As Classic Novels Get Revised for Today’s Readers, a Debate About Where to Draw the Line

In new editions of a popular children’s book series by Ursula K. Le Guin, the words “lame,” “dumb” and “stupid” will be removed. In Agatha Christie’s novels, terms like “Oriental,” “Gypsy” and “native” have been taken out, and revised versions of Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” books will be scrubbed of racist and sexist phrases. Classics by Roald Dahl have already been stripped of adjectives like “fat” and “ugly” along with references to characters’ gender and skin color.

As revelations emerged in recent weeks that the estates of several revered literary figures are altering portions of well-known works, the questions of whether, and how, classics should be updated to conform to current sensibilities have divided readers and the literary world.

While some changes have been made to books published in decades past, often with little fanfare, many of the current attempts to remove offensive language are systematic and have drawn intense public scrutiny. The effort has put publishers and literary estates at the center of a heated debate as they grapple with how to preserve an author’s original intent while ensuring that their work continues to resonate — and sell.

Finding the right balance is a delicate act: part business decision, part artful conjuring of the worldview of an author from another era in order to adapt it to the present.

“My great-grandmother would not have wanted to offend anyone,” said James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, and the chairman and chief executive of Agatha Christie Ltd. “I don’t believe we need to leave what I would term offensive language in our books, because frankly all I care about is that people can enjoy Agatha Christie stories forever.”

The financial and cultural stakes of the exercise are enormous. Authors like Dahl, Christie and Fleming have, together, sold billions of copies of books, and their novels have spawned lucrative film franchises. In 2021, Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company, including rights for classics such as “The BFG,” for a reported $1 billion. Leaving the works unchanged, with offensive and sometimes blatantly racist phrases throughout, could alienate new audiences and damage an author’s reputation and legacy.

But altering a text carries its own risks. Critics say editing books posthumously is an affront to authors’ creative autonomy and can amount to censorship, and that even a well intentioned effort to weed out bigotry can open the door to more pervasive changes.

“You want to think about the precedent that you’re setting, and what would happen if someone of a different predisposition or ideology were to pick up the pen and start crossing things out,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America.

Changes could also remake the literary and historical record by deleting evidence of an author’s racial and cultural prejudices, and eroding literature’s ability to reflect the place and time in which it was created. “Sometimes the historical value is intimately intertwined with why something is offensive,” Nossel said.

Then there’s the chance that readers who cherish the original works will revolt.

Fans of Dahl were outraged in February by the news that his British publisher had changed hundreds of words in his children’s books. Initially reported by The Telegraph, a British newspaper, the changes were made after Dahl’s estate began a review of the author’s work in 2020, and hired the consultancy Inclusive Minds, which aims to promote “inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature,” to evaluate the books.

The backlash was immediate. Salman Rushdie called the edits “absurd censorship” and tweeted that “the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” Philip Pullman told the BBC Radio 4 it would be better to let Dahl’s books go out of print than change them without the author’s consent. The outcry was so intense that Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, announced it would keep unaltered texts in print for readers who prefer the originals.

“It’s not unusual to review the language used alongside updating other details including a book’s cover and page layout,” Rick Behari, a spokesman for the Roald Dahl Story Company, said in a statement issued in February, adding that they sought to preserve “the irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”

The question of how to handle offensive language — particularly racist terms and images — in classic texts has long been an issue in children’s literature. About a decade ago, an edition of “Huckleberry Finn” replaced a racial epithet with the word “slave,” over concerns that such an offensive word was causing schools to stop assigning the novel. In more extreme cases, titles have been taken out of circulation. In 2007, “Tintin in the Congo,” by Hergé, was removed from the children’s section in libraries and bookstores over concerns about racism; the book is no longer widely available in the United States.

More recently, Dr. Seuss’s estate announced that six of his books would no longer be published because they contained egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes. Among those titles was his first children’s book, originally published in 1937, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” which included a crude caricature of an Asian man.

While older texts regularly get updated when they are reprinted, publishers and estates have in recent years begun to search literary classics more systematically to find and alter passages that might offend readers. In many cases, publishers say, the interventions involve a handful of words, and don’t impact the overall story.

Some in the publishing industry see efforts to make older works more inclusive as a sign of progress, provided that the changes are made carefully, and not as a thoughtless erasure of offensive terms without accounting for more subtle and pervasive bias in an writer’s worldview.

“I think it’s a good practice, the same way you update textbooks,” said Hannah Gómez, who oversees a team of sensitivity editors at Kevin Anderson & Associates, a company that provides cultural accuracy reads 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 replaced.”

Some authors, when faced with criticism over offensive passages, responded by changing their books. Dahl, in the 1970s, made changes to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Faced with complaints that his depiction of the factory workers as dark-skinned pygmies from Africa was racist, he changed the workers into Oompa Loompas, small people from a fictional country called Loompaland.

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

Theo Downes-Le Guin, the son of and literary executor for Le Guin, the science fiction writer, was surprised when he got an email from a publisher late last year asking for permission to make changes to her children’s series “Catwings.” First published in 1988, the books follow a group of kittens who were born with wings.

At first, he was torn about whether he should approve the edits, which consisted of a handful of words across several books. “Ursula was extremely careful with her words, so a substitute is never going to have exactly the same meaning,” he said in an interview.

He ultimately decided that the revisions would benefit readers. In the new editions, which will be released this fall by Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books, a handful of words, including “lame” and “dumb,” have been replaced, and a note has been added to alert readers about the update.

“A little bit of language nuance is going to be lost, but something is also gained,” Downes-Le Guin said. “What we gain is the potential to not give offense.”

In its recent round of revisions to some of Christie’s novels — edits that were reported earlier by The Telegraph — the estate combed through the books to phrases that might offend readers. Prichard said he doesn’t rely on sensitivity readers, but approves any changes himself, sometimes after consulting others at her estate. Most of the changes are minor, and involve blatantly bigoted language. “The words that we’re removing are words that frankly I don’t want to say and you don’t want to print in your newspaper,” he said.

More extensive changes were made to “Death on the Nile,” in part because the estate issued a movie tie-in edition of the novel when a film adaptation was released last year, Prichard said. “We have new audiences coming to the market, and potentially not traditional book readers, so some of the changes we made in that were perhaps a bit more than our usual light touch,” he said. Among the changes: The term “Oriental” was removed, a description of a Black servant’s race was cut and references to Nubian people were taken out.

Previous posthumous revisions of Christie’s work have proven worthwhile, he said. A racial epithet was dropped from the title of one of her books in the 1980s in Britain; it was renamed “And Then There Were None,” and remains Christie’s top selling book, Prichard said.

“If we hadn’t made those changes,” he said, “it would probably be completely unpublishable.”

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

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