Even as words are being erased from books, in a sort of Orwellish Thought Police way, some words are dying. Take the word nuance for example. Or fiction. Or emotion. Or emotional intelligence. Or subtlety.As opposed to non-fiction and a factual document, fiction does something very different. It makes up worlds and it shows things in a nuanced way. It relies on the reader having an imagination and the emotional sense to know that fiction is a created world. This ability to imbibe from fiction and use in reality and act in it is what really gives a person emotional intelligence, depth of thought and action.
The recent news in question is the erasing and replacing of some words in Roald Dahl’s books for fear of being offensive. Roald Dahl is a hugely popular British author and his bestselling books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach to name some have been popular all over the world. They have been made into extremely popular films and musicals.
Dahl’s publisher Puffin Books recently announced changes in the future editions. for example, Augustus Gloop who was ‘fat’, is now ‘enormous.’ That to me is actually worse as surely it is making him irrevocably fat!
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a book about excesses, Charlie is poor but honest, brave and has a heart of gold. The other children are painted with very obvious over the top excesses. To pull out one word or even a phrase like ‘black cloak’ and imagine that children will learn to offend and insult each other, by reading it, is actually insulting to both the writer and the reader. There also needs to be deeper thought about this approach, since even a word like forgetful can be construed offensive if someone we care for is affected by dementia. This is why we are meant to view the entire book standing on its own, and not pull and tear words hither and tither.
It would be interesting if someone did a survey to investigate a direct co-relation between a reader of Dahl’s books and bullies and offenders! I dare say the opposite would be found, an avid reader is less likely to be intolerant of others different from themselves. This is the beauty of fiction!
The counter argument is that these are minor edits and there is nothing to be upset about. However, this is not an incident in isolation, many other books and authors are being pulled up. And how does someone have a right to change a dead author’s words? Language is in itself changing and writers of today do not write in the same way as writers of yester years. Let the evolution happen naturally.
The one dimensional- ‘this is wrong – this is right- this what I say and this is what you must follow approach’ will result in the death of fiction itself as a craft.Poetry, I hope, still has a chance.