Sunday 26 February 2023

Nerd Church - The Roald Dahl Edits Are Capitalism, Actually

Warning: this post discusses general bigotry, as well as more detailed anti-Semitism and racism, and other related topics. 

Links may include distressing content.

I'm Welsh, bookish, and a rebel - of course I'm going to talk about the Roald Dahl edits. 😅

Title: The Roald Dahl Edits Are Capitalism, Actually

People got loud this week. 

Why? Because someone made some edits to Roald Dahl's books for their new Puffin UK editions.

The edits range from the relatively sensible, to the 'I wouldn't have bothered, but meh' tolerable, to the 'I think you might've overdone it a tad' side-eye, through to the 'I'm wondering if you got paid per edit' pointless.

Honestly, the pointlessness was what got me - why would you bother? Why? Lol.

But some people were apparently offended that the original text was considered, in some cases, offensive and/or worthy of clarification.

The way some people have been harking on, you'd think these books were their first born child who's been taken into the streets and publicly mocked while someone hurls rotten vegetables.

...It's not that deep, bro. It's not that deep.

But, on the other hand, it's not that simple either.

It involves a lot more nuance than just 'good' or 'bad.'

(Yes, I am once again having the sheer gumption of talking nuance on the internet - told you I'm a rebel.)

Let's start at the beginning (it's always an ideal place to start.) 

Was Roald Dahl 'of his time...?'

Roald Dahl was a British author born in 1916 in Cardiff, Wales, to Norwegian parents.

He wrote a bunch of kids' books, some screen stuff (like the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,) and was a big part of a lot of kids' childhoods - mine included.

I'm not gonna lie - I've always loved Roald Dahl books. I was a Welsh millennial kid, raised on Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.

Plus, like many children, I was a little gremlin who liked the dark stuff.

As well as being Norwegian Welsh, Roald Dahl was also a White British dude who was an RAF pilot and went to a private school. He was also, as previously mentioned, born in 1916.

So, as most people who fit this type of profile were, he was hecka messy.

No-one is benefitted by ignoring that.

He followed the basic allowances granted to White British middle-class men of his era - he could be casually racist, classist, homophobic, mysoginistic, etc. 

That's not right - but it's also the way society allowed, and even encouraged, people to be.

He was also anti-Semitic.

He was blatantly anti-Semitic. He literally described himself as anti-Semitic, so to deny that he was anti-Semitic is to refute his own evidence.

(And he made the usual mistake of conflating the state of Israel with all Jewish people. Stop doing that, people. You can criticise the Israeli government without making it about all Jewish people.)

...I'm not going to pretend that the anti-Semitism was a fully 'of his time' thing. 

The things he said would not have been acceptable to say at the time when he said them.

But, neither am I going to pretend that 'his time' had nothing to do with it.

The 1910s - the decade in which Dahl was born - were, in my humble opinion, one of the worst decades in Welsh history in terms of racism and anti-Semitism. 

The vast immigration, much of it from England, into South Wales over the course of the 19th Century, had transformed the landscape, economy, and demographics of the country.

Wales is naturally rich in resources - it used to be a lot more so. As such, it became a centre of industry - steel, iron, copper, coal. Blood and land alike were fed into the capitalist machine.

And as so oftens happens, some people got very rich - like, rubies-in-the-bell-pull rich - and some people were desperately poor, with the most horrendous of working and living conditions, and industrial accidents and diseases.

By the 1910s, the air was thick with coal dust and industrial disputes. Wales is, and was then, a thriving support-base for Socialism. 

Back then the Socialism was a lot more... um... passionate. And a lot closer to Communism. Some of it actually was Communism, especially in the Valleys.

(Before the inevitable question - Socialism and Communism aren't the same thing. Communism is a form of Socialism. It's like all dogs are animals, but not all animals are dogs, m'k?)

I've met more Communists, Marxists, and members of the Socialist Worker's Party than I have members of the Conservative party, to this day. The former is, in some areas, more socially acceptable than the latter.

Related: Nerd Church - 'I Shall, This Night, Be Engaged In A Struggle For Freedom': The Fight For The Vote in the UK

But we were still also Britain, which in the 1910s was very much an interchangeable term with England because colonisation, despite the fact that we are not, and have never been, England. 

And England/Britain in the 1910s was very... imperial. And class-structured. There was... an arrogance and an enititlement that still survives in some quarters today. But back then it was very 'know your place.'

It's difficult to explain to non-British people how restrictive even the few tattered remains of the class system can be. But trust me, it sucks.

Anyway, as always seems to be the case with Welsh history, the two cultures - Welsh and British - were very much at odds with each other (according to my hot take, at least,) in this period.

Add in the class struggles, the preferential treatment often given to English workers and first-language-English speakers (which is why I've inherited English as a first language,) and the extreme social changes the country had undergone, time and time again, over the course of the 75-100 years previous, and you get a powder keg.

And as so often happens, innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

The Tredegar Riots of 1911 were an attack against Jewish homes, people, and businesses in the Gwent Valleys.

Causes are debated to this day, but what basically happened was some (possibly drunk, possibly Marxist, possibly both,) miners who had been on strike for about a year decided to attack some Jewish businesses because one or two local Jewish people were slum landlords.

...And as we all know, dearest nerdlets, blaming an entire marginalised group for the actions of individuals is textbook bigotry.

Desperate people lashing out at easy targets. Smh.

While all of this happened a few years before Roald Dahl was born, these things don't just disappear without a trace - bad feeling is left over.

Especially as in the following years saw the 100+ year old communities of Jewish people in South Wales dwindle to almost nothing.

And while I doubt it was a direct cause of Dahl's Anti-Semitism, growing up in an environment laden with Anti-Semitic views may pave the way for future prejudices.

If I were cynical, I would also add that people blaming Jewish people for the greed of the world is also more preferrable to people blaming the wealthy middle-classes - like the Dahl family - especially if those middle-class people happen to also be 'foreign' and therefore at risk of prejudice themselves.

Sometimes giving people another group to hate is a selfish shield... sometimes it's not, of course. But it's a thought.

Aside from the horrors of the First World War - and the rampant and sometimes toxic British nationalism it provoked in its aftermath - Dahl was also living as a child in Cardiff in 1919, the year of the Race Riots.

The Race Riots of 1919 affected many cities - in Cardiff and the nearby town of Barry they were based on the false presumption that returning White British soldiers, most of them not from Cardiff (some not even from Wales,) were being pushed out of work by Asian and Black people. Interracial marriage was also a flash point.

In Cardiff, this meant Butetown - an integrated, multicultural, and long-established community - was targetted.

People of Colour defended themselves, their families, and their business,  and many were arrested for it.

Much of the reporting made it seem like the local Black and Asian communities were as much to blame - if not more so - as the White soldiers who had gone looking for trouble.

Three or four people died - there's dispute over whether one murder was related or coincidental - and hundreds were injured.

Related: Nerd Church - Of Tigers and Men: 'A Killing In Tiger Bay' and The Cardiff Five

Now, Dahl's Llandaff was, socially, as far as you can get from Butetown.

(Geographically they're between about 6 and 8 miles in distance, depending on what you count as the borders of each.)

But the Norwegian Church which Dahl's family attended was in the old Tiger Bay (Butetown.)

Dahl would have been very aware of the riots.

What view did he take of them? Did he even care? Did he believe the papers and the police? Did he blame the Black and Asian communities? Did he have sympathy for them?

We can't know.

But people don't exist in a vacuum - we are all affected, in one way or another, by the views and stereotypes present around us.

Roald Dahl grew up in Cardiff in what I personally consider to be one of the most anti-Semitic and racist periods in Welsh history.

Whether that had an impact or not, who can say?

It doesn't excuse anything. But it might explain just a small part of how prejudice grows and survives.

Back to the edits then!

Media Literacy 101, kiddies: what's the source?

In this case, the whipping part of the frenzy about these edits came from UK newspaper The Telegraph.

The Telegraph's stereotypical reader (imho) is Lord Fancypants of Snootington Hall who made his money in oil and dodgy business deals (as well as inheriting a few things from mumsy and papa, of course,) but calls himself a farmer because he has three cows and wants to bring back fox-hunting.

...Basically, The Telegraph is the paper of the inherited class system, the aristocracy, and the 'Little Englanders.'

They're also the newspaper that picked a fight with disabled Lego figures this week, so that's the level we're working at here.

Honestly, most of the edits seem to be just a word here or there - though I've yet to find a single, comprehensive, list.

(...that isn't compiled by some random person on Twitter anyway - and that's not the greatest source to rely on when I've never heard of this person before.)

Most of it is a gentle softening - for example, the Huffington Post UK reports that 'a weird African language' has been changed to a simple 'an African language.'

Words like crazy, mad, etc. have reportedly been removed or toned down.

Reports of women no longer being 'attractive' but 'kind' instead are a bit odd - as are turning Oompa-Loompas from 'small men' to 'small people.' ...If they're all men, then they're all men, y'know? *shrugs* 

Seems like it could've been left? Just saying.

Although, I'm kind of hoping that the edit of Esio Trot about importing tortoises I've seen floating around on Twitter is real. 

Just because I feel like the irrational fear that children will try to import tortoises and/or overturn the law on importing tortoises has been given way too much credit, and I find it highly amusing to imagine the circumstances that could lead to this edit. 😅

Past revisions

The Oompa-Loompas have a troubling history in themselves.

You think a capitalist kidnapping magical creatures to make chocolate for him and live in his factory is problematic? You sweet summer child! - Pre-1973 it was much, much, worse.

In the original 1960s version, Oompa-Loompas were a tribe of Black Africans, that Willy Wonka had basically kidnapped and enslaved... he taught them English. He pays them in cocoa beans. He says he's rescued them, and that they're happier now.

It wasn't a good look. 

Which is why Dahl himself changed it in 1973 - not all of it. Just the part where they're Black and from Africa. They're magical and not humans now, and they're from a magical place called Loompaland... progress? I guess?

...And it's probably for the best, on balance, that Dahl's original story of a Black boy named Charlie who gets trapped in a chocolate mould was nixxed. Despite what some (White) academics might think.

And - and this is shocking I know - kids books get little nips and tucks like this All. The. Time.

It's just they aren't usually drawn attention to. Sorry.

Maybe Puffin/Penguin dropped the ball by doing all the edits at once instead of drip-feeding like publishers normally do. Which was a mistake... wasn't it?

Art is the product

Disclaimer time: 

This section is me making suppositions and 'what ifs' based on available information. 

These are theories ONLY.

They're designed to make you think, PLEASE don't take them as fact, OK? OK.

Capitalism is the name of the game kids. 

And there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Publishers are a tricksy bunch, no? 

No sooner had an out-of-control and out-of-proportion backlash been invoked, than Penguin announced a Classics edition of Roald Dahl's works with the original texts.

It all feels very... 'New Coke.'

They didn't necessarily plan for things to work out this way, but they've just had the largest amount of publicity they could have hoped for for two sets of decades-old books.

'Backlist' books are notoriously difficult to market.

And the British - and international - media has just done it all for them.

What? You thought New Coke was a failure?

No, my dearest darling nerdlets. Coca-Cola made a mint, in the end, by bringing back the old formula - was it a plan? Probably not. 

But they still made the best of it.

The house will always win.

And this is what the house is doing - it's winning.

It knows that less and less people are comfortable with letting their kids read Roald Dahl books, for a variety of reasons, so they've made some surface changes which will allow parents to soothe their troubled consciences while not actually changing anything.

If they were interested in the moral side of things, they'd have done far more with The Witches than they have, or else let it go out of print entirely. 

They haven't. They've left most of the anti-Semitism in, and softened the bit about the wigs. (But not, as far as I've seen, the noses.)

(Full disclosure: I've never actually read The Witches - just never got around to it. But for a full run-down of the issues with it, check out this piece on Hey Alma.)

So, when we have a product which is declining in popularity due to the world becoming a more inclusive place, what do we do?

The bare minimum. Something with a lot of flash, that makes a lot of noise.

Something that will provoke people to buy one edition over another, perhaps. Something which makes the act of buying these books into some sort of political statement - some sort of moral imperative.

But at the same time, protects our product for the future.

Because if the book feels out of date now, can you imagine how it will feel in twenty years time?

The house always wins.

Yeah - but is it censorship?

Well, since you asked so nicely, I'll answer you simply: 

Yes. And also no.

Is hiring an editor censorship?

Is fixing a typo censorship?

Is changing an author's words censorship?

Even if those words are no longer fit for purpose? Even if you can still buy other editions of those words?

Is translation censorship? They aren't the author's exact words, after all.

Are abridged versions censorship?

Are easy-read versions censorship?

Are TV or movie adaptations censorship?

Is it more important to raise kids to be good people than to preserve the exact wording of a decades-old novel? Or not?

Is calling someone 'fat' really the hill you want to die on? Because weird choice, but you do you.

Welcome to nuance. Stick around for a while, you might learn something 😉

(Books bans are censorship, though. Just saying.)

Questions? Thoughts? Desires to leave this topic far behind us?

Talk to me! 😅💬

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  1. Thanks for the educational bit about Welsh history, Cee! As always with your posts, I definitely came away learning something new. I never read Dahl books as a kid. They just weren't my thing. But I'm aware of the anti-semitism, and also aware of how publishers will try to fix anything for money. I think it is definitely useful and needed for publishers to make these edits, not only for parents to feel more comfortable but also so children don't grow up thinking these stereotypes are okay. But I think it's also telling what gets edited, and if publishers are doing the edits because they think the content needs to be fixed, or because they just want to sell more copies.

    1. Lol, thanks Em! :) I ended up throwing this post together a bit because of time constraints (I wanted to add Gifs, but just haven't had the time/energy)

      I'm not sure I would've bothered making any edits to these books if I was the publisher, but neither do I have a problem with the current edits (beyond a little bemusement at things like the tortoise importing!)

      Publishers don't make edits for any reason other than the commerical, imho! Lol. The house always wins.


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