Some years ago, I wrote a play called “Man With Wings” that received a full production at Studio Roanoke, a former playhouse in downtown Roanoke.
Without going into too much detail, the play ends with one of the two characters discovering that a supernatural mystery he’s devoted his life to solving was based on a lie. Overcome with the enormity of the situation, he jumps out a window to his death.
After one of the showings, a well-intentioned woman approached me. She told me that she really liked the play, but she had a suggestion: I should change the ending.
It would be so much better, she explained at great length, if rather than killing himself, the character announced that he was going to go back to the drawing board. This sure was a setback for him, but gosh darn it, tomorrow’s another day!
I listened to all of this very politely with a level of patience I no longer possess, but I was fuming. I get it; suicide is an upsetting thing, and her proposed ending, while terrible, was much nicer. But it wasn’t the point of the piece, and it would have betrayed the message I intended to convey when I wrote the thing.
I thought about that well-intentioned lady while I was reading a news article recently.
According to Telegraph, HarperCollins has employed the services of “sensitivity readers” to create new edited and sanitized versions of Agatha Christie’s beloved mystery novels about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
A lot of these edits are to remove racial slurs and outdated terminology, but it doesn’t stop there.
For example, in the original version of “Death on the Nile,” a character complains that a group of children are pestering her: “They come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children.” The new version simply reads, ““They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.”
Great work, sensitivity readers; what was once an amusing line that tells us a lot about a character has been flattened out and sterilized, making it interesting and useful to no one.
Agatha Christie isn’t the only author whose work has received this treatment. Puffin Books recently made the news for sanitizing the works of Roald Dahl, removing words like “ugly,” “crazy,” and “fat” from his books in addition to any potentially racist terminology. And Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., which owns the rights to Fleming’s James Bond novels, has also run them through the sensitivity gauntlet to make sure no one gets offended while reading a book about a guy who travels the world sleeping around and murdering people.
Let me go on record as saying that I think having “sensitivity readers” sanitize literature is a massive mistake, and if I ever met someone who said that they make their living by being a “sensitivity reader,” I would have to summon a lot of willpower to keep from slapping them.
“But Ben!” you may say, “it wasn’t that long ago that you wrote a column about how the outrage over Dr. Suess getting cancelled was stupid and overblown!”
That situation was very different from this one. In the case of Dr. Seuss, nothing was edited; a handful of his least popular books that contained some racist writing and imagery were allowed to lapse out of print. They’re still out there in their original forms, you just can’t buy a new copy.
But what’s happening with the works of Christie, Fleming, and Dahl is something else entirely, and it’s betraying these authors’ original intent. As a writer, the idea of someone altering my words after I’m too dead to speak up about it is horrifying.
Clearly, I’m not saying that the racist, offensive content in these books is a great thing that should be celebrated. It’s not.
I’m reminded, however, of a brilliant warning that Warner Bros. began putting in front of some of their more offensive cartoons from the ‘30s and ‘40s. It reads:
“These animated shorts are products of their time. Some of them may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these animated shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
And there’s the rub. Even aside from the question of authorial intent, removing everything controversial from these books is tantamount to claiming that racism didn’t exist during the eras when these books were written.
I understand the progressive impulse to clean these books up for a modern audience. I understand the urge to scrub the more unpleasant elements of our shared history.
But rewriting a novel to make it seem as though racism never existed isn’t all that different from banning discussions of race in Florida schools, and both conclusions are wrong no matter what path you took to arrive at them.