Kipling Out, Hemingway In?The Dahl Edits Fail on Diversity
The decision to alter Roald Dahl’s texts to make them more inclusive misses the mark – and ignores wider failures of diversity in children’s publishing, writes Sian Norris
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Arguably the most famous Agatha Christie novel had, when published, the most offensive title.
And Then There Were None was released in 1939, with a title using a racial slur that was considered offensive then and unacceptable now. It was given a new title, using another racist slur, before the current title was settled upon, in the mid-1980s.
Christie’s example is proof that, in many cases, editing books written in the past, under different social and cultural contexts, is often required. While some argue for absolute textual purity in unabridged editions, there are exceptions – and they are pretty obvious ones.
Which brings us to the ‘woke’ row de jour: reports that Roald Dahl’s children’s novels have been defanged to remove offensive stereotypes and language, making them more inclusive reads.
There has been the typical response: outrage from some corners, nodded approval from others, and the lack of nuance that typifies any Twitter spat. But, as with all of these questions about what can and cannot be said, there has to be nuance.
The questions of editing past works to minimise offence, while maintaining the author’s intention, are not easily answered.
And, in my view, they are not answered by the Dahl decisions. Why? Because of Mr ‘Papa’ Hemingway.
Who Gets to Stay?
The passage in question comes from Matilda, probably my favourite Dahl book after Danny The Champion of the World as a child. I too was a precocious reader who loved libraries. Sadly, I never mastered telekinetic powers, despite staring at a pencil for many an hour trying to make it move.
In Matilda, a section describes how reading took her on adventures:
“She went on olden day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.”
No longer. Conrad has been replaced with Austen and 19th Century estates; Kipling’s India with Steinbeck’s California.
Africa with Hem, though? No change there. Papa stays in.
Hemingway is what is known as one of my ‘problematic faves’ (along with the woman who taught him to write that the sky is blue, Gertude Stein). I think Farewell to Arms is one of the most beautiful novels of the 20th Century. The section when Robert Jordan considers time, while crouching on a ridge in Spain’s civil war in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a sublime moment of writing that almost makes up for the cringey sex scene with Maria.
I do not want to cancel Hemingway.
But Hemingway? With his Great White Hunter persona, his alcoholism, his alleged wife-beating, the womanising, his antisemitic tropes in The Sun Also Rises? Hemingway stays in?
And John Steinbeck? Another great white male alleged to have been a “sadistic man” and a “womaniser”. His novels do, admittedly, explore the polluting impact of racism in American life, but that did not make them free of racialised and ableist stereotypes.
I can understand the unease about including Kipling’s imperial fantasies. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is problematic in its depiction of Central Africa. As someone who is passionate about promoting gender diversity, I can applaud the decision to replace this with the work of a female author.
But it cannot be ignored that if you say ‘X writer is bad and must be removed’, you are essentially saying that ‘Y writer, who remains, is a-okay and free from problems’. That in itself poses a problem.
Because it can’t be true of any writer from the past (or present – literature is not meant to be problem-free), and it is certainly not true of Hemingway and Steinbeck.
This gets to the heart of many of the issues with the edits. Yes, some are the right move. No one could argue in favour of the racist caricatures of the oompa-loompas – and the less said of the Chinese Emperor in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the better. I don’t object to ‘cloud people’ over ‘cloud men’.
But we also cannot ignore that some of the edits betray the editors’ own prejudices. Why the refusal to allow women characters to have working-class jobs, for example? Why leave in some of the misogyny of The Witches, or decide that calling a woman a “cow” is wrong but “shrew” is okay?
Why is Steinbeck’s California the choice, and not Joyce’s Dublin or Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida?
When so much effort is made to take out, it raises questions about what is left in, and why.
Who Gets Left Out?
It all feels like a lot of fire and fury – focusing on Dahl’s books to try and make sure they remain on the bestseller list – because, ultimately, when it comes to inclusivity in children’s publishing, keeping Hemingway in Matilda is not the problem.
Only 12.2% of children’s books feature black characters, while only 7.64% of published children’s books are written by black writers. This was an increase from 2017, when only 6% of children’s authors published in the UK were from ethnic minority backgrounds, up from 4% in 2007.
Worse, there are signs things are going backwards – despite positive progress on representation since 2010, last year the numbers of black characters in children’s books had decreased by 23%.
The lack of representation of people of colour in publishing is a hugely concerning issue. From editors to agents, as well as writers and characters, whiteness dominates across all sectors of the industry.
Perhaps the answer then, is not to make Dahl more diverse. It’s to ensure that children’s publishing is more diverse. Let’s do diversity by publishing more books by black and ethnic minority writers, across all children’s genres, featuring more black and ethnic minority characters so children can enjoy books about people who are like them.
That way, when the next Matilda arrives at the library in search of adventure, she can discover a wealth of writing from a truly diverse range of writers, who can transport her to a world of exciting experiences.