Mike Hosking, Heather du Plessis-Allan, Roald Dahl, and culture wars: an editor’s analysis
Opinion: Last Sunday, I was interrupted at dinner by an email from Newstalk ZB. Would I appear on the Mike Hosking Breakfast Show the following morning to speak about the recent controversy with edits to Roald Dahl’s books? I had no idea what they were talking about.
It turned out that Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books had recently been republished by Puffin with substantial edits to make them more ‘politically correct’, such as removing the words “fat” and the colour black.
I was confused as to why Newstalk ZB would ask me, an able-bodied skinny white cis straight woman in publishing, to talk about inclusivity edits I had nothing to do with. Knowing the full picture, perhaps I should have stepped back. But being the shameless hustler that I am, I promptly agreed and prepared an opinion.
For months now I’ve had a guilty secret. I haven’t been reading or watching the news. I’m incredibly privileged that the pain and suffering created by earthquakes, floods, mass shootings and war are only ‘the news’ to me, but for the most part, having little political power of my own, I’m able to convince myself that my knowing about such things is only making me feel sad and not making anyone else’s situation better.
Of course, it finds its way into my life regardless, as footage of children being pulled out of Syrian rubble played in my office break room, or friends’ second hand accounts of Jacinda’s resignation.
Most irritatingly at the end of last year, I was forced to halt production of the Navy’s professional journal because the Queen died at just the wrong moment and the Navy wanted to insert a memorial note to her.
But the field of politics in which I can’t escape in my work as a book editor is identity politics. It’s intrinsically a part of my work, whether I am advising the military on the lack of macrons in their te reo value statement, addressing the balance between narrative and polemic in a queer activist’s memoir or questioning universalist statements in a religious migrant’s account of bullying in New Zealand workplaces.
People think of an editor’s job as being about polishing sentences, correcting grammar, even cutting and meddling to make action snappier and endings more satisfying. And it is at times all of those things. But what we leave out, and fail to warn new editors of, is that editing is also about curating the performance of identity in public discourse.
The more I read about the Roald Dahl edits, the more my latent political outrage came out to play
Of course, we like to point out that as editors, we have no actual power. The author is the authority on their work. The publisher is responsible for choosing and supporting the work. The editor merely makes suggestions. But that’s not really the full picture.
Editors are in positions of power. We deign to represent ‘the reader’ and advocate on their behalf to the author and publisher. We advise how the reader will respond. We make suggestions, and authors, perhaps anxious about their work’s reception and eager to please, or just worn down by the exhausting process of creating a book, take our word for it, though what expertise we have on ‘the reader’ has neither been measured nor demonstrated.
The more I read about the Roald Dahl edits, the more my latent political outrage came out to play. Though the word “fat” had been taken out everywhere it occurred, characters were still described as being “enormous” or “pulpy as a jellyfish”.
Roald Dahl was an avid user of the classic trope of bad guys being ugly and good guys being beautiful. To remove this trope would be to erase the books entirely. The editors had merely removed unpopular language without changing the content. They had removed the colours black and white, even when they described the colour of a spider or a tractor. They had even replaced sections of text to insert entirely new ideas.
One most-often quoted in the flurry of outraged articles on the subject was the change in The Witches to a character’s dialogue from “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens” to “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
My favourite was a change in James and the Giant Peach – the original line follows the unfortunate end of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, the two horrible aunts who abuses poor James, who is squashed by the giant peach:
Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat,
And tremendously flabby at that.
Her tummy and waist
Were as soggy as paste –
It was worse on the place where she sat!
So she said, ‘I must make myself flat.
must make myself sleek as a cat.
I shall do without dinner
To make myself thinner.’
But along came the peach! Oh, the beautiful peach!
And made her far thinner than that!
This was changed to:
Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute,
And deserved to be squashed by the fruit!
We all felt a big bump
When we dropped with a thump.
We left Aunt Sponge behind us
But you needn’t remind us
That we shouldn’t feel rotten,
For we haven’t forgotten
How spiteful she could be!
This change is, in my humble opinion, just worse. Not only does this editor have the audacity to think they can add this length of new text to the work of an author who wrote in the 1940s and whose style and perspective has been unique enough to hold its place in children’s literature for decades.
But it also introduces new ethical problems. It removes the focus on Aunt Sponge’s body shape, but it adds in a moral justification for her being squashed to death by the giant peach and suggests that we shouldn’t feel bad for her death.
It pushes the idea that the aunts deserved to die because they were bullies. In Dahl’s original, it’s acknowledged that the aunts’ deaths feel “satisfactory” to Miss Spider, whose own father was washed down the drain by them the week before, but these new lines push an interpretation that was to a great extent left to the imagination in Dahl’s original, which leaves it at the suggestion the aunts were unlucky, because of the bad luck associated with killing a spider.
Of course, there’s an appeal in the idea of the mean character coming to an untimely death – that’s what made James and the Giant Peach satisfying, but Dahl knew that children do have a strong sense that stories are not real, and that if Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker were to be squashed to death in real life, it would be horrible and traumatic. The story works because a giant peach is so silly, so clearly unreal, that there is only catharsis from this event.
A similar change occurs to the following rhyme about Aunt Spiker who was “thin as a wire” and wanted to be fatter. The new version includes the line “If only she knew,/How the absence of charm/Can do so much harm.”
As someone who’s had communication difficulties in the past, I find the reference to an “absence of charm” being harmful as, dare I say, “offensive”. If these editors are trying to fit the 40s vibe by using the word charm as a quaint way of saying ‘nice’ or ‘considerate’ it will likely fly over the heads of young kids who, like me, think of charm as ‘the power of attracting or fascinating others’ and will conclude that Spiker must die because she fails to be likeable.
They put me on air. Heather du Plessis-Allan expressed outrage. I expressed equal outrage and described some of the most stupid edits
By the time I was scheduled to appear on the radio, I was riled up and ready to rant. By a poor stroke of luck, though, the radio team never called – it turned out they wrote down my phone number incorrectly, so I sit though two hours of anxiously listening to Hosking pontificating on gang violence in flooded Hawkes Bay. Recognising their mistake, Newstalk ZB called to ask that I instead speak with Heather du Plessis-Allan later in the day for a five-minute slot.
They put me on air. Heather expressed outrage. I expressed equal outrage and described some of the most stupid edits. Five minutes was up and they cut me off. I hadn’t gotten to my actual point. There was something to be learned from all of this, and I had failed to express it. I felt impotent. I tried to go for a run but just sprinted up the first hill and then stomped my way the rest of the route.
Still the edits were a popular topic of conversation. They have that rare power of being able to unite the right and most of the left wing in an enjoyable sense of righteous incredibility. I could rant about it with my young progressive flatmates and with my conservative colleagues, though the latter unfortunately resulted in having to hear about how we should be able to use the word “n***er” because it used to mean the colour black.
I stumbled at that and tried to find common ground again, but it probably sounded as if I agreed. There was a line to be drawn in the sand, but as long as we focused on our collective outrage, we didn’t have to agree on where the line was.
When it comes down to it, I think there are two conflicting ethical claims that I think are fair to make about editing historical children’s literature. First that the author’s voice should be respected. It is questionable then to falsely present authors of the past as holding progressive views.
The more substantial edits to Dahl’s messaging make me think of the trend in movies or series such as Enola Holmes and or more drastically Persuasion or Bridgerton, where film makers don’t even attempt historical accuracy, but instead insert a fourth-wave feminist into a historical character and have them battle for equal wages and beat the rich white men at their game, with only the ‘bad’ characters expressing the racist or sexist views that were normalised in their time.
Often though in these cases, the point is not to describe the past, it’s, to different extents, merely a pretty backdrop for storytelling.
Dahl writes, ‘There was something indecent about a bald woman.’ To protect children from every harmful opinion seems unrealistic
But when the trend is so pervasive, does it have the result of changing how young readers and viewers see the past? It may be uncomfortable that up until very recently in history, any ‘heroic’ figures we choose to idolise and write about likely had some views that we would today find unacceptable.
But should we really teach children that the past consisted of the bad guys, who were Nazis, and the good guys, who didn’t have a racist or sexist bone in their body, and were instead, feisty women rebelling against the institution of marriage and on equal terms with their Black servants, to the chagrin of their overbearing racist parents?
The second claim is that children do not understand historical context and so should be protected to some extent from ideas that may convey as self-evident that to be fat is to be greedy and disgusting or that, as Dahl writes, “There was something indecent about a bald woman.”
Though, to protect children from every harmful opinion seems unrealistic. Perhaps it’s better, or at least easier, to focus on ensuring that children are reading a range of books from authors with different perspectives, and to look at the messaging of those books collectively rather than individually.
At what point between James and the Giant Peach and Enola Holmes do we start teaching kids about how cultural views change over time, or that sometimes an author can tell amazing stories about how children might claim autonomy over their lives, question authority and find their own communities, and at the same time hold harmful and negative views about underprivileged groups?
I talked to Mary McCallum, a Wellington-based publisher, about how she has navigated these challenges when publishing a recent collection of poems, The Uppish Hen, by the late Robin Hyde, written in the 1930s for her son, Derek, but not published until now.
The process involved research into Hyde’s life and work and discussions with the editor of the collection, Juanita Deely, who had known Derek and researched Hyde intensively for both a short film and as context to the poetry collection. Mary explained that Hyde was someone who was conscious of not perpetuating racism, but that a couple of the poems felt outdated. One poem, about toy soldiers fighting “Injuns” felt inappropriate, and ended up being removed entirely, after the publishing team debated the possibility of making edits but realised they would be too extensive.
In another poem, two words were changed: “gypsy” became “traveller” as gypsy is now considered derogatory. “Romany” was probably the correct word to replace it, she said, but it felt too heavy-handed in the poem, and gave more focus than was intended to the identity. The team considered “Traveller” with an upper-case T, but this referred to another group entirely, so was dismissed. There was no perfect answer. The other word change was from “swarthy”, a derogatory word about dark skin used to describe a Spanish sailor to “salty”.
“Honestly, we felt we were honouring Hyde,” said Mary. “She’d have hated to have been thought racist or warmongering.” On the other hand, if the intended readers had been only adults, the publishing team might well have opted to leave these words as per the original and provided context in the front matter.
In retrospect, having read about Dahl’s edits and reflecting that readers were concerned about the particulars of these sorts of changes, Mary said that they perhaps could have listed the details of the changes in the imprint, for those who were interested. She says the book does make clear that the originals can be viewed in the Alexander Turnbull Library.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make the changes we did,” said Mary. “It is a where-do-you-stop scenario. If you’ve started tidying up one or two sentences, then do you go on and tidy up that whole poem? Another editor and publisher would have made different choices.”
Of another work, Becky Manuatu’s Auē, which went through several rounds of edits in consultation with the author, Mary said that “It’s Becky’s work, but my sensibilities and thinking are present in there somewhere. It went through six editing passes. You can’t avoid it.”
The majority of publishing professionals are middle-class white women. Does that mean that our books are skewed towards certain political viewpoints?
It’s true that editors and publishers often have more of an effect on texts than people realise. It’s not unreasonable to ask, as many criticising the Roald Dahl edits have, who are these people who make decisions about our books?
“They used to say publishing was for women who had a private income,” said Mary. “I wouldn’t have been able to start up two publishing companies and publish the books I have if my husband had not been a lawyer earning what he did to support the family.”
To an extent, there’s still truth to that. It’s hard to earn much in publishing. You certainly don’t earn much in writing. In my 2019 class of 20 publishing students, only one was male, and the majority where white. From my observations of the small New Zealand publishing industry, the majority of publishing professionals are middle-class white women. Does that mean that our books are skewed towards certain political viewpoints?
There is a recent trend in books to not identify the races of characters at all. And it could be a great thing if readers can imagine themselves as any character – certainly better than having all the Māori characters be alcoholics or domestic abuse victims. It’s also an easy way out of a conundrum.
If you name their race, you are responsible for ensuring that depiction is not perpetuating a negative stereotype, and that you’re not othering minority characters by, for example, naming the Black characters as Black, but not mentioning the white characters’ race. If you keep things mysterious, you do not have to address race at all. But are we creating a literary world where all depictions of the past are modernified in the manner of Bridgerton?
I wonder if there is an element of white fragility that enters into these decisions. After all, any privileged person in a position of power believes the worst thing they can be accused of is being racist, ableist or sexist
A lot of the skirmishing around Dahl’s edits has been alarm around the use of ‘sensitivity readers’. These are readers with diverse experiences, such as people of colour, LGBTQIA+ or differently abled people, who provide feedback about the depiction of diverse characters or how a book may be read by people from diverse experiences. But it seems strange to heap the blame on these readers.
If you’re hired to address sensitivity issues, it’s your job to highlight every conceivable issue or possible offence or misreading. It’s up to the authors, or in the case of Dahl, the publishers, to decide which changes are appropriate in balance with the author’s intention and voice. It’s like when organisations have ‘diversity hires’ either to genuinely enrich their organisation with diverse perspectives or as protection against accusations of prejudice. It’s not the fault of the young graduate hire what the organisation chooses to do with their contributions.
But I do wonder if there is an element of white fragility that enters into these decisions. After all, any privileged person in a position of power believes the worst thing they can be accused of is being racist, ableist or sexist. They can either grapple with the issues themselves so that they are capable of understanding enough to weigh them against concerns of authorial voice and historical accuracy, or they can let a sensitivity reader tell them what’s ‘correct’ and follow their advice to the T.
Probably even if you do grapple with the issues yourself, if you know you have a privileged, sheltered experience, you should also hire a sensitivity reader where appropriate to learn about your own blind-spots. But still, the practice makes it possible for decision-makers to hand off their own learning and the burden of their decision-making to underprivileged people in the same manner as some ‘diversity hires’.
Puffin have recently responded to the Dahl scandal by promising to re-release the original un-edited versions alongside the new ones, so that readers, or parents, can choose which ones they prefer. This seems like an appropriate response.
The radio interviews delayed my current editing project, and I ended up working till 1am. My mind is a machine in the midst of a copy-edit, processing each sentence, picking out grammar hiccups like a factory worker picking malformed Easter eggs off a production line. Every few pages, I come across a more complicated issue. I articulate it as best I can in a comment and usually suggest a solution, knowing that the author is more likely to be on board if they can see clearly what I am intending. If they’re a confident author, at ease with their own voice and with a good sense of their own agency, they’ll make a judgment and re-form the solution in their own words before inserting it. But sometimes, they just accept my words. “I trust you”, they say, “You’re the expert.”