On Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, and the literature of cruelty
I am a contrarian. I have no firm political principles and no meaningful ethics. There’s a hole in my brain where those things ought to be, slowly filling with a greasy, cloudy-white fluid, and every so often I need to go to the hospital to have it drained. What I do have is a ravenous, zombielike compulsion to say the precise opposite of what everyone else is saying. I will like absolutely any kind of nonsense until it becomes popular, at which point I will savagely turn against it. I will believe in any idea so long as it’s annoying. I can dress this up in fancy arguments, but at base it’s all purely instinctive; it probably has something to do with my childhood. Sometimes people share the things I say online, because they agree with them, and they want other people to agree with them too. Sometimes they choose to disagree instead, and they come up with arguments about why I’m wrong. This is insane behaviour. You might as well decide to start agreeing or disagreeing with a magic 8-ball, or a stopped clock, or the moon.
Because I am a contrarian, I was absolutely delighted to hear that the most recent editions of Roald Dahl’s much-beloved children’s books have been tweaked and trimmed hundreds of times to bring them more into line with contemporary sensibilities. So Matilda now reads Jane Austen instead of Joseph Conrad, and her mother is no longer too exhausted after a day of bingo to cook the family its evening meal. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt no longer ‘wants a good kick in the pants;’ she ‘needs to learn some manners.’ The flea powder in George’s Marvellous Medicine will no longer, if eaten, make your dog explode; instead, the dog will merely ‘hop like a flea.’ The grandmother in The Witches no longer says that ‘you can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves.’ Instead, she helpfully reminds us that ‘there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.’ The Centipede’s songs in James and the Giant Peach have gone from this:
Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat, And tremendously flabby at that. Her tummy and waist Were as soggy as paste— It was worse on the place where she sat! Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire, And dry as a bone, only drier. She was so long and thin If you carried her in You could use her for poking the fire!
Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute, And deserved to be squashed by the fruit! We all felt a big bump When we dropped with a thump. Aunt Spiker was much the same And deserves half of the blame. Ta-ra, Aunt Spiker! (Though we never did like her.)
Read them aloud. Just listen to it, listen to this total metrical car-crash. Who could write something so tineared and graceless? Who could bear to pick through these novels and tweezer out all the nasty bits? Only some ghastly tight-lipped puritan, some functional illiterate with a PhD, some neo-Victorian prude who wouldn’t know a creative spark if it ignited her inevitable shock of fluorescent-green hair, some entire consultancy of these miserable meagre creatures, a hive of do-gooders with their minds like leafcutter ants, nibbling away, rounding off the edges, teeming over everything, teeming over fifty centuries of written history to mulch down everything that won’t fit in our smooth plasticky present, like maggots, like maggots in an open wound, until at long last we’re abandoned to a future where everything is nice and gentle and dull, where there’s nothing to chew on, nothing to grapple with, nothing that might harm or horrify, just medicinal doses of kindness and empathy, universal therapy, universal wellness, showing up and being present and making space, until we’re all utterly miserable in our grey stodge of worthiness, lacking even the proper language with which to express our despair, because any appropriate speech would be too unseemly, too violent, too cruel for the cloying doctrines of comfort and care, too cruel for this parasitic fungus-network of consultancies and campaign groups sprouting its pale wet caps on the dead boughs of human culture, too cruel for this fainting hysterical philistine with brightly coloured hair and probably weird eyebrows too who wants to make the dog jump like a flea instead of explode. And since I’m a contrarian, this is fantastic news. I get to heroically oppose these maggoty little deeds. I can write a nice viperous denunciation against the whole thing, full of spleen and bile and exactly like the one you’ve just read: another job well done.
But because being a contrarian is the most important job in the world, it comes with responsibilities. Probably the best ethics of contrarianism is Nietzsche’s: ‘I attack only causes that are victorious. I attack causes only when there are no allies to be found, when I am standing alone—when I am compromising myself alone.’ Standing alone! Compromising yourself alone! Serious stuff. Sadly, very few of my fellow contrarians have lived up to this ideal. In my own grotty little country, there are large numbers of public contrarians who like to announce that they’re about to shock and disturb received opinion with their terrible insights, and then immediately start echoing the positions of the political party that’s been in government for the last decade. This is not quite the same thing. I understand that it’s difficult to come up with searing dangerous wisdom in thousand-word increments three times a week, which is why most of our print contrarians default to rote automatic wokeness or rote automatic anti-wokeness. It’s a handy shortcut. Your readers will always know exactly what they’re in for. But perhaps if you don’t have the stomach for this game, you should find another job.
Or maybe it’s become difficult to tell which causes really are victorious. A lot of brave writers like to talk about what society believes. Society believes that men’s suffering is more important than women’s, or that women’s suffering is more important than men’s. Society promotes harmful diet culture through images of unattainable beauty, or tries to convince us that damaged bodies are actually desirable so it can keep flogging us shitty mass-produced food. Society tells you that anything you do for your own enjoyment is a waste of time when you could be engaged in productive work, or it blasts you in the face with thousands of hours of worthless entertainment. In either case, our contrarians can come up with some social media posts from their enemies, vaguely standing in for the general atitudes of society at large: see, I’m the only one standing up against the tyranny of these idiots. The problem, I think, is that our society is broadly shaped by a complex network of relations that’s still vaguely identifiable as capitalism, and capitalism is a big heaving protean mass primarily composed of its own contradictions, and which instead of upholding one side or another of any given binary tends instead to produce the entire terrain in which the opposition itself is grounded. This is an annoying state of affairs. Maybe something ought to be done.
But every so often, all the forces really do seem to be arrayed on one side, and the Roald Dahl censorship debacle is one of them. Everyone hates this thing. Readers hate it. Parents hate it. The right-wing press hates it. The left-wing press hates it. Salman Rushdie hates it. The Prime Minister hates it. I hate it too. We all agree that trying to make Dahl nice is the most absurd project imaginable; that the nasty streak running through his work can’t be safely snipped out because it’s what holds the whole thing together. In fact, I could only find one solitary essay in which someone tried to actually defend this decision, which came from the Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff. To loudly inveigh against the Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff is not exactly sporting. So because I am a contrarian, I will do what nobody else will. I will argue that everyone who is so aghast at these changes, from the PM down, is actually wrong. Their blank consensus, their ideological insistence that a fictional dog must explode. This stuff should be celebrated! We’re making great, incredible strides! Do more! Bowdlerise the whole lot, every old book we can get our hands on! But especially Dahl—because sanitising his books isn’t any kind of betrayal. It’s perfect fidelity to the spirit of his work.