Wstop Are you obese? If you’re going to put the red pen on Roald Dahl – as his publisher Puffin has done recently – there are plenty of better parts to choose from. Sensitive readers are content to drop words like “fat,” “flabby,” “ugly,” and “Kipling.” But Dahl doesn’t just offer sexism, racism, and colonialism; in his coming-of-age novels, you’ll find sins so frankly sordid and outrageous, yet haven’t created an ism to cover them up. There’s violence, voyeurism and a haunting horror story in which a scorpion collector accidentally has sex with a leper. It’s not for nothing that his family calls him “Roald the Rot,” or more bluntly, “Roald the Bastard.”
Something seems to be changing in the UK publishing industry. You can see this in Puffin’s coy announcement that Roald the Revolting will still roll off the printing press intact, along with the work of Roald the Redacted, following the backlash over Puffin’s editorial news. You can also see it in the now thriving almost silent book. Hannah Barnes’ book Time to Think about the gender identity clinic in Tavistock, London, which referred children as young as nine to Give puberty blockers, but get rejected by 22 publishers. Swift newcomer Swift Press picked it up, and it hit the bestseller list. People in the industry said that the red pen is becoming less and less free. As one publishing executive put it, there was a sense that things had “went too far.” (Although since the person doesn’t want to be cited by name, it’s not nearly enough.)
Changes are out of date. Puffin’s editing of Dahl is an imprint on Penguin, one symptom of the publishing world’s dog-fighting phenomenon, but far from the only one. Authors have been removed; books have been buried; people have lost their jobs; sensitive readers have been hired to ensure compliance with modern ethics. James Bond was even edited to make him less villainous – the literary equivalent of trying to make the water less wet.
There is an argument that this is not really a problem. This argument suggests that silencing speech is the preserve of totalitarian, Orwellian states and institutions that use force to silence people. In countries like the UK, speech is still free. This is pure gobblefunk, and Orwell’s “1984” is the wrong Orwellian piece to understand why.
So far it’s best to turn to the introduction Orwell wrote for Animal Farm. Orwell completed his satire of the Soviet Union in 1943—considered by many to be his masterpiece—and was swiftly rejected by four publishers. As with Ms. Barnes’s 22 rejections, some offered reasons. One publisher happily suggested that Orwell might want to reconsider the pigs. Having pigs as the ruling class can be “offensive … especially to anyone who is a little bit sensitive, no doubt the Russians are like that”. Orwell raised pigs; Animal Farm sold half a million copies in two years.
He reflected on all this later in that introduction. He wrote that there was a “hidden system of censorship” in the British publishing industry. “At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a system of thought that is assumed to be accepted by all right-thinking people without question.” “Not entirely forbidden to say this, that, or that, but to say it ‘ends'” . Anyone who tries to do so “finds himself silenced to startling effect”. They still do. A book on colonialism by Oxford professor emeritus of theology Nigel Biggar has been hailed by its publisher Bloomsbury as a “very important” work , which was then postponed, apparently indefinitely, because “the public feeling … is not currently supporting the publication of the book”. It is now distributed by a different publisher.
Shockingly, the sanctions for speaking out are apparently mild. As one author puts it, people think you’re afraid of Twitter death threats. You’re not: What really scares you is that your co-workers will look down on you. Most people don’t need the threat of being burned at the stake to silence them; being bashed by their peers on Twitter is enough.
The same goes for more typical Orwellian states. When Anne Applebaum studied the Sovietization of Central Europe, the historian found that political conformity “was the result not of violence or direct coercion by the state, but of intense peer pressure.” Publishing, an industry in which a third of people call Sophie, seems particularly vulnerable to this pressure.
All of this without the law involved, without the police, or even any apparent threats. Polite people write polite emails and bury books politely. “The sinister fact of English literary censorship,” Orwell wrote, “is that it is largely voluntary.” It was deeply uncomfortable to go against that ominous, amorphous “public feel.” Ms. Barnes found it difficult to write about the Tavistock clinic, not because she thought it was wrong, but because “I thought: ‘People are not going to like me.'” Publishers were equally nervous. In the name of people-pleasing, they panicked and pre-empted: they slaughtered pigs; put down books on colonialism; cut up the dirty parts.
Zhu Bajie’s stuff
The problem with all this nervousness — this desire to look good — is that it can have really bad results. In Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, a society has begun burning all books to avoid offence. As one character explained: “Don’t step on the toes of…second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irish….” Book burning is not mandated by the government. “No motto, no manifesto, no censorship, nothing! Technology…and minority pressure did the trick.” Now the books are gone. Now “thanks to them, you’re always happy.”
By the way, Penguin offers an audiobook of “Fahrenheit 451.” Perhaps its executives could be encouraged to listen before pulling out the red pen. Then again, they might want to edit it, too; after all, Puffin pulled words like “Japanese,” “Norwegian,” and “Yankee-Doodles” from Dahl. Better make sure we can all stay happy all the time. ■
Read more from our UK politics columnist Bagehot:
It’s too easy to run an illegal business in the UK (March 16)
Thatcher, Sunak and the politics of supermarkets (8 March)
How the Tories channeled Millhouse on The Simpsons (March 2)
Also: How the Bagehot column got its name