Puffin’ and pantin’ on the Roald Dahl beach
Books by Roald Dahl are displayed at the Barney's store on East 60th Street in New York on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (File Photo | AP)

C P Surendran

The textual changes in Dahl’s work add up to a massive act of censorship. And this is carried out not by the State, not the social media mobs of the Left and the Right, but by a publishing house.

Roald Dahl has been dead for over 30 years. Never was he more in trouble than now. Dahl was a Royal Air force pilot. In 1940, his plane crashed in Libya and he was severely injured in the spine and head. Months later, he recovered. When the war was over, he took up writing seriously, and we discovered he was a genius. It is possible that the brush with death—the broken spine and the cracked skull—touched off new nerves; pain and trauma are potentially regenerative.

A fortnight ago, Puffin, the children’s publishing wing of Penguin, brought out a revised edition of Dahl’s short stories for kids, not only with the help of virtuous editors but also with the active aid of censors. They hired Sensitivity Readers to go over Dahl’s texts, as reported by The Guardian, which, like many other newspapers, has carried a series of articles condemning the Puffin effort to make a good man of Dahl.

An aside. The Guardian has been a leader of the liberal banners of the universe to make the planet a better place. Indian media, often brave when the government in power is soft, has followed suit. Well, they seem to have completely forgotten that they did everything in their power to “appear good” and “progressive” at every opportunity and that they contributed to the cancel culture whose latest victim is Dahl.

To generalise on Dahl’s plane crash and pains. True writing is not possible without experience, which is why an imitative software like ChatGPT must fail. The prescriptive society we are at pains to evolve revolts against the idea of experience, and, therefore, against art. You must fall to rise. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!” Joyce said. Well, if Joyce resurfaced in our midst, he is not likely to be published for reasons of misogyny, racism, and obscenity. Great writing is not against Man. It is against all that is imperfect in the human condition. By critiquing the present, the written word sets a higher standard for the future.

In varying degrees, the cancel culture has affected the standing of writers like Nabokov, Hemingway, Enid Blyton, Peter Handke, and J K Rowling. In keeping with the re-emergence of the visual culture—a kind of return to the primitive civilisation—as opposed to the written culture, it is the word that is taking the brunt of the reformist zeal of the virtuous, not the abstract arts like painting or music. Naturally, there are more writers paying the price than other artists.

Dahl’s short stories are like miniature explosions. In one of his early stories, Madame Rosette, for example, a couple of young RAF pilots based in Cairo during the war get hilariously drunk and plan to save (“It is the chivalry of the army”, a sentence repeatedly uttered by one of the cheerfully inebriated characters) a bunch of women from the hands of Madame Rosette who runs a brothel. She is described in all the banned words of today: “short, fat,…greasy”; “a large mud-colored face”; “a small fish mouth…”; “a trace of black mustache”. All these play to a type so that the “chivalry of the army” comes through.

Without the misogyny—which to my mind is as congenital a condition as might be obesity or queerness—the saving of the girls will never be romantic and comic enough. The story was written in the early 1940s. It is good to ask: why should Penguin (which brought out the short stories of Dahl and profited) not edit these offending descriptions, so the parents of Puffin readers, too, are reformed?

The Sensitivity Readers that Puffin hired earned their keep by removing/adding words and sentences and changing the tone and mood of the stories, so kids do not grow up toxic. No matter that the same kids watch porn on the internet and are addicted to violent games.

That Puffin’s convent idea of literature brings into question the legacies and intellectual property rights of authors is part of the problem. The equally important part is the puffery at the heart of the liberal enterprise.

For instance, in the story Matilda, a sentence that previously read “crazy with frustration” now says “wild with frustration”. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the description of the boy, Augustus Gloop, has changed from “enormously fat” to just “enormous”. The Cloud Men characters in James and the Giant Peach are now Cloud People.

In what way is this different from the Victorian idea of good behavior that would encourage women to refer to a man’s legs as “understandings”? The textual changes in Dahl’s work add up to a massive act of censorship. And this is carried out not by the State, not the social media mobs of the Left and the Right, but by a publishing house.

At this rate, it is safe to assume that Shakespeare’s Get Thee To A Nunnery passage (Hamlet admonishing a frozen, waxen Ophelia) will be soon dropped from college texts. When institutions preach ethics, one can safely assume potent individual revolts are being preempted.

When a whole society is caught in a reformist frenzy, witch-hunting and lynching become hard to distinguish from a collective compulsive mental disorder to be seen as samaritans.

The latest development in the Dahl story is that Puffin will go back to restoring the prodigal writer to his original text. It will, however, offer both versions—original and rewritten—for readers to choose from. This follows the public outcry, led by the likes of Philip Pullman and Salman Rushdie. Too late. Puffin remains exposed: at heart, it is not a publisher, but a policeman.

When the government of the day comes down on free speech, at least the binary of the situation is clear. But what is one to do when publishing houses take the initiative to virtually silence an author? A four-letter word comes to mind, and it is not love, as Sensitivity Readers might like to think.

(The writer a Poet, novelist, and screenplay writer. His latest novel is One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B)