Coren: Roald Dahl was repugnant but altering books a misguided solution

Some interesting background and sensible and balanced approach:

In 1983 I was a very young writer for Britain’s New Statesman magazine. I was asked to interview children’s author Roald Dahl, who had reviewed a book about the war in Lebanon that went far beyond criticism of Israel and bordered on downright anti-Semitism.

I assumed he would explain the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and clarify his stance. What he said instead was, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity toward non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

The rant continued, with references to Jewish men not fighting in the Second World War. When I told Dahl that my Jewish grandfather had won several medals and been wounded, and that Jews were over rather than under-represented he refused to withdraw his comments or apologize.

I mention this again now because Dahl’s publishers recently announced that they were to produce versions of his books with allegedly offensive words such as “fat” and “ugly” removed. Not, is should be emphasized, because generations of children and parents who read the books had complained but because, if we’re to be candid, someone, somewhere thought they might cause offence.

The angry reaction to the idea was so strong that the publishers have changed their minds, or at least hedged their bets. The criticism came not just from those who see dangerous censorship everywhere but leading authors and intellectuals. Because it was a very stupid idea. Am I still allowed to say stupid?

Dahl was an anti-Semite. I know that better than most people. He was a nasty man with repugnant ideas. He was also a gifted author who understood children’s minds and fantasies. And — this is vital — we can read and enjoy him while still detesting his racism. This entire issue requires sense, sensibility, and basic common sense.

In 2011 Peter Jackson commissioned Stephen Fry to write the screenplay for a remake of “The Dambusters.” Guy Gibson, the heroic commander of the RAF squadron featured in the 1955 movie, owned a black Labrador dog. It was named the N word. Pilots used the dog’s name to signal successful attacks. Thus it was used repeatedly in the original movie.

Quite clearly it would be deeply offensive, and just bizarre, to use the word now and Fry, a man who is extremely suspicious of any form of censorship, gently and wisely changed it to Digger. There was, however, outrage. For some people it was as if a tiny edit that did nothing to change the story was a monumental act of what they described as political correctness. They were wrong.

Source: Roald Dahl was repugnant but altering books a misguided solution

Why Rewrites to Roald Dahl’s Books Are Stirring Controversy

As the rewrites should. Much better to provide context and background, to improve understanding, rather than efface (disclosure, his books were one of our kids favourite reads, and both are fairly woke adults):

A British publisher has come under fire for rewriting new editions of Roald Dahl’s children’s books to remove language that today’s readers deem offensive when it comes to race, gender, weight, and mental health.

Puffin Books, a children’s imprint of Penguin Books, worked with the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), which is now exclusively owned by Netflix, to review the texts. RDSC hopes that rewriting books by one of the world’s most popular children’s authors, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, would ensure that “Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”
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Dahl is the author of many popular titles such as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches. But in the years since Dahl’s death in 1990, some have turned their focus to a number of harmful tropes used by the late British author, including a history of anti-Semitic comments.

The language review was conducted with Inclusive Minds, an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them with diversity and inclusion initiatives. The organization told TIME they “do not write, edit, or rewrite texts, but provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.”

Some writers and voices within the publishing industry have criticized the updated works as an act of censorship they believe was brought about by Netflix’s 2021 acquisition of the RDSC. However, others say there is merit and precedent to rewriting books for a contemporary audience.

Below, what to know about the changes to Dahl’s work, and the reactions to it.

Dahl’s anti-Semiticism and controversial legacy

Dahl, who died at age 74, had a history of making anti-Semitic comments and including racist tropes and language in his works. For example, he originally wrote characters like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas as an African Pygmy tribe. In James and the Giant Peach, the Grasshopper declares at one point: “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican.”

Dahl has also been called a misogynist for his unfavorable depictions of women in books such as The Witches.

In 2018, The Guardian reported that the British Royal Mint rejected a proposal to mark the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth with a commemorative coin. The idea was rejected on the grounds that he was “associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation.”

Amanda Bowman, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a community organization, backed the Mint’s decision. “He may have been a great children’s writer but he was also a racist and this should be remembered,” she said.

In 2020, the Dahl family and RDSC preempted public criticism of their literary patriarch, quietly issuing a statement apologizing for the hurt caused by his views.

“Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations,” it read. “We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”

Which of Dahl’s books have been rewritten?

According to The Independent, hundreds of changes have been made to Dahl’s body of work. These edits include the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach becoming Cloud-People, while in The Witches, the use of “old hags” has been replaced with “old crows.”

In Matilda, a mention of the English novelist Rudyard Kipling has also been replaced with Jane Austen. Kipling, who was born in 1865 in Bombay, India, has been variously labeled a colonialist, a racist, and misogynist in recent years.

In The Witches, Dahl had written, “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” That passage has now been changed to read: “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” In the same text, women who were described as being supermarket cashiers or letter-writers for businessmen were rewritten as top scientists or business owners.

Several amendments have been related to violence, including the removal of references to the electric chair in George’s Marvellous Medicine and a Quentin Blake illustration of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teavee with 18 toy pistols.

Some have suggested that the rewrites are a bid to shield Netflix from controversy as it continues to adapt the books for the big screen. Deadline reported that Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical, directed by Matthew Warchus, has grossed over $33 million in U.K. cinemas since its Nov. 25 release, and it was also nominated for two BAFTAs.

Why are some claiming censorship?

Among the critics of the rewrites are Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 issued a fatwa because of the alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. On Feb. 18, Rushie tweeted, “Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.’’

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the first racial minority to hold the U.K.’s top political job, likewise criticized the decision. A spokesperson said on Monday: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words. I think it’s important that works of literature and works of fiction are preserved and not airbrushed. We have always defended the right to free speech and expression.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that defends free expression in literature, also condemned the move in a Twitter thread. “The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle,” Nossel said. “You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas.” Instead, she suggests, publishers should include introductions to works with offensive language to prepare readers with context.

But Karen Sands-O’Connor, a professor of children’s literature at Newcastle University, says Dahl was no stranger to editing out offensive language and even did so in his own lifetime. “Admittedly under pressure from his publisher,” Sands-O’Connor says. Dahl transformed Oompa Loompas, she adds, from an African Pygmy tribe in the 1964 edition, to people from the fictionalized Loompaland in order to avoid controversy.

Sands-O’Connor says publishers have three choices: stop publishing the work and lose money while risking another publisher releasing the works, leave it as it is and face accusations of sexism, racism, classism, or tailor it to a present-day audience. The latter, she says, is the “least problematic option.”

However, Philip Pullman, a prominent British author, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and said publishers should simply let Dahl’s books go “out of print.” Pullman also encouraged listeners to read the work of other authors, such as Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, and Jaqueline Wilson.

What other authors have seen their works rewritten?

In March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that six Dr. Seuss books such as And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo would no longer be published as they contained racist and insensitive imagery.

The organization told the Associated Press in a statement that the books portray people in “hurtful and wrong” ways and the ceasing of sales was part of a broader plan for inclusivity.

A number of other famous works have been pulled over the years, including Herbert R. Kohl’s Babar’s Travels, which was removed from a British library in 2012 for containing racist imagery of African people. However, textual tweaks appear to be a less common approach.

Sands-O’Connor says that Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle faced revisions in the 1960s and again in the 1980s after concerns about racism but despite these tweaks, children today typically engage with the film adaptations rather than the book.

She cautions that original copies will always be available and children’s classics will continue to sell if parents feel nostalgic about them. The better option, Sands-O’Connor adds, is to focus on discovering new and exciting storytellers: “The books are out there, people just need to look for them.”

Source: Why Rewrites to Roald Dahl’s Books Are Stirring Controversy

Coren: My fateful interview with Roald Dahl brought me face-to-face with anti-Semitism

Interesting account:

Children’s author Roald Dahl is in the news again, even though he died in 1990. Not because his books are constantly being made into movies and their rights still earn tens of millions of dollars, but because after decades of silence on the subject, the man’s family has apologized for his appalling anti-Semitism. The contrition is somewhat buried on the author’s website but it’s there. “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologize for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.”

The comments made by the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG and so many others were from an interview with Britain’s New Statesman magazine back in 1983. In it he said: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere.” And then, “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

The interviewer was me.

I’d just turned 24, was recently out of journalism school, and working at one of the most important and influential magazines in Britain. I was overwhelmed as it was, and it was made far worse when I was asked by the editor to interview such a famous and respected man. The reason was that he’d just written a review of a book called God Cried, about Israel and Lebanon, in which his criticisms of Israel seemed to go far beyond geopolitics or state policy. He spoke of “a race of people,” meaning the Jews, who had “switched so rapidly from victims to barbarous murderers,” and that the United States was “so utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions” that “they dare not defy” Israel.

I assumed that he would now clarify or explain, but instead he calmly and rather chillingly broadened his attack. He spoke of his time in the military during the Second World War and, implying cowardice, said that he and his friends didn’t see any Jewish soldiers or airmen, which is a grotesque distortion of the truth. I mentioned some of the Jewish war heroes from all of the Allied armies, and the large number of Jewish fighters, often numerically over-represented. Nothing.

I then said that my father’s family had won medals fighting in the British Army, and a more distant relative with the Soviets, and that they were Jewish. He certainly heard me, and registered the fact, but his tone remained the same. At one point I said that I considered his comments bizarre and repugnant, especially those about Jewish people having a “lack of generosity” toward non-Jews. I said I’d never witnessed this, for example, from my Jewish father to my non-Jewish mother. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – perhaps an apology, even just for him to stop. But he paused briefly, made some sort of coughing noise, and then continued with his diatribe, with comments about “them,” “they,” “sticking together” and so on.

This was an era when what is today often blithely dismissed as political correctness – but is, at its best, courtesy, awareness and sensitivity – was in its infant stages. Even so, the comments were profoundly jarring. I recall it all so well 37 years later because it left such an impression. I’d occasionally encountered anti-Semitism but that was from the unread and the unimpressive. Here it was from a deeply intelligent man who was elegant and persuasive. At the end of the interview he thanked me and said a polite goodbye, still in the same careful and even manner. I think I felt slightly sick.

The interview appeared, and in those pre-social media days made far less of an impact than it would have today. There was anger of course, and plenty of support, but indifference too. Even the now more common shrug of “get over it.” Sympathy for Jewish people is, alas, not always noticeably forthcoming among certain allegedly enlightened people, and sometimes that fact is exposed in all of its ghastly clumsiness.

I did wonder whether Mr. Dahl was ill, or in the early stages of some sort of emotional or mental disorder. But he subsequently refused to withdraw anything he had said even though given many opportunities. Then, seven years later, he gave another interview, not to me, in which he said, “I’m certainly anti-Israeli, and I’ve become anti-Semitic. … It’s the same old thing: We all know about Jews and the rest of it. There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media – jolly clever thing to do – that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.” If it was an illness, it was of the darkly political and ideological kind.

It’s taken a long time for this apology to be made and it only became front-page news when spotted by a journalist at Britain’s Sunday Times. In other words, it was hardly promoted as a means to start a conversation about anti-Semitism. Mr. Dahl will still be read, as is only right. His books will still be turned into movies, which is fine if they’re any good. And the oldest prejudice will, tragically, continue to infect those who know no better and also, God knows how, those who really should.


Roald Dahl Denied Commemorative British Coin Over Anti-Semitism

Notwithstanding how much we enjoyed as a family his stories, his personal history is pretty odious:

Roald Dahl, who passed away in 1990, would have turned 100 in 2016. But the Royal Mint, which has a tradition of issuing commemorative coins for notable British figures’ significant anniversaries — recent among them Jane Austen and Mary Shelley — never introduced the author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Matilda” into celebratory circulation.

As The Guardian reports, the reason behind that curious choice has now been revealed: Dahl’s anti-Semitism.

Per files disclosed to The Guardian after a request through freedom of information laws, the decision not to honor Dahl was made during a 2014 meeting about potential coins for 2016. The minutes of that meeting note that Dahl’s centenary was brought up, but he was “Associated with anti-Semitism and not regarded as an author of the highest reputation.”

Dahl admirers might quibble with the latter statement, but the author’s anti-Semitism wasn’t just something others observed — it was something he openly proclaimed.

“I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become anti-Semitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism,” Dahl told the Independent in 1990.

“It’s the same old thing: we all know about Jews and the rest of it,” he later added. “There aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere, they control the media — jolly clever thing to do — that’s why the president of the United States has to sell all this stuff to Israel.”

As the Forward noted on what would have been Dahl’s 100th birthday — September 13, 2016 — Dahl’s anti-Semitic statements also included a note, in a 1983 book review for the Literary Review, that the U.S. government was “utterly dominated by the great Jewish financial institutions over there.” That same year, he told the New Statesman that “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

Notably, the Royal Mint’s decision predates the United Kingdom’s recent conflicts over anti-Semitism, which arose following the September, 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. Rather than Dahl, the Mint selected Shakespeare and Beatrix Potter for commemoration in 2016, markedly less controversial choices. Well, maybe. After all, 2016 marked 420 years since the premiere of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” and only slightly fewer years of ongoing conflict over whether that play is anti-Semitic. Whether the Mint discussed that matter is as of yet undisclosed.

Source: Roald Dahl Denied Commemorative British Coin Over Anti-Semitism

The Real Story Behind Roald Dahl’s ‘Black Charlie’ – The New York Times

This is an interesting analysis, substantively as well as given Dahl’s various offensive views (we, of course, enjoyed the books with our kids notwithstanding):

Last week, Roald Dahl’s widow, Felicity Dahl, told the BBC that the children’s author had written an early draft of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in which Charlie Bucket was black. Mrs. Dahl called it “a shame” that his agent persuaded her husband to make Charlie white. But what was in the draft, called “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”? Catherine Keyser, an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina who has written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy,” spoke with Maria Russo about that discarded version of the classic story.

Can you give a brief rundown of the plot of “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

The setup is similar to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: There’s this magical chocolate factory, and its owner, Willie Wonka, is being inundated by children who want to visit it. So he decides instead of letting hundreds of children in, he’ll give seven golden tickets. So that’s more or less the same. There are two more children, and some of the names are different: Augustus Gloop was Augustus Pottle. The names are fantastic. There’s Veruca Salt, but also Marvin Prune and Miranda Piker. And of course Charlie Bucket — who in this version is a black boy, and is accompanied by his two doting parents.

All the others are white?

Yes. So Charlie ends up in the Easter Room, where there are life-size candy molds of creatures, and one of these life-size molds is shaped like a chocolate boy. Charlie is fascinated by this. Wonka helps him into the mold and gets distracted. The mold closes, and the chocolate pours over his body and he is suffocating and nearly drowning in it. And it hardens around him, which feels terrible. He’s trapped. He’s alive but can’t be seen or heard. No one knows where he’s gone. Then he gets taken to Wonka’s house to be the chocolate boy in Wonka’s son’s Easter basket.

Charlie is waiting for the mold to be cracked open the next day, when the son will get his Easter treat. That’s when burglars come into the house to steal millions of dollars and jewelry. Charlie has witnessed this — there are tiny eyeholes in the chocolate — but they never realized the chocolate boy was alive. So he groans and alerts Wonka and his wife.

Wonka has a wife?

That’s a huge change in the published version — Wonka is of course single in that, and Charlie becomes his heir. In this original manuscript he does not become his heir, because Wonka already has a son. So black Charlie is not invited to be part of the family. The big reward is that Wonka gives Charlie Bucket a store in the city center. He names it Charlie’s Chocolate Shop. And the happy ever after is that now Charlie owns this store, and his friends can eat whatever they want there.

When you started your research, had anyone else ever written about “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy”?

No. It was mentioned by Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, and it was mentioned in Lucy Mangan’s popular book “Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.” But it had never been looked at in great textual detail.

Dahl has a reputation of being very offensive at times when it comes to race. How do you think this version would have changed the way we view race in his books?

As far as this version goes, I think it is a really powerful racial allegory that might seem very surprising coming from Dahl. I think the mold in the shape of a chocolate boy is a metaphor for racial stereotype. In the early 20th century, chocolate marketing in both the U.S. and England was very tied up in imperialist fantasies and in connecting brown skin with brown chocolate. In one British ad for chocolate, for example, you had a black figure holding a cocoa bean and happily bestowing it on white children.

So I think it’s neat that in this midcentury moment Dahl has this black boy get stuck inside a mold that fits him perfectly — he emphasizes that — everything about the mold fits Charlie, except once the chocolate inside the mold hardens, it’s uncomfortable! So what better symbol of what it’s like to be turned into a racial stereotype than a black boy who gets stuck inside a life-size chocolate mold and can’t be seen or heard through this chocolate coating.

So you’re saying this draft was antiracist, but then in the published book, the Oompa Loompas appeared, which made it into one of the most racially stereotyping books of its era.

Right. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is published in the U.S. in 1964, amid the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and race riots in England. Dahl should have been aware that the “happy slave” was not a permissible stereotype. And yet in the original edition Oompa Loompas were a tribe of African pygmies. I think this arc — from what I find to be a fairly antiracist novel to the novel that has been rightly criticized for its racist and imperialist politics — what it really shows is Dahl’s ambivalence. I think we’re in the right cultural moment to understand that. Like Claudia Rankine has said, we need to understand how white people imagine race. And so I think it’s really telling that Dahl seems to identify with this vulnerable character. I mean, he himself was the son of Norwegian immigrants, and was bullied at British boarding schools. I think Dahl always felt like an outsider who was bullied into Britishness.

Yet he was someone often accused of anti-Semitic nastiness, and worse.

Yes! I think that’s the power of racism — to make someone able to hold these contradictory views at once. To both identify with the underdog and seem to understand the pain of stereotype, but then be completely flummoxed that anyone finds the Oompa Loompas offensive. He was genuinely surprised and very annoyed. So I don’t mean for this to whitewash Dahl’s racial politics. I just really love the vulnerability and the potential in this first draft.

Why did he change the story and make Charlie white?

He sent it to his literary agent and friend, Sheila St. Lawrence, and she immediately wrote back: Please don’t make Charlie black.

The depressing thing about all of this is that the whole message of “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy” seems to be how painful it is for a black person to be reduced to an object and treated with violence, and then the Oompa Loompas are all objects. Wonka tests his candies on them as though they were expendable.

It’s almost as if he transferred the original Charlie’s blackness onto the Oompa Loompas, to much worse effect.

That’s the other thing about this book — it ends up being about the virtuous white factory boy. Isn’t that where we’ve ended up now, as a society? We hear so much about the virtuous white workers, and it often seems to be taking black people out of the story. Charlie and the Oompa Loompas are very similar, both starving. All the other children are bad consumers because they eat without pleasure. So it’s really interesting to think about the book’s trajectory — Charlie becomes white, and he ultimately ascends in the Great Glass Elevator, the best metaphor for white privilege I’ve ever seen! And all the Oompa Loompas are back in the factory serving Wonka.