Is Publishing On A Slippery Slope?

The publishing industry has been making some big headlines lately, and unfortunately not for good reasons. Between the recent strikes and lawsuit hearings that involved some of the Big 5 publishers, the apparent acceptance of using AI to create art, and the announcement that some of Roald Dahl’s books are going to be edited for content and then re-released, life in or near the industry has been, well, interesting.

Personally, I supported the editors and agents who chose to strike — awful working conditions for them haven’t exactly been a secret — and truly hope they are getting the results they need. I read some of the news reports regarding court cases on not letting already massive publishers merge and become even more corporate, and really, I agree with that, too. And yes, the idea that newbie authors could use AI to help them generate a story or a novel, which they would then rep with an agent, and yes, possibly get a publishing contract, does seem like cheating, taking the creativity out of creative writing, putting authors who literally make it all up ourselves at an extreme disadvantage, if the AI results are considered “more desirable” by the industry. But, I have to say, because the news about Roald Dahl’s works has come in the midst of all these things shaking up the status quo of the industry, I do believe this is the straw that will break the corporate publishing camel’s back.

I don’t like censorship — not even censorship of books that I personally find problematic, even controversial. Basically, once most people realize a book is truly bad, in terms of deliberate misinformation or pushing a message that’s not very healthy or beneficial for readers to take to heart, sales drop off so drastically that often the books become almost hard to find, and usually old copies show up in library discard bins or bargain sales at thrift stores. My point is, give the public a chance to decide if something isn’t just distasteful but really dangerous. Let people use their brains, instead of being spoonfed (and in some cases having it shoved down their throats) what’s actually “good” and “bad” when it comes to fiction.

That’s the part that blows my mind about the whole Dahl situation: The publishers are insisting — for example — that people will be traumatized from reading multiple uses of the word “fat” in a fictional children’s tale. Written in the 1960s, when, whether we like it or not, the word “fat” was just what one said when describing a plus size person. If any of this theory is true, and humans are such whiners who are scarred for life because a nasty antagonist also happens to be overweight, then, WOW. And having read many different takes on the “correcting” and re-releasing debacle over the last few days, I honestly don’t think anyone is.

Dahl has been a controversial writer forever. He has many devoted fans, fans who still see problems with his work, and critics who stand by their argument that his work is too racist and sexist and stereotypical. Having read a few of his books and seen a few of the movies, I’d put myself in the category of, I can see what fans appreciate, but I also see issues, and wouldn’t call myself a fan. BUT, a whole lot of this discussion needs to take CONTEXT into consideration, and that’s a major factor the publisher is just plain ignoring.

These books were written in a different era, a time period when, by modern standards, politeness was not that polite, when common prejudices weren’t called out, when the majority of people reading children’s books just were middle class Caucasian families. None of that is cool; it’s awesome that literacy and accessibility to literature and genre fiction has expanded SO much in the last 50 years, and nowadays there are big chances of a kid from a racial or ethnic minority coming across James and the Giant Peach or Matilda or The Witches in a public library. (And they may even love it.)

So, back to the heart of the matter: CONTEXT. If the publisher were to pull older editions (pre-2023) of Dahl, then include in the re-releases a note or a reader’s guide, about the importance of putting Dahl’s stories into the CONTEXT of the era in which they were produced, without changing any of the actual text, that would be seen as honest, transparent, even admirable. This is a great time to be talking about what characterizations or plot points are considered problematic, and why we might not use certain adjectives or phrases or slang in literature now. But to remove the offensive parts in question, replace them and act as if they never existed, that opens up an enormous can of worms.

For one, the publisher is attempting to rewrite history. They’re doing so right under the nose of the reading public, without their permission, without caring if they object. The company is being blatant about altering the long-set-in-stone words of an author who has been dead for a long time. What does that mean for other authors’ books in the future? Let’s say in the year 2078 someone decides Stephen King shouldn’t have described Pennywise the Clown as having a red nose, because that’s somehow offensive. Are they going to make sure whoever owns the rights to Mr. King’s publications at that point hunts down every single potential reprint of “It” to have the printers remove the horrific combination of red and nose in the same sentence? Maybe by 2078 clowns won’t even be a thing anymore, so, again, people, CONTEXT.

And, from a practical standpoint, how much money is Puffin going to waste on these new Dahl editions? Which will, after all the hoopla, probably not sell very well at all? The devoted fans are already condemning them. People on the fence about Dahl’s stories weren’t excited about buying them, anyway. And many of Dahl’s critics will realistically say it’s too little, too late.

This isn’t just a cautionary tale for not mucking about with classic lit. This is being seen by many authors as a huge red flag about the sanctity of copyright laws. Readers are very concerned about not only the censorship, but the way Puffin is taking matters into their own hands, against general legal advice and common publishing practice. If there was going to be an event in this year that wouldn’t just shake up the industry but shake it down, I really believe this is it.

Only time will tell. But I really do sense some rumblings — so here’s hoping they’re moving in a good direction.

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