Rishi Sunak has condemned the rewriting of Roald Dahl’s books for children, saying publishers should not “gobblefunk around with words”.
Deploying language from The BFG, one of Dahl’s most beloved stories, the Prime Minister said works of literature should be preserved in their original form and not “airbrushed” for modern sensibilities.
On Friday, The Telegraph revealed that hundreds of changes have been made to the author’s original texts, removing many descriptions relating to weight, mental health and gender.
Asked about the changes, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that you shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words. It is important that works of literature, works of fiction, are preserved and not airbrushed.
“We have always defended the right to free speech and expression.”
Mr Sunak has previously cited Dahl as his favourite author, saying he “absolutely loved” reading the books as a child.
The changes have been made to the new editions of Dahl’s stories published by Puffin, with the approval of the Roald Dahl Story Company. The review began in 2020 when the company was still run by the Dahl family, and concluded last year after the estate was sold to Netflix.
The move has divided the literary world. Sir Salman Rushdie criticised “absurd censorship” at the hands of the “bowdlerising Sensitivity Police” and said: “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”
However, Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, said: “If Dahl offends us, let him go out of print.”
Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday whether bowdlerising a text caused “literary damage”, he replied: “Well, if a book is a great book – like Oliver Twist, for example. But we’re not talking about that, are we?
“We’re talking about popular children’s fiction. Dahl’s books aren’t classics in that sense. Let them fade away. Read better writers.”
He said Dahl’s work would not disappear overnight because past editions are in so many homes, schools and libraries, adding: “What are you going to do about them? All these words are still there, are you going to round up all the books and cross them out with a big black pen?”
Joanne Harris, who chairs the Society of Authors, defended the right to change literary texts and said it made good commercial sense. She wrote on Twitter: “Publishers updating a book – with the approval of the author’s estate – to ensure its saleability is not censorship, it’s just business.
“Dickens rewrote Oliver Twist as a response to accusations of anti-Semitism. Shakespeare is always being modified. So is the Bible. If Netflix want to offer my kid $400,000 million for my estate after my death, I hereby give them permission to change all the outmoded references they like.”
‘Reviewing language that can be damaging’
The Roald Dahl Story Company partners with Inclusive Minds, which supplies sensitivity readers and inclusivity ambassadors to advise on how to make children’s literature more diverse.
The organisation said it did not “write, edit or rewrite texts” but helped to “provide valuable input when it comes to reviewing language that can be damaging and perpetuate harmful stereotypes”.
Language excised from the new Dahl editions includes “fat”, “crazy”, “black” and “white”. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People, Matilda now reads Jane Austen instead of Rudyard Kipling, and references to “female” characters have disappeared.