Woke, Broke, Bespoke: How Literature is Being Ruined by Sensitivity Editing
“But neither the vicious taste of the age nor the most brilliant effusions of wit can afford an excuse for profaneness or obscenity; and if these can be obliterated the transcendent genius of the poet would undoubtedly shine with more unclouded lustre.”
– 1819 preface of The Family Shakespeare by Thomas Bowdler
The highly religious failed medical doctor and prison reformer Thomas Bowdler’s agenda was to exclude profanities, bawdiness, and references to unpleasantness such as suicides from literature in the cause of protecting children and ladies from obscenity. Today “safety” and “sensitivity” fulfill the same “Bowlderizing” imperative. As Charlie Higson put in in a March 15 column in the Guardian: “Times change and sensitivities change, and thankfully we now accept that some things in older books can be very upsetting to some modern readers, and a more diverse readership.”
Since early February when the story of Roald Dahl’s encounter with the censor broke, hardly a week has passed without an establishment publisher or well-known author announcing their desire to hit the moving target of current sensibilities.
On February 27, Ian Fleming Publications announced a new edition of Fleming’s James Bond novels, edited for racial language, would be published on April 13. On March 3, the Times reported that Scholastic was releasing a new version of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps novels, with edits to remove a variety of words related to weight and mental health. Stine himself followed this announcement seventy-two hours later denying that he’d made the edits. It continues with a March 13 column on the Literary Hub by Theo Downes-Le Guin with a justification for altering his mother’s works. Le Guin, whose work is cherished by the sorts who appear to be pushing for these expurgations, died in 2018. One would think Le Guin to be sacrosanct, but just over five years later even she was found lacking.
Alterations to Dahl’s work were preceded by a drummed-up controversy regarding Dahl’s personal views culminating in a note on the official Dahl website apologizing for his antisemitism. This was followed by accusing his writing of racism, sexism, fat shaming, and stereotyping. According to iTV News on February 20, proposed changes to Dahl’s oeuvre include the total removal of the word “fat.” The line in James and the Giant Peach where the Centipede sings “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat, and tremendously flabby at that,” and, “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire, and dry as a bone, only drier,” is now “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute, and deserved to be squashed by the fruit,” and, “Aunt Spiker was much of the same, and deserves half of the blame.”
But Dahl’s use of stereotypes was also his point. What is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but a lesson about gluttony and pride? How can one discuss gluttony without mentioning the existence of fatness? How can pride be discussed without pointing out its relation to selfishness?
During his lifetime Dahl himself altered his own works when a deal was on the line. When it was announced that a movie was to be made of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the NAACP called for changes. The Oompa Loompas had originally been African Pygmies. In the book, they were made white, and in the film, orange. The example recalls the changes made by P.L. Travers to her 1934 book Mary Poppins. In the chapter “Bad Tuesday” in which the children travel the world using a magic compass and meet people representative of the regions Chinese, Native Alaskan, sub-Saharan Africans, and Native Americans, in 1971, Travers removed terms then considered offensive (“negro” and “pickaninny”). In 1981 ethnicities were removed altogether to be replaced by animals symbolic of geographic regions: polar bear, macaw, panda, and dolphin. Similar trends are unfolding today with the removal of ethnic commercial product mascots: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the Land of Lakes Indian Princess. Yet the Quaker Oats man and Mr. Clean survive, presumably because people aren’t offended by white mascots. Strange world where depictions of blacks and Indians are effaced and this is considered justice.
James Bond, of course, as originally presented in Ian Fleming’s novels, is even more offensive to modern sensibilities than Dahl. In this case, just tweaking a few phrases just won’t cut it.
The second Bond novel Live and Let Die, published in 1954, features the villain Mr. Big, a black organized crime boss. The conceit of the book is that the black population of the USA and the Bahamas is intimidated and controlled through superstitious fear of voodoo curses. In our age of equity, this premise simply can’t pass muster. Also, it can’t be edited out by changing a few passages. There would be no novel left if the voodoo superstition aspect is taken out. A few possibly offensive passages are beside the point.
Yet Live and Let Die isn’t really about race, or at least not according to a modern understanding. Bond’s deepest dislike is for America and Americans. He likes the Texan Felix Leiter but that’s a personal friendship. He also appreciates Jamaicans, in contrast to Harlem blacks. His attitude is really classic British notions of a properly-run colony: America, after all, is the undisciplined colony gone rogue par excellence.
Live and Let Die also features Quarrel, a Cayman Islander working for British intelligence assigned to assist Bond and train him for the infiltration of Mr. Big’s lair. Quarrel is honest, hardworking, and competent within his field. He always defers to Bond’s judgment on how to proceed to their final goal; in turn, Bond submits himself to Quarrel’s brutal exercise program.
Bond’s admiration of Quarrel is the inverse of his contempt for the Harlem club-goers. Quarrel is not a dope-smoking shirker of responsibility cowed by superstition. Bond is not superior to Quarrel but has a different set of responsibilities. Their relationship is that of two members of a hierarchal organization (the Secret Service). Both Bond and Quarrel view this ranking as natural.
A Caribbean version of Kipling’s Gunga Din: a model followed right up to Quarrel’s brave self-sacrifice in the later novel Dr. No. Reinforcing colonizer cliches is possibly worse than indulging in racial stereotyping in the modern mind. The relationship between Bond and Quarrel is key to Live and Let Die. There is no way line editing can remove the greatest of Fleming’s offenses. Why even try?
Live and Let Die was subjected to sensitivity editing almost immediately after its initial publication. In 1955, for the American edition of the book, Fleming was submitted to edits to excise passages deemed racially offensive in America. These changes remained in place into the 1980s. The 2019 edition of the book states that the publisher compared the original British texts, the US texts, Fleming’s letters, the Fleming family, and “literary experts” to come up with a text that they believed “could have been Fleming’s preferred text.” Presumably, this version undid some of the 1955 edits. Likewise, the changes P.L. Travers and Roald Dahl made to their books sidestep the issue. Cowardice rather than principle applies. There is no time for principle when money is at stake.
No one, however, would question the right of an author to modify their own works during their lifetime. By contrast, Robert E. Howard’s character Conan only skyrocketed in popularity after being reedited by L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter in the 1960s following Howard’s suicide in 1936. DeCamp and Carter made substantial changes to the stories for purposes of both style and content similar to those made to Fleming. For example, Howard’s line “If you had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night” becomes, “If you had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a pig this night.”
DeCamp and Carter’s version of Conan brought the character to worldwide renown. People recognize the trope of a naked barbarian in a loincloth even if they do not know the character Conan himself. Were Carter and DeCamp’s attentions necessary for this success? Review of their work shows their edits for sexual and racial content did nothing to protect Howard’s books from being criticized on those grounds. But would the publisher have fronted money for the republications without the changes? Probably not.
Editing, of course, is an essential part of the process of producing a book. One example is Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a popular author in magazines who famously made the transition from pulp to the slicks. His greatest success was a series of juvenile novels published by Scribner’s starting in 1947 with Rocket Ship Galileo, and ending in 1958 with Have Spacesuit–Will Travel.
These books were edited by Alice Dalgliesh with whom Heinlein had a famously troubled relationship. “The only point she still makes which she originally made is about Willis and (pardon my blushes!) s-x. Okeh, s-x comes out; it was probably a mistake on the part of the Almighty to have invented s-x in the first place”, he wrote in his memoir Grumbles from the Grave. Nonetheless, it was the juvenile line of novels that gave Heinlein general popularity and remains his most popular today. Indeed, his popularity dropped consistently after he left Scribner’s to write more literary works for Putnam. It was not until his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land was found among Charles Manson’s personal effects, after the notorious 1969 murders, that Heinlein regained it. Say what you want about Dalgliesh, it was her editing that reined in many of Heinlein’s self-indulgences and kept the series of juveniles tight and focused, until Manson saved the writer’s later career.
In the end, publishers want to sell books and will ask for changes to content they think will interfere with sales. Living authors will compromise: for an author, a work is a collection of parts they put together with which they can tinker. An author will write a short story, have it published according to the edits of a magazine editor, republish it in a collection, having removed the magazine editor’s changes, then expand it into a novel. A reader, on the other hand, might only read one version once; or read it a hundred times, each time gaining something new from the same words.
An author may die with numerous versions of a work in circulation. If the work is one with lasting public interest, the story inevitably will be published again. The publisher is left with a decision to make: which version to reprint. The author is dead, can’t ask him. Enter the problem of the ‘definitive texts’.
The perfect scenario for determining a definitive text is to find an enthusiastic academic who appreciates the works. Such a person can gather the various works and other relevant documents such as letters, diaries, and drafts, and then produce a reasoned manuscript with changes documented, reasons for changes listed and supported, and provide discussion of ambiguities. An example is S.T. Joshi and his collections of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Joshi presents the lineages, annotations, and discussion of his edited versions of Lovecraft’s stories: his work is a thing of beauty to appreciate. One can trust Joshi to not present his own words as Lovecraft’s. Or, if he does, we can trust him to footnote the decision. Nevertheless, his versions of Lovecraft, however lovingly produced, are not the versions that raised Lovecraft to fame. They are what is said to be “definitive” now.
Usually, we do not get a Joshi. We get a DeCamp and Carter who, while doing what they considered to be a good job, did not bring the same motivation. DeCamp and Carter inserted their own words for Howard’s. We often see an author’s estate giving approval for a particular text. But approval means only that a rights holder got paid a wheelbarrow full of cash. Both Dahl’s and Fleming’s works were altered with the approval of their estates.
Dahl’s and Fleming’s works are not in sync with our current time. Both fought in WWII. Dahl is prickly and snarky, given to making fun of personal weaknesses and moral failings. Our own time encourages, massages, and rewards personal and moral failings. Fleming’s Bond, in no uncertain terms, is by contemporary criteria sexist, racist, and homophobic. These are just facts. But it would be a disaster if the original stories end up embarrassing, or more importantly, hurt the box office of whatever spinoff movie or series or video game or cartoon the moguls come up with next. The public cannot be trusted to separate the new product from a work of the past. So better to change the past. Just to be safe.
It goes on. As I was writing this piece, the Daily Mail announced there will be new editions of the works of Agatha Christie, edited for sensitivity. Twenty-four hours later, no less a literary personage than Joyce Carol Oates assured us that:
People read mostly digitally today. In principle, with future AIs, one could run any novel through and come up with something that fits the terms of today. In a short time, every historical work may well be fed to readers in real-time parsed through an AI continuously updated for the offenses du jour. George Orwell famously said, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The future of fiction is an AI Bowdler rearranging literature’s face — forever. All we can do is buy hardcopies while we still can.