Editing of classics: We live in irrational times!

It is the privilege of every new generation to judge ones that came before

So Agatha Christie’s books will no longer contain descriptions familiar to her regular readers like ‘the flash of lovely white teeth in a dark, Caribbean face’, a ‘big-nosed financier from the city’, a ‘vivid, sunburnt gypsy’, a ‘black marble torso’, an ‘Indian temper’ or the words ‘oriental’ and ‘natives.’ This, because her editors have hired sensitivity readers to remove words that could be considered offensive to today’s audiences.(Doing this in an era when social media comment threads are full-throttle venomous and pornography is at an all-time high is especially disingenuous.)Similar revisions have been made to the works of Roald Dahl, whose books for children no longer contain ‘triggering’ words like ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories have gone under the knife too, and while descriptions of men ‘grunting like pigs in a trough’ at a striptease club have been removed, clearly problematic phrases like lovemaking that carries ‘the sweet tang of rape’ have been retained. Some publishers are dealing with the issue by putting disclaimers at the beginning of their books which say, “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.” One would assume that this is obvious—because if a book carries the words ‘first printed in 1953’ (Fleming) first printed in 1920 (Christie) or first printed in 1942 (Dahl)—then the rational reader will be able to work out—all by himself or herself—that the writer was clearly not writing for today’s super woke generation. But clearly we live in irrational times.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Revisions of best-selling classics by sensitivity readers seem cynical on the one hand (intellectual property rights are too high-value to junk, so let’s just do a quickie, insincere revision to appease the woke brigade) and acts of vandalism on the other (like say, painting everybody in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper ten shades darker to more correctly portray people of Middle Eastern origin.)For me, escaping into the world of writers like Christie is the loveliest form of time-travel. I get to lose myself in the world as it was then—the newly post-war era, with no cellphones or internet or CCTV footage—when sleuthing and detection was all up to Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ and Miss Marple’s ‘knowledge of human nature’. I want to embrace it, warts and all, with its gaze, its prejudices, and author’s voice intact.

Anything less is unauthentic and dishonest and for a new, young reader, vastly confusing. Because why do we want the young reader to not know how prejudiced people were back then, and how far they have travelled since? Should we simply stop talking about the genocides, crusades and discriminations we’ve had in the past because unloading all that onto the new generation will put ideas into their pure, unsullied heads? Where does that sort of civilisational scrubbing even end? And aren’t people who don’t know history condemned to repeat it? See, it is always interesting to consume works of literature or art or film a few decades after they first come out.

The casual sexism and objectification of Hindi movie lyrics from the 1990s (tu cheez badi hai mast-mast) and even later seems cringe-worthy in the post me-too era, but some songs from the 1950s still hold up to even the strictest, wonkiest scrutiny and are correctly called classics (aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai.) It is the privilege of every new generation to judge the ones that came before. And the duty of the oldies to face that scrutiny without flinching about with ‘sensitivity edits.’ That is how we all grow and get better.