The Roald Dahl controversy points to the much deeper corporate cultural problem of treating art as disposable
There is always a short trance I go into whenever I learn that someone is trying to make some piece of art disappear from the world. It’s hard for me to imagine taking some work of art, a novel or painting or film that exists due to the extended efforts of concentrated and serious artists, and intentionally causing it to cease existing. I need a moment to put myself in that position and try to understand how someone could bring themselves to do this.
I have such a reticence to the disappearance of art because I believe that even bad art can inform us. Even art done with the worst intentions can teach us something. Perhaps this is because I came of age in the 1990s, where everyone seemed to agree that the most well-informed option was that the solution to bad speech is more speech. This seemed so incredibly true to me, a conservative Christian teenager who was challenged by the films, books, and ideas of a culture that ran counter to my upbringing. I took in these ideas, wrestled with them, and came out stronger for the struggle.
I would deeply resent anyone who would say to me that I should not be permitted to see some film or read some book and developed an instinctive distrust of this posture. If you say I can’t read something or watch something, I want to make it a personal goal to make sure the maximum number of people are able to click a link and see that forbidden thing. Not because it is valuable but purely out of spite.
Any movement that aims to hide any form of art of information from me is suspect. Any effort to hide, alter, or destroy a work of art is to be viewed with skepticism. This is why the last few months have me reeling from every side as the value and integrity of art is being attacked from so many directions.
The simplest and most visible pointer on this is the bowdlerization of the works of Roald Dahl. The proposed edits weren’t even really offensive so much as they were pathetic. It was as if someone had been tasked with the job of sanding off all the sharp edges of Dahl’s style.
The deep irony is that it was the sharp edges that made Dahl so beloved by children. Dahl seems to genuinely enjoy poking at pieties and giving children a sly grin as he made some sharp jab at his antagonists. Pulling those jibes out is the equivalent of a elementary teacher harumphing when a WWII vet winkingly talks about nose art on his plane.
It’s a great blessing that Penguin Random House buckled to the pressure and will continue selling the unedited versions of Dahl’s books, but the core attitude within the publishing industry remains. Only days after it was announced Dahl’s books would remain, the publishers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels announced that they would be editing his books to remove offensive references. It’s clear that there is a movement within the publishing industry that is growing increasingly fearful of releasing objectionable material.
If you want to dive into this topic, I recommend this piece from Kat Rosenfield on the rise of “sensitivity readers” who catch offensive content before it is published. The part of me that grew up eager to intellectually engage transgressive media finds this all very repulsive, but it seems to be an emerging part of the world in which we live.
Through all this, I think most people have misidentified the villain of this movement. It isn’t the woke mob, nor the overly sensitive students, teachers, and online scolds. The great villains of this movement are the bureaucratic nail-biters. The people demanding rewrites are neither the artists who create nor the executives who lead but the middle-management bureaucracy who make the marginal decisions.
It isn’t even that they are fearful of a backlash nor eager to implement the demands of a woke audience. It is that they have no respect for art as art. To them, art is a product to be altered at will, traded for a 2% bump in sales, abandoned when it is no longer valuable.
To this end, I point to the cultural crime that upsets me as much (if not more) than these edits to offensive literature.