If you’ve taken a look at my reading list, you’ve seen that I like to read classics a few times a year. I find that reading these older novels and short stories provides me with perspective and new ideas. They are like snapshots of the time in which they were written, shining a light on both the good and bad, as well as showing how we’ve (hopefully) evolved as a society.
So it saddens me to read that there are publishers who are sanitizing what they deem as offensive language from these stories. From Roald Dahl to Agatha Christie to Ian Fleming, publishers – and some author estates – are trying to update these works so they won’t offend readers.
To me, this is a form of censorship. Yes, I understand that there are readers who could be offended by James Bond’s sexism and imperialistic racism, but that’s who the character is. He’s a reflection of British imperialism, of a time period where the world was locked up in a cold war. His views should be seen for what they are: outdated and wrong. If anything, it makes Bond a more interesting character. He’s a good guy with deep flaws.
Several years ago, I reread The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. It had been a couple of decades since I last picked it up, so while I was familiar with the story, I had forgotten the details. The book is filled with racist language and outdated ideas, which, oddly enough, are juxtaposed with some very modern views of treating everyone equally despite their skin color. It took a chapter or two for me to get comfortable with some of the language Twain used, but I kept reminding myself that this story was written in a different time and is a reflection of how people actually were, including the author.
If some publisher were to sanitize this novel, remove the harsh words and soften the racism, it wouldn’t be the same story. It wouldn’t have the same impact or the same emotion. It wouldn’t be a true reflection of the time it represents.
I don’t think censoring – and that’s what this is, despite the publishers insisting on calling it sanitizing – of these stories does them any justice. Yes, there will be readers who are offended, but that’s okay. They simply don’t have to read the books. Changing the language, the words the author wrote, changes a story and lessens its impact. To me, that’s wrong and, dare I say it, offensive.
It’s one thing if an author goes back and revises an early novel. Michael Moorcock did that recently with his Elric stories. He re-released them after taking the time revising to remove inconsistencies and clean up plot issues. That’s just fine tuning. It’s another thing when a publisher or an author’s estate literally changes text to make it less offensive to certain readers.
Whether it’s called sanitizing or censorship, it’s not a path the publishing industry needs to venture down. Leave the stories as they are, as the authors intended. No one is being forced to read these stories. If someone feels Judy Blume or Agatha Christie are offensive, then they can find something else to read. There are millions of authors out there writing millions of stories. There’s something for everyone.