On Posthumous Editing: Should Books be Edited for Contemporary Audiences?

From Book Riot:

What do you remember best about your favorite childhood book? Is it the setting, the characters, the descriptions of food? For me, it’s always the way it made me feel. Usually, the feeling was “less alone,” “hopeful,” or “indignantly determined.” Reading a classic book with decades of history behind it was exciting to me to see why the book was so famous and what made it appealing to different generations. Was I having the same reaction to a book as generations of other readers? What about the past was different, and what was the same? Currently, there’s a bit of a trend of posthumous editing of classic fiction to update the works to be more appealing to contemporary audiences.

I say “trend” because it has recently occurred with the blessing of four major author estates. Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Agatha Christie. In the case of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl, the edits are argued to be necessary for sensitivity purposes. They’re for kids, and kids shouldn’t have to be exposed to the bigoted beliefs of the authors whose books are ostensibly giving kids lessons about morality. Fleming, Le Guin, and Christie are titans of genre fiction, and their respective estates likely rely on regular sales, in addition to movie and television option agreements and royalties.

The edits have caused a variety of reactions, from The Washington Post’s editorial board railing against the “threat to free expression” to The New York Times’s more measured take, to arguments to leave authors like Roald Dahl in the past. Since this trend seems to be getting integrated into the processes of managing author estates and new printings of classic works, we should look at the argument from all sides and understand what this means for the future of publishing and readers in general.

. . . .

Dr. Seuss’s estate announced last year that six of his poorly-selling titles with dated content would no longer be in print. By contrast, Dahl’s estate removed some unfriendly words: “Classics by Roald Dahl have been stripped of adjectives like ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ along with references to characters’ gender and skin color.” Ursula K. Le Guin’s son Theo, who manages her work, allowed editors to remove ableist words like “lame” and “dumb” from her Catwings series.

For Fleming and Christie, the estates have decided to cut racial slurs and outdated language from the books. Mystery and spy thrillers are generally meant for cozy reading, and coming across a slur or one of Fleming’s more colorful descriptions of a female body could be disruptive. It’s argued to be for the readers so they can continue to experience the joy of these stories without the baggage of past prejudices. But it’s also for the continued relevance of the brand.

. . . .

The biggest argument in favor of posthumous editing is for contemporary readers to continue to connect to stories that have delighted readers for generations, without the jarring language that will take you out of the story. However, it’s hard to argue that continued profits are not a major incentive as well. The Dahl estate especially has to scramble to stay relevant. The updated movie version of The Witches does not feature the hooked noses of the original movie adaptation and book. I’m sure the Wonka movie with Timothée Chalamet will include some tepid justification for the indentured servitude of the Oompa Loompas.

The Washington Post’s editors argue vehemently against the practice of editing and ask instead for editors “to surround original works with context, in the form of critical introductions as well as annotations in new editions, wherever possible. It’s urgent to explain, in introductions and scholarly comments, why certain words are harmful; about a given author’s personal biases and politics; and how each shaped their view of the world.”

. . . .

For Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie, it’s a little more complicated. Annotations would be a good opportunity for readers of those books to learn more about the cultural conditions around their writing. But the characters of their books are tied to ongoing media brands: James Bond movies, and Kenneth Branagh’s quest to make boring Agatha Christie movies for the rest of his career. The Bond brand extends to the books. If someone comes to Bond through the contemporary films, the books will probably feel dissonant. It’s all about brand integration.

For an author like Agatha Christie, edits to racist language feel important to preserve the cozy mystery experience of reading the novel. The idea is to make the books accessible and sensitive to all readers, as opposed to just white ones. The counterpoint is that there are plenty of authors of color working in the mystery genre today, even writing in the historical English countryside mystery genre. Christie is a starting point of inspiration to a vast genre, so it is not a discredit to her legacy to point out that her work is specific to the first half of the 20th century and its cultural context.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG suggests that leaving the books in their original form is the best practice. If some souls are too sensitive to understand that people of earlier times expressed themselves in different ways because those types of expressions were the standards of their eras, PG suspects the problems are with the overly sensitive instead of the books.

Words have consequences, but readers of reasonable intelligence can deal with outdated standards of expression. Shakespeare used terms offensive to 21st Century eyes and ears and PG suspects it doesn’t hurt anyone to understand those terms in their historic contexts.

All spoken languages change over time and changes in spoken language tend to show up in written language. PG can easily envision a future in which current politically-correct terms and formulations are regarded as stupid and, among intelligent and well-bred individuals are generally recognized as inappropriate ways of speaking.

If this is really a problem, PG predicts there will never be any lasting fixes.

25 thoughts on “On Posthumous Editing: Should Books be Edited for Contemporary Audiences?”

  1. When “posthumous editing” is being performed to satisfy the prejudices of a fearful or arrogant child-editor, it is censorship, pure and simple.

  2. The problem with “posthumous editing” is that it’s generally being done to “enhance marketability,” not to correct misstatements in ways that are otherwise consistent with the author’s intentions. There’s a “who owns the text?” issue lurking in there being avoided by just about everyone. For example, compare the wretched class bigotry underlying just about every aspect of Christie’s life and writings to later revisionism, to Le Guin’s own, later-in-life, repeated regrets for misuse of common-at-the-time language devices.

    In the case of Roald Dahl, the descendants are trying to distract attention from the fact that on his good days, Dahl was a complete jerk. (And he didn’t have very many good days.) I suppose it could be worse; it could be Stephen Joyce…

  3. No. It should be understood when you read books from another place or time, you are getting a window into that place or time. If you don’t like what you see, close the book and move on. Everything does not have to cater to one’s own sensibilities.

      • Excellent clip. I used to wonder about people living in the era of actual Nazis. How so many people just kept their heads down and went along. Why didn’t they “do” anything? From the perspective of hindsight it just seemed remarkable.

        But then I saw how people kowtowed to cancel culture. How my governor treated citizens during the Covid lockdowns, and other assorted happenings since. I no longer have questions. And Maher is correct, that things one thinks and does in the present age will come to be considered “wrong” in the next age. I can think of a few outrages that will be recognized as such “twenty minutes in the future” (as TV tropes classifies it).

        Temporal bigotry (to borrow another term) invites Nemesis. The censors need to learn humility.

        • I’d heard it labelled as presentism and “temporal chauvinism” but temporal *bigotry* more accurately reflects the ignorance of the bowdlerizers.

          Those that today pretend to condemn the dead and buried will in turn be condemned themselves in future times and not necessarily after *they* are dead and buried. Quite a few activist-promoted postures stand to be condemned fairly soon as they depend on unquestioned acceptance of irrationalities that are even today transparently exposed.

          This fad will not last.

  4. This is nothing new. A Hardy Boys book sold today is different from the same title in its original form. It is worth contemplating why people don’t get huffy over this.

    • I don’t know about the Hardy Boys (I thought the original blue-spined hardcovers were mind-numbingly dull). But I do know their sister-in-the-syndicate Nancy Drew. I can tell you why I don’t get huffy about the changes made from the 30s to the 50s.

      1: It was done by the Stratemeyer Syndicate themselves. Writing Nancy was a work-for-hire, so it’s not the same to me that it would be if Carolyn Keene were real and her words were changed. I know the original ghostwriter Mildred Wirt was partial to her own version, and I don’t object to that.

      2: Second, they made their changes “real time,” so I suppose the idea that she might undergo changes was baked in. What I mean is, if you read the original versions of the first four [yellow-spined hardcover] books you’ll notice a few differences: 1) Nancy is blonde, rather than sporting her classic titian-haired look, 2) She drives a maroon roadster instead of a blue convertible, and 3) she doesn’t have her besties Bess and George, who are staples of the series. The trio basically had a Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic going on, but Nancy initially flies solo.

      Also, I know that on the book covers they often had her half hidden, to avoid worries about changing hemlines: lower, higher; they didn’t want her to seem “dated.” So that’s why some covers have her hiding behind a tree.

      3. The creators (and so in this sense, the authors) were the ones who thought she should be updated. In some versions from the 30s she does come across as snobby; I remember looking askance at her when she regretted keeping some kid in the room above the garage at her house. She may or may not have assigned him to do chores with her maid, Hannah. I think it turned out he was a long lost prince from India or thereabouts.

      “We covered this in Sunday school, Nancy: you should have treated your guest like a prince right from the start!” (said my third-grade self)

      Note who made the changes: the creators. The owners are the ones who changed Nancy. Not random neurotics who wanted to impose their own vision. If a living Ursula LeGuin wanted to change her own work, *shrug.* But she’s dead now, and I don’t think other people should get to change her work to their specifications to suit their view of how she “should” have written her own stories.

      • Exactly.

        There is a difference between collective, corporate productions, and a single author’s expression. The former are *expected* to change with the times to appeal to the lowest common denominator but the latter are expected to remain fixed as expresions of the author and their times.

        Posthoumous editing is cynical and disrespectful of everybody; disrespectful of the author’s vision and expression *and* of the audience, pretending they are incapable of accepting that other societies, other cultures, other times saw the world differently.

        It is just cynical money-grubbing.

  5. It’s interesting how authors will change their own characters to keep current. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosh was initially a tunnel rat in Viet Nam. Then he switched to being in the Gulf War II. Quite a leap.

  6. Here’s another angle on “modernizing” tales:


    ‘Ware the salty language.

    TL:DR – No matter how far they goin “modernizing” the narratives, the “sensitives” will never be satisfied, will always find reason to be offended, and won’t buy the product anyway.

    The latter is documented by the string of big budget losing movies coming out of Disney and others. 7 in the last year. And I’m getting the classic “bad feeling” about this week’s new arrival. The final tally might hit ten figures.

    (Meanwhile, the low budget glorified TV movie drama SOUND OF FREEDOM rolls merrily along to its 600% plus profit box office with no end in sight.)

    • I was never curious before: But now I know what it sounds like when a Scottish person is speaking German 🙂

      But in all seriousness, he is correct. The modernizers are either basket cases or outright malicious, but either way they are not satiated; they will always move on to the next target.

      There’s an old short sci-fi story the name of which I can’t remember. In it the owner of a boarding house has a guest who carries a typewriter and typing paper billed as “non-pareil, the writer’s friend.” That was the part that made me think the guest was a writer.

      But. The innkeeper liked to spy on his guests, so while hiding in her closet he witnessed her committing a macabre ritual: she takes a skin suit out of her suitcase and blows into its mouth, until it’s fully inflated. What appeared to be a human woman was really just a skin suit, and the previous version is now empty. However, the new skin suit is identical to the first.

      The creature keeps up this ritual, until one day, the innkeeper steals the empty suit and hides in her closet to see what would happen next. Turns out she didn’t have a plan B, and dies in a hysterical fit when she can’t find her skin suit.

      The modern writers of Hollywood made me think of that creature. They go to one property, fill up the skin suit, wreck that property, then discard the first skin suit and put on another. And on and on, until assorted IPs, franchises, storylines, etc. are ruined. Perhaps we have come to the part where they have run out of fresh skin suits and now must explode. So to speak.

      On a lighter note, it is my hope that other, better storytellers will step into the breach. I hear the Sound of Freedom is great, but I hope it heralds the coming of more independent movie makers stepping up to fill the gaping void left by those empty suits masquerading as storytellers.

      • Angel Studios is a new studio focused on conservative/religious narratives. Their ID is built around being not-Hollywood. Sound of Freedom is putting them in the crosshairs of the Hollywood establishment:


        Sound of Freedom is its second movie but they also had great success with THE CHOSEN, a video streaming project, free for streaming online but recently licensed by the CW’s new owners for broadcasting. Three seasons with a fourth coming.

        They have Youtube trailers out for two more movies: CABRINI and THE SHIFT. The latter looks interesting in a fantasy vein. They feature some very familiar (and good) actors who are nearly unemployable for being openly religious.

        We may be looking at an emerging Foxnews-style counterprogramming exercise so they’re worth keeping an eye on. They may be the next Blumhouse, making good money in a no-risk niche.

        • Angel Studios! Yes, I saw the season premiere of the Chosen in theaters last year. The studio just looked like a lone wolf in the wilderness, and I’m hoping for a pack. So to speak. I’m optimistic.

          • Was CHOSEN watchable?
            I’m not much for in-your-face proseletizing movies but I caught a couple of “kinder gentler” family movies with my mother on Hallmark. She might enjoy CHOSEN.

          • Replying here for indentation purposes:

            It was better than I thought it would be. They gave convincing origin stories for the assorted disciples. Matthew being a tax collector is accounted for on the grounds that he’s clearly autistic (people repeatedly remark on him being “off”) and is therefore alienated from the start. Circumstances throw him together with a centurion who I suspect will turn out to be the Cornelius from the Book of Acts (he’s mostly known as Gaius at the moment).

            Peter is as abrasive and snarky as you’d suppose he’d be (he refers to John the Baptist as “Creepy John”). His wife is as cool as I thought she would have to be. “So you started with honesty this time. Let’s continue with that …”

            Peter has a beef with Matthew because those taxes were oppressive. In his origin story Peter cooks up a scheme to evade the Roman tax collectors, but Matthew cottons to it and rats him out. So Peter mocks and insults him until Philip joins up and tells him to cut it out.

            Even the more obscure apostles get introductions: Simon the Zealot is a spy skilled in hand-to-hand combat. He’s part of an order of radicals, and his origin ties into a connection to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda. The other disciples call him Zee to simplify things (since Peter is still Simon at this point). A Roman “cop” (one of the cohortes urbanae) keeps tailing him.

            You’ll recognize the actor who plays Nicodemus, he’s Erick Avari. When he’s introduced he’s trying to exorcize Mary Magdalene, but her demons send him fleeing. He’s one of the Sanhedrin, and starts investigating Jesus because he later encounters M.M. when she’s in her right mind, and he’s shocked and intrigued.

            Initially I had trouble sorting out who was who (some characters look awfully similar to me), and occasionally I’m jarred by a misstep in worldbuilding (they’ll say phrases that sound modern, among other things).

            TLDR; if your mother doesn’t mind a historical fiction / soap opera approach to the gospels, she might like the series.

            • *I* might like it.

              Are you familiar with Robert Gtaves’ HERCULES MY SHIPMATE and HOMER’S DAUGHTER? He presented a plausible “realistic” version of the argonautica and the origin of the odyssey.


              He also did KING JESUS in a similar vein. He is probably best known for I, CLAUDIUS and THE GREEK MYTHS. Good reads all.

              THE CHOSEN sounds like a similar exercise. I’ll look into it. Givenwhat is going on in Hollywood, the CW lucked out.


              • That Argonaut book is definitely for me 🙂 Robert Graves kicked off my love of mythology with “Greek Gods and Heroes” way back in the fourth grade. I didn’t know about these other books, but they’re on my list now.

                • I first read HERCULES, MY SHIPMATE my first semester in college when I scoured the library cardfile for intriguing books. By title or author. The nearby USAF base had donated a couple hundred classic hardcovers and I got a complete SF&F education right there. I spent years digging up copies of most.

                  And in the process I found more by the same authors. Still do from time to time.

                  On Graves, I usually recommend HOMER’S DAUGHTER. Shorter and more accessible but a fine introduction to his style.

      • The skinsuit story rings a bell. I think it was something by Sturgeon, or maybe Damon Knight.

        • I had thought it might have been in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1 anthology with Knight’s “Country of the Kind,” and Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman,” along with Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother” and Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.”

          But none of the descriptions at Wikipedia match that story so I’m stumped. I read it as a photocopy hand-out in Phyllis Eisenstein’s sci-fi class in college, along with the above-mentioned stories. She introduced us to some marvelous works. May she rest in peace.

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