Updating or Censorship (Cecilia Peartree)

 I very much doubt if anybody will take the trouble to update or censor my books after I'm no longer around to object, although of course you never know which topics are going to turn out to be contentious and what kind of descriptive language might be considered offensive by later generations. I've seen several examples of this kind of thing lately in the press and social media, and also of people pushing back against it, sometimes with a degree of success. Of course there are always topics that naturally go out of fashion and books that are no longer bought for various reasons, but this latest trend is something a bit different.

I have an instinctive dislike of updating something that's already been written, which I think is partly based on my having studied history and having lived long enough to see parts of it re-written several times over. At one time this was something that was mostly thought to be done in Communist countries but I think it happens everywhere. In some cases it is fair enough and may even be much-needed in order to redress a balance, while in some others it's accidental, in the sense that people have forgotten or never learnt very much about the past. I noticed with alarm, just before I sat down to write this, that one of the candidates for the post of First Minister of Scotland had compared the (allegedly peaceful but almost certainly illegal) way in which she thought independence from the UK could be achieved with the way it had been achieved by the American states and by the Irish Republic. She hadn't seemed able to grasp that quite a lot of violence had occurred in each of these cases.  You only need to watch an episode of 'University Challenge' to find out how little today's students know about history. Or geography, for that matter, but don't get me started on that. Of course new books about history come out all the time - that's fine, but the older books are interesting too as products of their own time, or part of history in fact.

But I digress, as usual. What really made me think about the twin topics of updating and censorship was the case of the re-write of Roald Dahl's novels for children to remove descriptions such as 'fat'. This is the update that's caused the most push-back, and indeed I think the publishers are having to produce a new edition without the updates. There has been some debate about whether the novels are too nasty for children in any case, but in my experience as a parent, the nastiness and anarchic tendencies are what kids really like about them.

There is also mention of the James Bond novels being updated to remove some of the violence, which again seems to me to strike at their very essence. Not that I have read any of them or seen any of the movies since I was a teenager in any case, having become more and more averse to literary and film violence as I got older. 

The theatre seems to be another area where updating is rife. I'm probably keener than the next person to see a new production of one of Shakespeare's plays, as I love to see different ideas on staging. It can be quite interesting to see gender-swapping as well, although I feel it can be overdone. I saw what I think of as an almost perfect production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream; a few years ago in a temporary theatre in the round at York. It was so good that I didn't want it to end. 

On the other hand, I wasn't so impressed by a recent version of 'Macbeth' which a modern playwright had updated on the pretext of making Lady Macbeth the protagonist. I think, although I'm not a Shakespeare scholar, that it could be argued that she and Macbeth could be considered to be equal protagonists in the first place, although it isn't spelled out quite as clearly in the original. Also, the additional text, new ending etc didn't do anything to enhance the play in my opinion, but made it too long, testing our ability to sit still in the usual fairly cramped theatre seats. Incidentally I wrote my own comedy ending for 'Romeo and Juliet' not long ago, except that it took the form of a short story, not a play. I doubt if I could ever make 'Macbeth' into a comedy but perhaps that would be a good challenge!

I tend to agree with an opinion I've seen expressed elsewhere, which is that if you want James Bond without the violence or Roald Dahl without the nastiness - or indeed, Shakespeare without some of the greatest lines ever written - you should write something completely new and not mess about with someone else's work.


Griselda Heppel said…
Exactly. All literature dates to a certain extent because it's of its time. Much better to accept that and either let it drift into obscurity (Eric, Or Little by Little) or enjoy it for its qualities that transcend time (Paradise Lost, Shakespeare's plays, Middlemarch). Where Dahl fits into that is moot, perhaps, but I think you're onto something when you say that it's exactly the anarchy and unashamed insults he writes into his stories that appeal to children.

As for the Tragedy of Lady Macbeth... oh for heaven's sake. I find the most heartsinking term used now to describe a coming theatrical production is 'reimagined'. No thank you. I want to see the original play/book/opera, not some clever clogs's idea of how Shakespeare/Dickens/Hans Christian Anderson's works could be made so much better. As if.

Which means I hardly go to the theatre at all nowadays, sadly.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for a thought-provoking post. You raise a host of eminently debatable issues about artistic freedom and boundaries. Spinoffs and experimentalism are a far cry from the oppressive intolerance of revisionism. Those of us like myself - old enough to recall the censorship of the 1950s - official and unofficial -break out in a cold sweat at the kind of fascistic censorship rearing its ugly head - here in America today which is about perpetuating ignorance for the benefit of a hyper-priveliged few. It would be a rare honor to be listed among the authors banned by this crowd.
Peter Leyland said…
Censorship and reinterpretation of literature. What interesting discussions we have here Cecilia. The first has no place in any culture, the second is open to debate as this blog shows. I am about to see a stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird in London, banned in some US schools as Umberto will probably know. It has had great reviews but will it stand up with the book itself and the ever popular film? I will let you know.

Thanks for the blog.
Neil McGowan said…
Great post, Cecilia. Literature is shaped and formed by current events at the time of writing, and as such form a unique insight into life at that time. I've heard more than one author say if you want to know what a city is like, read some contemporary crime fiction as that will reveal the real character of the place.
The first quest I thought of, when I heard about these edits (and made by sensitivity readers, rather than writers; make of that what you will) was, well, whose name should be on the cover? As they're not Roald Dahl's words anymore, or not exclusively

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