Everything wrong with removing words like ‘fat’ & ‘ugly’ from Roald Dahl’s books

An exercise in inclusion that requires... exclusion?

Mandy How |
February 21, 2023, 6:38 pm

We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.

A friend had shared the headline to his Instagram Stories, calling it “Today’s crazy news”: Roald Dahl’s books have been rewritten to exclude any words that are deemed offensive.

What just happened

The author is known for works like Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach—titles that continue to permeate childhoods all around the world, despite his death in 1990.

The edits, as my friend put it mildly, are mind-boggling in the worst possible way. Terms like “fat”, “ugly”, and “black” are now material to be censored.

Here are some examples that Deadline and The Guardian quoted, among the “hundreds of changes”:

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Augustus Gloop is not “fat”, but “enormous”
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Oompa Loompas are not “small men”, but “small people”
  • The Twits: Mrs Twit is not “ugly and beastly”—just “beastly”
  • James and the Giant Peach:
    • From “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that” to “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit”
    • From “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire / And dry as a bone, only drier” to “Aunt Spiker was much of the same / And deserves half of the blame”
  • Fabulous (Fantastic?) Mr Fox: The tractors are not “black”, but “murderous, brutal-looking monsters”

Not only have certain words (or indeed, phrases) been effaced, but additional material has also been added.

A new line has been inserted in The Witches that reads, “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

It attempts to allay a part explaining that the witches are actually bald underneath their wigs.

Funnily enough, no one might have thought that there was anything wrong with women—or anyone else—wearing wigs, not until that self-conscious disclaimer, perhaps.

Or are we supposed to read from it that being bald is the worst possible reason to wear a wig?

The inherent meaning of words

Photo by Mandy How

The changes were made by publisher Puffin, who had sensitivity readers make extensive edits in consultation with Inclusive Minds.

Sensitivity readers “offer notes on characters from marginalised groups, or elements which may cause offence,” another Guardian article explains.

A whole other debate surrounds the existence of sensitivity readers, but we will not go into that today.

Co-founder of Inclusive Minds, Alexandra Strick, said that they “aim to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”.

It is perhaps ironic that it entails the erasure of what are supposed to be neutral words (not “ugly”, admittedly).

However, a conversation with a colleague has indirectly made me realise that a case for the edits can be made, when we realise that “fat” is now associated with “greedy”, as in Augustus Gloop.

Or that “ugly” has become synonymous with a villainous nature, due to the way Dahl often paints his antagonists.

These are unwanted and undeserving connotations, obviously, but Suzanne Nossel, author and CEO of PEN America, offers another perspective:

In a similar vein, one can argue that the removal of these words will go down the line of making everything “wrong”—instead of being a neutral descriptor, censorship implies that it is inherently negative to be fat or black.

The continual narrowing of what is considered politically correct also leads us to a scenario where everything is frowned upon and nothing is permissible.

As novelist Simon Dillon puts it,

“Do we simply rewrite classic novels every so often, with every fresh wave of groupthink outrage, scouring for thought crime until they are no longer recognisable as a product of their time or author? Or do we let them be? I’m for the latter.”

He also suggests that such censorship robs the children of the ability to learn from history.

Another possible way of looking at it is that a blanket excision conveniently ignores the context of the story, or any other lessons that Dahl might be trying to teach.

Puffin informs readers in the latest editions of the books that the material was written many years ago, and so they “regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

A spokesperson for the Roald Dahl Story Company added:

“When publishing new print runs of books written years ago, it’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout.

Our guiding principle throughout has been to maintain the storylines, characters, and the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text. Any changes made have been small and carefully considered.”

Right now, however, it seems like the conspicuous removal has given the words more power.

And “enormous” could well be the next word to be censured.

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