Saturday, April 1, 2023

Book censorship just isn't Right

     Several readers asked me why I, a literary sort with an affection for direct language, haven't registered any complaint with the publishers of Roald Dahl's books, for snatching away words and descriptions that have fallen out of favor in our sensitive times.
     In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance, Augustus Gloop has ceased to be "fat" and is now "enormous," a loss in nuance if not meaning. Meanwhile the Oompa-Loompas have been ungendered, shifting from "small men" to "small people" — I will leave it to the reader to decide whether that amounts to a promotion or not.
     At least the "small" got to stay, so far. Puffin, Dahl's publisher, made hundreds of changes. Words like "ugly," "black," "white," "mad," and "crazy" have been shown the gate. Yet I was not alarmed — well, perhaps because growing up, I was not a particular Dahl fan — we were a Dr. Seuss family, who has had his own recent issues, as when And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street was retired, in part for depicting "a Chinaman who eats with sticks," which is not hate in the usual sense.
     Nor is it his best title, and so its loss isn't cause for concern. Publishing is a business, and you have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. I'm more concerned about plucking the n-word out of "Huckebery Finn," a true distortion of the social context of the book and an offense against both literature and history.
     Returning to Dahl, perhaps I held my tongue because cannons far bigger than myself were already blazing away.

     "Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed," said Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses and no stranger to official disapproval.
     Honestly, I'm more worked up about some of the other elisions being committed in literature. Dahl barely registers compared to Vintage Books, which addressed "The Lolita Problem" raging in academia by re-issuing the 1955 novel under a new title, changing the nymphette whose seduction — whether she was the seductress or the seducer depends whether you are Humbert Humbert or not — that so rocked Eisenhower-era  America so she now nearing middle age. The plot is the same, or at least similar, only Lolita is now 39 and goes by her birth name, Dolores Haze. The copy changes are small but significant:
     “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing five foot three in one sock. She was Lori in slacks. She was Dolly at the insurance company where she worked. She was Dotty on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Dolores.”
     If you don't remember the original, Vintage has added five inches to the girl ... er, woman's height — to account for growth, I suppose — banished the risque "Lolita" and changed her school to an Allstate office. I've read the new version, or tried to, and while yes, it conforms to current standards regarding acceptable age differences in relationships, it loses something. It just does. Judge me harshly if you must.
     On the positive side, it isn't as if the past 65 years of the Lolita print run were unavailable — millions and millions of copies. They haven't plucked them from stores and libraries. At least not yet, though Florida is working on that. 
     Besides, everyone is not me. There seems to be a market for this kind of see-no-evil revision.  If the Harper Lee estate can gather up the scribbled leftovers from the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird and publish an excrescence like Go Set a Watchman than there isn't much room for complaint.
     In a similar vein, while I consider Lolita an amusing novel, it doesn't approach Nabokov's Pale Fire or Speak Memory. A greater vandalism, in my view, is what Signet did to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, now marketed under the title Death in Venice Revisited. In turning Tadzio, the object of Gustav von Aschenbach's panting fixation, from a 14-year-old Polish tourist into a 24-year-old hotel pool attendant, the axis the book revolved upon is plucked away, and it goes spinning into triviality. While doing so does remove the stain of hebephilia — it would be pointless meddling otherwise —the shift also sets up for the inevitable romantic tryst. To me, Aschenbach pining away in the original — the two never speak, never mind indulge in the bedroom gymnastics detailed in the new edition — is far less  objectionable than what transpires in "Death in Venice Revisited." 
     Plus, once you start updating culture, there is no end to it. With Ukrainians picketing the Joffrey's performance of "Anna Karenina" at the Lyric Opera House last fall (Tolstoy was a pacifist, but no matter) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving issuing that daft statement against all the vehicular drinking in On the Road, we risk either constant grappling over the misdeeds of characters which, remember, did not actually exist, or being saddled with literature so blanched of wrongdoing that it approaches the tedium of regular life. It's fiction folks. No real whale was injured in the creation of Moby-Dick, so needless to say, I think the PETA effort to get the Melville classic pulled from school library shelves is woefully misplaced.  I'd be reluctant to mention any of this, except that it's worth remembering that not all the efforts at censorship are from prudish, history-averse right wingers trying to scour the world of identities that trouble them. The left is busy too.
     There's more, but you get the idea. For a comprehensive list of books being challenged, click here.


  1. Meh, the Dahl outrage was a marketing stunt, and it worked for Puffin. The sanitized and original versions are both available and selling well until the next literary squirrel comes along to churn outrage. (Thanks for the April Fool's prank too, you puckish fella.)

  2. Considering all that’s truly offensive and globally destructive, it would seem that the mortally offended could put one- page disclaimers or warning stickers in the books to protect our virgin eyes and pristine minds. But there’s good money to be made in keeping the masses placated - and ignorant - I suppose.

  3. "and you have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it"

    Priceless! Until I remember, we're all pigs in the slop from time to time...

  4. Heartbreaking. It’s like Americans have lost their eff’g minds, literally (or maybe they never were that great at critical thinking skills) — book censorships, refusing to learn about CRT and though we didn’t cause the horrific mistreatments of certain groups of people in our past, we have the possibility and ability and awareness to create a more inclusive future for everyone. But no, we ban books and have more guns than people in this country and resist banning AR15’s after how many school shootings???? And how many millions are now required to get elected to office? It seems we’ve priced the costs of running for office out of the reach of anyone but the well-connected greedy and power hungry narcissists. Toqueville in Democracy in America wrote something on the order of an educated electorate being one of democracy’s requirements for its success. So much for that ever being a reality today evidenced by the Trump supporters and Fox News. Canada looks so appealing right now.

    1. Well I know for sure I have lost my fing mind. But even I know this post is not about censorship or guns.Its an April fools prank of sorts.

      When an estate or publisher changes the text of a book it is not censorship . They OWN that property and can do what they wish with it. Censorship is when the government decides what we can or can't read, hear or see.

      For the same reason censorship is illegal - the constitution, we can't effectively ban firearms. IMO people look to the government for too much too often. But a thing they have aright to demand , a public education is unequally funded and provided. Dont want a gun? Dont have one. The notion of personal responsibility to often is cast aside

      I dont think its so much ignorance that leads people to the likes of trump but selfishness and greed. Many of his supporters are uneducated but some are well educated. Too much focus is placed on the former.

    2. Any relation to the Franco, with an "n," who also holds up a distorted mirror to reality? Government censorship is not illegal — just look at how Florida is trying to suppress certain books in schools and libraries.

    3. Yes, of course that's me.
      School boards have determined what people have been reading for centuries at least many decades. Just because a book isn't allowed in a school library doesn't mean it's been banned. It's a talking point of the left. You can go get that book like you say they're in bookstores and you can get them online. Nobody's telling you you can't read them. They're just not included in the books that are in a school in the library on the reading list in certain classes. If you want your kids to be exposed to as much fine work in literature as possible, take them to the library, buy them books, make them put their devices down. Don't blame some a****** in Florida for taking away their opportunity to read the n-word in a book. It's not just me that has a distorted perception of reality. It's all of us

  5. I meant to submit the previous anonymous comment about Americans losing their eff’g minds, etc. with my name Dianne Michels and email

  6. Thanks for writing a good piece of work where I must look up a few definitions!

  7. …and my first prank of the day! Thanks!

  8. Got me again. And apparently a couple other readers as well.


  9. Dolores had me rolling! Excellent April Fools post as always.

  10. I what Amy Sedaris to play Dolores. Hopefully with CGI James Mason can still be Humbert Humbert.

  11. Excellent. I know what today is and I figured you have something for us. You never disappoint us.

  12. Brilliant! The interspersing of the real with the imagined was just masterful. Throw in the fact that the present state of the culture is so screwy that it's almost beyond parody and this really shines.

    Of course, no mention of Dolores fails to call to my mind the classic "name that rhymes with a female body part" episode of "Seinfeld." A 1 minute, 17 second clip of the punch line:


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