Hyper Inclusivity in Classic Literature

The problem with editing books for modern times


(Graphic by Ella Sherry)

“Fat,” “ugly,” “crazy,” “mothers,” “fathers”—these are all words in Roald Dahl’s books that have been edited out or changed for not being inclusive enough. 

In February, Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House in the UK, decided to edit some of Dahl’s novels in an effort to “ensure that [the books] can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” 

After a large amount of backlash from the public, the publishing company announced that a classic collection of Dahl’s novels, “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection,” would be published without the previous changes. 

Fans of Dahl’s work have been divided over the controversy; some think the changes are undoing the progress our society has made while others argue that the new text is for the best. 

Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born novelist who has been threatened repeatedly by the Iranian government for “blasphemy” in his writing, called the edits “absurd” despite Dahl’s reputation for being “no angel”: the children’s author was a known bigot, anti-Semitic and racist. 

But do these changes really benefit the readers, and are they actually necessary? 

Words, language, laws and social standards change over time—racial slurs common years ago are unacceptable now and racist ideas about different ethnicities are looked down upon. Same-sex marriage became legal in the state of California only 15 years ago, in May of 2008; the Civil Rigths Act was passed 59 years ago, in 1964; women were given the right to vote in 1920, 103 years ago. 

Society changes, sometimes drastically, over centuries. It makes sense that books written years ago have different vocabularies, characters, themes, dialogue and ideas, even if our current culture is focused on being diverse and inclusive. 

Dahl’s books, and similar ones, were written during a time that had different ideas and standards. This doesn’t excuse Dahl’s beliefs: his comments are impudent and impermissible. 

But if we try to edit out every single non-inclusive word, scene, character, theme and plot, we won’t have any classics. 

Numerous classical novels are racist, stereotypical, insensitive and plain offensive: those opinions are still a part of our world’s history and it’s impossible to completely eradicate them from all works of literature. 

We can’t erase history, no matter how uncomfortable it is—understanding social norms during different time periods is necessary in order to grow as a society and make positive changes. 

We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the 20th century and literature highlights that. Instead of trying to rewrite older stories, why don’t we look back at creative works and celebrate the progress we’ve made?