Richard Charkin in England: On the ‘Desecration of Authors’ Works’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

‘To tamper with an author’s words when he or she is no longer with us to express an opinion is sacrilege,’ Richard Charkin writes.

At the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center, Great Missenden, England, in Buckinghamshire. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Peter Fleming

Editor’s note: As was reported Friday (February 24) by Variety’s Naman Ramachandran and others, Penguin Random House UK’s Puffin imprint has announced it will release “The Roald Dahl Classic Collection” of 17 titles with the late author’s original writings. This after the uproar around news (our story is here) that changes were made to Dahl’s texts to make them more palatable to contemporary sensibilities. Today (February 27), Richard Charkin offers his observations.

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

Taking a Leaf Out of Dr. Bowdler’s Book
The idea of editing Shakespeare to eliminate doubles entrendres and naughty words to fit in with 19th-century social mores now seems preposterous, although presumably his publishers—Messrs. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown—thought it was a pretty good idea at the time.

Their 1818 The Family Shakespeare offered the assurance that “Nothing is added to the original text but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud by a family.” Thomas Bowdler’s work on this gave rise to the term bowdlerize, meaning “to remove matter considered indelicate or otherwise objectionable,” per Merriam-Webster.

Richard Charkin

Doubtless, the Roald Dahl Story Company and Messrs. Bertelsmann, PRH, and Puffin also thought it was a pretty good idea to subject the works of Roald Dahl to the same sort of treatment for the same sort of reasons.

I’ve had a few brushes with attempts to change or stifle books.

The obvious case was Peter Wright’s tedious Spycatcher, for which Mrs. Thatcher, in a rare case of support for publishers’ profits, appointed herself marketing director for the book by trying to have it throttled.

She forgot that the United Kingdom was only able to ban books in its jurisdiction. At Heinemann, we happily imported books from Australia to satisfy the demand she had created. We even hired tele-sales people to call British booksellers to drum up orders. Phone calls from Australia were expensive, so we found traveling Australians living in London to make the calls.

Then there was Chris Patten’s brilliant 1998 description of relations with Beijing—East and West: China, Power, and the Future of Asia—under contract to HarperCollins when its owner, Rupert Murdoch, was married to the Chinese-born American film producer Wendi Deng. HarperCollins decided it was not in its interest to publish the Patten book. This allowed Macmillan to turn a potential good seller into an absolute blockbuster. Thank you, Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Deng.

Not quite censorship, but definitely a form of deliberate bowdlerization was the publication of the five-volume Truth & Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa Report, also released in 1998. The former president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, was vehemently opposed to the publication and issued significant legal threats should he be blamed for anything to do with apartheid. Rather than facing his wrath, we simply blacked out his name wherever it appeared in the book, thus making his guilt even more obvious.

Back to the Present

I think we all understand that totalitarian regimes are inclined to stamp on freedom of speech and hence the freedom to publish.

Image: Richard Charkin

We, as publishers, are happy to shout about our beliefs in these principles. We have prizes. We issue strongly-worded statements against governments which don’t quite share a definition of freedom. We believe in our authors and their books. We believe in the primacy and importance of intellectual property. We believe in the moral rights of authors, as well as their purely legal rights.

And yet the last few years have seen several publishers take a leaf out of Dr. Bowdler’s book and allow or encourage what I think of as desecration of authors’ works.

I take no issue with the Winnie the Pooh estate transforming the lovable bear to appeal to new generations through the Disney cartoons, merchandise or whatever; nor with Thomas the Tank Engine. I don’t even object to new mediocre add-ons to series. The market will determine their success or otherwise.

But to tamper with an author’s words when he or she is no longer with us to express an opinion is sacrilege.

I think the Dahl estate and the company which now owns it and Penguin Random House should be ashamed of this episode and discard the bowdlerized editions. Roald Dahl was a nasty, anti-Semitic piece of work, but his books and his words belong to him and to the millions of children who love them.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s opinions are his own, of course, and not necessarily reflective of those of Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’