OPINION - This sinister censorship agenda in the publishing world should trouble us all

Instead of bad Bond, we get 21st century Bond. Whaddya know? He’s rubbish (MGM)
Instead of bad Bond, we get 21st century Bond. Whaddya know? He’s rubbish (MGM)

Hard on the heels of the news that Ian Fleming’s publishers have “edited” its new edition of the James Bond novels to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Casino Royale (a cracker) to omit some non-current references to race, there arrives a new version of James Bond. On His Majesty’s Secret Service, by Charlie Higson, is Bond as a sensitivity reader might have created him.

As The Spectator reviewer observed, “our hero has somehow become the modern age in arms, a Centrist Dad with a sidearm.” Instead of bad Bond, we get 21st century Bond. Whaddya know? He’s rubbish.

The problem with the censorship of contemporary publishing is twofold: one is that it happens upstream, at the commissioning, writing stage of a book.

The other is that when it comes to the censorship of existing authors, it’s like additives in foodstuffs; you have to read the small print to find it’s there. So, with the edited Bond, you have to be bothered to read the publisher’s note that “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace”. If you’re buying it on Amazon, what chance that you’ll know that you’re getting an expurgated version? What you actually need is a big fat sticker on the front saying: CENSORED.

Some of the censorship is down squarely to cowardly publishers who cancel books lest they offend someone

It’s the same with the rewrite of the Roald Dahl books by Puffin, which would have gone unnoticed were it not for an eagle-eyed journalist. The censored edition is now the standard edition; if you want the unexpurgated original, you buy the “classic” version. The censorship of Dahl — to remove disobliging references to Miss Trunchbull’s horseface etc — was after the works were sold to Netflix. The Dahl estate used an organisation called Inclusive Minds, a consultancy “for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature”. It identifies problem elements in existing work — including The Beano — and advises publishers on inclusivity.

Sir Quentin Blake, Dahl’s illustrator, told me bluntly: “If the work is wrong, it’s wrong. If it’s crude and insensitive, we need to know that… If the sensitive had their way, [Dahl] would never have written The Twits at all.” Well, quite.

Not long ago, I spoke to the boss of a children’s imprint about this. She said she didn’t use sensitivity readers but had responded to the agenda: she steered authors towards inclusivity at the outset. The agenda is internalised, pre-emptive.

Some of the censorship is down squarely to cowardly publishers, like Bloomsbury, when they cancelled a book about the British Empire by an academic called Nigel Biggar, lest it offend someone, somewhere. Hachette’s own staff managed to get Woody Allen’s memoir cancelled. It’s poignant when you read the new biography of George Weidenfeld, The Maverick, he who had the text of Lolita ready to publish just as soon as a new law allowing obscenity for arty purposes passed. He was a real publisher.

Much of the fuss about censorship now is to do with efforts by conservative legislators in US states to keep stuff on gender etc out of school libraries. Salman Rushdie was critical of the US conservative agenda but what are the chances that The Satanic Verses would be published today? Nil, because of an “epidemic of self-censorship”, according to that excellent writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

And that’s before you get to the whole question of whether authors can now — like actors — create or interpret characters unlike them. Consider the row about American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings: the subject is Mexican migrants; she is white. But that’s fiction: the imagination at work, outside boundaries of race and sex and place.

It’s usual at this point to tell those who dislike non-progressive authors to write something better. Except Charlie Higson has tried, and failed.

Melanie McDonagh is a columnist