Thursday, 9 March 2023

Oh no, not more about Dahl? Not exactly... Anne Rooney

"Times were tough. It hadn't rained for years. There was nothing in the garden except one small cabbage and a stick of celery. Little Else and her grandmother were so poor they only had dinner once a week. They were so thin they had to walk over the same ground twice to throw a shadow."
Little Else, Trick Rider, Julie Hunt, 2010

This isn't funny any more. Was it funny in 2010? With distance from the kind of poverty that now surrounds us, perhaps it was — except for the poor children. (It's not as though there weren't any poor children in 2010.) A third of children in the UK now live in poverty. A third of children might find this making fun of their plight uncomfortable.

How do we read children's books from the past, even the very recent past? Should we change them to match modern lives and sensibilities? If we choose to change them, which things should we change? It seems the recent Dahl edits, and the slightly more distant Blyton edits, tinker at the edges but don't seem to have any recognisable parameters within which change is effected. In 2010, Hodder changed some of Blyton's books, often in rather pointless ways. Few children couldn't understand 'mother and father' — and it wasn't changed to the gender neutral 'parents', but to 'mum and dad' — the preferred terms of middle-class southerners replacing the old-fashioned but generic terms. The change of 'dirty tinker' to 'traveller' was more sensible. Travellers and their children have a hard enough time without children's books condoning and contributing to casual abuse. 

Removing directly offensive terms targeted at groups who haven't chosen the characteristic being mocked or derided is not at all the same as pandering to a kind ahistorical insensibility about language. I'm reading The Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge, 1946) with MB at the moment. I often have to stop to explain a word, or a concept. Yesterday's session led to a discussion of how children's lives have changed over the last 50 years. Children need to learn that times change, language changes, behaviour and ideas change. Some behaviour and ideas in the past would now be considered inappropriate. But some ideas and behaviour now are inappropriate, and condoned. We've just had a Prime Minister who referred to Muslim women as 'letter boxes'. Women peacefully holding a vigil after the murder of another woman by a police officer were ill-treated and prosecuted. The current government wants to send people fleeing war zones to Rwanda. I don't think sanitising the past is a priority. (Though of course it might serve the right-wing nostalgia for a little England where everything was rosy.) We aren't preparing children for life in the present by refusing to keep words like 'plump' in books from the past. The issue of whether to use the word in a new book is, to my mind, separate. 

If we are going to change books from the past, I would propose that we set clear parameters (and say 'modernized' on the cover, quite clearly). Those parameters should be about directly caricaturing, ridiculing or bullying characters on the basis of characteristics they can't help. That ridiculing or bullying should be on the part of the narrator/author, not a character in the book who might be being shown in a bad light through their treatment of others. So if character A calls character B a fat slob, that's not the same as the narrative introducing character B as a fat slob. The second endorses criticism of being overweight and inactive. The first sets up character A for a downfall, discovery, revenge, or whatever. 

We need nuance and parameters. And then we need to discuss whether it impinges on the moral rights of a dead author to make changes they would not have wanted. We might need a test case. Moral rights continue for the duration of copyright and, most importantly, can't be assigned to someone else. So although Netflix have the copyright in Dahl's work, can they violate his moral rights?

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

Well, yes, but he's dead. And the people running the show, making the agreements, are presumably his descendant family, who are, let's face it, a money grubbing lot. And making a moral stand on a hillside defending the author's right to keep calling people yids, spics, niggers, fat b's... etc etc..... is possibly not a wise decision.

Perhaps.... a solution might be to print both versions..

eg 'Matilda - Unexpurgated', or 'Matilda - The Offensive Version'

and 'Matilda - by Roald Dahl'.

If the original doesn't sell it can always be deleted/out of print. Problem solved.