As classic novels are reworked for today's readers, debate rages on where to draw the line. (2023)


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Christie Agatha. Roald Dahl. Ian Fleming. The classics were reworked to remove offensive language. But some readers wonder when the posthumous edition goes too far.

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The legacies of various revered literary figures alter parts of well-known works to suit current sensibilities, sparking heated debate among readers and the literary world as to whether and how the classics should be updated.

In Agatha Christie's novels, terms like "oriental," "gypsy" and "native" have been dropped, and revised versions of Ian Fleming's "James Bond" books are stripped of racist and sexist phrases. Roald Dahl's classics were stripped of adjectives like "fat" and "ugly" and references to the gender and skin color of the characters.

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While some changes have been made to books published in previous decades, often with little fanfare, many of today's attempts to remove offensive language are systematic and have provoked intense public scrutiny. The effort has left publishers and states grappling with how to preserve an author's original intent while ensuring that their work continues to resonate and sell.

Striking the right balance is a delicate act: part business decision, part artful evocation of an author's worldview from another time to adapt it for the present.

"My great-grandmother wouldn't have wanted to offend anyone," said James Prichard, Christie's great-grandson and chairman and chief executive of Agatha Christie Ltd. "I don't think we should drop what I would call offensive language in our books because, honestly, the only thing What matters to me is that people can enjoy the Agatha Christie stories forever."

The financial and cultural impact of the exercise is enormous. Authors like Dahl, Christie, and Fleming have collectively sold billions of books, and their novels have spawned lucrative movie franchises. In 2021, Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company, including the rights to classics like The BFG for$1 billion reported. Leaving works unaltered, with nasty and sometimes overtly racist phrases, could alienate a new audience and damage an author's reputation and legacy.

But changing a text carries its own risks. Critics say publishing books posthumously is an affront to authors' creative autonomy and can amount to censorship, and that even a well-intentioned effort to stamp out bigotry can open the door for deeper change.

"You want to think about the precedent you're setting and what would happen if someone with a different ideology or makeup picked up a pen and started crossing things out," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America.

The changes could also reshape the literary and historical record, erasing evidence of an author's racial and cultural biases and undermining literature's ability to reflect the place and time of its creation. "Sometimes the historical value is closely tied to why something is offensive," Nossel said.

Then there is a chance that readers who appreciate the original works will rebel.

Dahl's fans were outraged by the news in February that their British publisher had changed hundreds of words in his children's books. InitiallyreportedBy The Telegraph, a British newspaper, the changes were made after Dahl's Estate began reviewing the author's work in 2020 and contracted with consultancy Inclusive Minds, which aims to promote "inclusion and accessibility in children's literature." , to evaluate the books.

The reaction was immediate. Salman Rushdie called the changes "absurd censorship" and tweeted that "Dahl's heirs should be ashamed." Philip Pullman told BBC Radio 4 that it was better to let Dahl's books out of print than to alter them without the author's consent. Such was the outcry that Dahl's publisher, Puffin, announced that he would keep the unmodified texts in print for readers who prefer the originals.

"It's not uncommon to revise the language used while updating other details like a book's cover and page layout," says Rick Behari, a spokesman for the Roald Dahl Story Company.According to a statement issued in February, adding that they tried to preserve "the irreverence and tough spirit of the original text".

The question of how to deal with offensive language, especially racist terms and images, in classical texts has long been a theme in children's literature. About a decade ago, an issue of "Huckleberry Finn" replaced a racial epithet with the word "slave," fearing that such an offensive word would prompt schools to de-assign the novel. In more extreme cases, titles have been withdrawn from circulation. In 2007, Hergé wrote Tintin in the Congo.REMOTEfrom the children's section of libraries and bookstores for concerns about racism; The book is no longer widely distributed in the United States.

More recentlyThe estate of Dr. Seuss has been announcedthat six of his books would go out of print because they contained outrageous racial and ethnic stereotypes. Among these titles was his first children's book, originally published in 1937, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which featured a crude caricature of an Asian man.

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While older texts are regularly updated with new editions, in recent years publishers and states have begun to search literary classics more systematically to find and modify passages that may offend the reader. In many cases, editors say, the interventions span a handful of words and do not impact the overall story.


Efforts to make older works more inclusive are seen by some in the publishing industry as a sign of progress, as long as changes are made with care, rather than a mindless removal of offensive terms without considering the more subtle biases and pervasive in an author's world view.

"I think it's good practice, just like updating textbooks," said Hannah Gomez, who leads a team of sensitivity editors atKevin Anderson y socio, a company that provides culturally correct reading and other editorial services to authors and publishers. "The big problem is treating cultural accuracy or sensitivity as something that can be easily inserted or substituted."

Some authors, faced with criticism of offensive passages, responded by changing their books. Dahl made changes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the 1970s. Faced with complaints that his portrayal of factory workers as dark-skinned African pygmies was racist, he transformed the workers into Oompa Loompas, little people of a fictional country called Loompaland.

But when an author is no longer alive, the posthumous review process can be more difficult.

Theo Downes-Le Guin, the son and literary executor of science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, was surprised when he received an email from a publisher late last year asking for permission to edit his children's series Catwings. First published in 1988, the books follow a group of kittens that were born with wings.

At first he was torn between approving the edits, which consisted of a handful of words in several books. "Ursula was extremely careful with her words, so a replacement will never have exactly the same meaning," she said in an interview.

Eventually he decided that the revisions would benefit the readers. In this fall's new issues of Simon & Schuster's Atheneum Books, a handful of words including "lame" and "stupid" have been replaced and a note has been added to alert readers to the update.


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"You lose a bit of the nuance of the language, but you also gain something," Downes-Le Guin said. "What we gain is the potential not to offend."

In his latest round of revisions to some of Christie's novels - changes previously reported byThe Telegraph– The estate combed the books for phrases that might offend readers. Prichard said he doesn't rely on readers' sensibilities, but rather approves any changes himself, sometimes after consulting with others in his family. Most of the changes are minor and involve obviously bigoted language. “The words that we're removing are words that I honestly don't want to say and don't want to print in your newspaper,” he said.

Important changes have been made"Death on the Nile"in part because the estate issued a film edition of the novel when a film adaptation was released last year, Prichard said. “We have new audiences emerging and maybe not traditional book readers, so some of the changes we made were maybe a little more than our usual light touch,” he said. Among the changes: the term "Oriental" was dropped, a description of the race of a black servant was removed, and references to Nubians were removed.

Previous posthumous reviews of Christie's work have proven helpful, he said. In the 1980s, she dropped a racial nickname from the title of one of her books in Britain; it was retitled And Then There Were None and remains Christie's best-selling book, Prichard said.

"If we hadn't made those changes," he said, "it would probably be completely unreleased."

Alex Marshall contributed coverage.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.


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