I wonder what was going through the heads of the sensitivity readers and editors who deemed that calling a middle-aged woman “attractive” would offend contemporary sensibilities. The line “This balcony belonged to an attractive middle-aged lady called Mrs Silver”, in Roald Dahl’s lovely 1990 children’s book Esio Trot (by which I mean I loved it as a child, and haven’t revisited it), has been changed. In new editions of Dahl’s books, scheduled for release later this year, that line will reportedly now be: “This balcony belonged to a kind middle-aged lady called Mrs Silver”.
This eyeroll-inducement is among a slew of edits that are meant to iron out potentially offensive descriptions or language, which current readers may be turned off by. But the edits leaked online are by and large bizarre. Shortly after, it was revealed that Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels had similarly been rewritten for reissue, yet seemed to have retained a lot of derogatory content. Which just goes to show that we all have blindspots, even those tasked to catch others’.
PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel, who expressed alarm in a Twitter thread about how rewriting like this lays ground for censorship with dangerous agendas, offered a straightforward solution: “Better than playing around with these texts is to offer introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read, and helps them understand the setting in which it was written.”
A 1987 lecture titled “Straw Into Gold” published in Sandra Cisneros’ 2015 collection A House Of My Own, has a series of footnotes. Here’s one, augmenting these simple lines: “We ate corn tortillas, but we didn’t make them. Someone* was sent to the corner tortillería to buy them.” Decades later, Cisneros added: “*Invariably that someone was a servant, an indigenous woman, usually from the country. My father’s family was middle class. But these were themes I didn’t think about back then.”
I find Cisneros’ decision to publish that essay along with those footnotes humble and honest. It is not only the consumers of art who change. The makers evolve, too. Honouring our journeys rather than erasing our footprints is brave, and true.
All kinds of art become dated or age badly, within rather little time. Take the wildly popular TV show Friends – if it were to premiere today, neither its Caucasian-ness nor its casual sexism would pass muster. As a consumer of art, there are some things I enjoyed in the past but can’t stomach anymore. As a creator, there are some things I have written that just a decade or two since may be read as problematic. I would rather not modify my words. I would rather do as Cisneros has done; or even to just let them be, knowing I can’t please everyone and a fine-tooth comb will only leave my artistry bald.
It is the prerogative of the reader to read Dahl and reject his work or to enjoy it, on any basis (including boredom); just as it is the late author’s prerogative to have his words remain as he intended. If one truly cannot bear the discomfort, there is always new work by new creators to explore.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2023. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.