, this is an unnecessary erasure of classic literature. We cannot pretend they do not exist, but we can and should educate on outdated attitudes and morals, how this influences an artists’ work, and how we can as a society heal, learn and improve going forward. ‘Cancel culture’ is a useful tool for accountability, but only when wielded correctly. It cannot, be used to issue a blank canvas upon which controversial creators can time and time again re-emerge into an unchanged culture to repeat the cycle once more.  

A limited release of a new edition, a new preface on the next edition, or even a complete cease of print if we were wanting to go extreme, as occurred with some Dr Seuss publications, would all be appropriate measures to take to acknowledge that these classics were written with an outdated perspective in the previous century. Dahl was a controversial figure, some of his views were outdated even for his time, but we have had this conversation already. As I previously mentioned, the edits to take out the actually harmful language have already taken place. This next step is an unnecessarily harmful attempt to make relevant what cannot be translated into the modern generation’s understanding. We know a book is old, we know it will say old things. We know women can be top scientists and business owners without it being rewritten into The Witches. Leave the modern interpretations to the theatre groups and film adaptations.

This almost feels like an intentional attempt to stir and inflame cultural debates among generational divides, others claim it is in light of the Dahl estate being sold to Netflix in 2021, perhaps so producers can feel a little less guilt when reproducing a work that’s nicer about people, as if that’s ever been the point of the arts. Some art, and some artists, are not nice. Art moves, it can make you uncomfortable whether that’s the intention or not. And as such, the emotion becomes a part of its own history.

The truth is, we’re tired of this. Older generations want to stick to their guns, younger people have enough to think about right now. Why can’t we just let sleeping dogs lie on the trivial things that can simply never be resolved in a way that satisfies all? I consider myself a bit more snowflake-inclined than most, but even I can see this is a pointless debate to be having.

European publishers, including Gallimard of France, have this week ruled out these changes to their publications. Maybe I should go back to my French lessons, if that’s what it takes to engage in sound debate nowadays. I never thought I’d find myself on this side of a culture discussion, but this attempt at erasure in favour of corporate interests, to gloss over an ugly past instead of acknowledging head-on, is perhaps the most reasonable position anyone could take. This is not, and never was, cancel culture talking, it was the corporation that is trying to make you to believe it so. And there is little uglier than that.

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