CSotD: The Ministry of Arts comes for Dahl

British political cartoonists play rough, but even those like Matt who deal in topical humor have an edge that gives their work some bite. Here he does a concise job of summing up the bowdlerization of the late Roald Dahl’s work.

For those who have missed the outcry, the company that owns the rights to Dahl’s books has edited them to remove upsetting terms, which I thought was the appeal of Dahl’s work in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Thomas Bowdler edited Shakespeare and Gibbon to take out all the naughty bits, and his name has come to represent a form of what Charlie Sykes calls “Literary Vandalism.”

That link to Sykes matters because he quotes a more extensive account in the Telegraph, which is behind a paywall and offers no samples.

Note that I support authors and other artists, but am not, specifically, a fan of Dahl. When my boys were little, we had an agreement about nighttime reading, in which I would choose a book and then they would choose a book, and while I enjoyed most of their choices, I had to grit my teeth through “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t think kids should read them. I just didn’t think I should have to. I’d have felt the same if they’d have been young when Goosebumps or Lemony Snicket was in flower.

Some books are read-alouds, some are for kids to read to themselves.

Here’s a Twitter graphic that sums up how Dahl has been improved for the benefit of young readers.

The changes read like someone mocking wokeness, and I have to wonder how much anyone of an age to read “Matilda” would have been harmed by reading the name of Joseph Conrad or improved by reading about Jane Austen.

As for Kipling, I will confess to having kippled in my youth. I was raised on “the Just-So Stories” and read “the Jungle Book” once I was old enough, and didn’t realize Kipling was an imperialistic racist until I encountered his poetry.

And don’t get me started on what Disney did to “the Jungle Book” or we’ll end up talking about “Winnie the Pooh” and “Swiss Family Robinson” and “the Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Just as people talk about bowdlerization, they also talk about Disneyfication, the difference being that when Bowdler and Disney ruined a book, it wasn’t done with the author’s consent, though, if you were really brazen, you might make a movie pretending it had been.

Mind you, after I tried reading “Mary Poppins” to my kids, I learned that my mother, reading it to us in the 1950s, had exercised some judicious editing to skip over passages like this:

Disney left that out, too, but he added an explanation for why the Banks family employed a nanny at all.

It turns out it wasn’t because that was a common practice among upper-middleclass Edwardian families. Rather, it was because Mrs. Banks ran around demonstrating for women’s suffrage instead of tending to her children. But I digress.

Much of Mary Poppins’ appeal was that, unlike sweet Julie Andrews, she was strict, terse and somewhat frightening but endlessly fascinating. A lot of children’s literature was like that: There was an appeal to hanging around with Long John Silver even after you realized he was a double-dyed villain.

To which I would add the observation that, in productions of Peter Pan, it is traditional to have the same actor portray the children’s overbearing father and Captain Hook, and for Peter himself to be kind of a self-centered jerk.

Sometimes the medicine only works without a spoonful of sugar.

I’ve read that deaf children often work at an emotional disadvantage because they don’t hear their parents quarreling in the next room — “not in front of the child!” — and so don’t come to naturally realize that their own negative feelings are normal and reasonable.

We seem to be trying to extend that disadvantage to all of our kids: When everyone in literature is nice, it does little to prepare children for reality.

No wonder the poor things get triggered so easily!

Getting back to Roald Dahl, every book goes through an editing process, and it might be interesting to dig through his papers to trace the back-and-forth that went into the original publication.

However, whatever changes are made in a work of art should be made with the acceptance, if not full-throated agreement, of the artist.

The notion of “improving” literature to meet modern sensitivities is not new, and Tom the Dancing Bug satirized attacks on Huckleberry Finn back in 2011.

Juxtaposition of the Day

(Tom the Dancing Bug)

(Ward Sutton)

And he just returned to the topic to score a coincidental Yahtzee with Ward Sutton over the banning of books in Florida schools and libraries, with Bolling taking on modern children’s classics and Sutton going after more contemporary titles. (Compliments to both for knowing the ground!)

While Patrick Blower has addressed the Roald Dahl matter specifically, suggesting a world in which everyone’s novels are made acceptable to the Bowdlers and their ilk.

Let’s cut to the chase: This has very little to do with protecting our children and a whole lot to do with selling books.

Kid Lit is one of the hottest areas of book publishing, but, as with nearly all art, popularity fades.

PL Travers’ version of Mary Poppins may no longer be selling, and the Little House books have fallen into disfavor, but there are plenty of new titles being published.

IMHO, Dr. Suess did his best work before “Cat in the Hat” switched him to producing easy-readers, but, when a few of those older books had become problematic, his heirs didn’t alter his text or his art. They simply stopped selling the troublesome titles.

That’s an option for the children and grandchildren of the artists who actually produced the works, though it would cut their inherited royalties.

Here’s another, though I don’t endorse it:

The science fiction/fantasy magazine Clarkesworld has had to stop accepting new submissions because they’ve been inundated with manuscripts extruded by Artificial Intelligence and sent in by people hoping to break into print without having to be able to write.

Makes you wonder what literary wonders you might produce by feeding in ideas like “chocolate factory” and “giant peach.”

Ah well. A topic for another day.

Meanwhile, I just wish we’d go back to using serif typefaces, because whenever I see “AI,” I invariably misread it.

12 thoughts on “CSotD: The Ministry of Arts comes for Dahl

  1. Saying “The Ministry of Arts” bowdlerized Roald Dahl falsely implies that some public mandate, whether from the government or “cancel culture”, is behind the changes.
    No such thing happened.
    A large corporation made a unilateral decision to rewrite content that it owns. It’s not wokeness, it’s not political correctness, it’s just ordinary capitalism, art controlled by commerce and marketing. Maybe they misjudged what the public wants and they’ll lose money, but no one outside their corporate meeting rooms forced them to do it.

    1. Thank you. It’s unfortunate that this clarification is necessary, but for whatever reason, folks feel compelled to misrepresent this situation.

      1. Precisely why I was careful not to misrepresent the situation. The rights owners had the legal right to do whatever they wanted to the artist’s work in order to protect their profits at the expense of his reputation and intentions. I apologize for making a joking reference to 1984 without footnotes.

    1. A little poking around in Word indicates that some sans serif faces render the lower-case L (as well as BDFH and K) taller than the majuscules. Not all do this, and even for those that do the difference is subtle.

      But if it’s serifs you want, Randall has the answer: https://xkcd.com/2736/

  2. I visit your posts for the cartoons, natch, but today your commentary was equally illuminating. Thanks, Mike.

  3. Sanitization of language to satistify the arbitrary feeling-state of people who abide by pop culture norms is best described as corrosive.

  4. Dahl censored his own books. Like when he made Oompa Loompas orange instead of black Africans that he didn’t pay

    1. No, he made those changes prior to publication, and, whether he had the idea or an editor requested it, he approved and made the change himself. That’s editing, not censoring, and it’s not a revision, much less a posthumous alteration.

      Writers always rewrite before publication; it’s an essential part of the creative process.

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