Monday, March 27, 2023

Censoring Christie

First, it was Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers. Now the Queen of Crime’s famous fiction is being bowdlerized in order to comport with “contemporary values.” As Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reports, “Agatha Christie novels have been rewritten for modern sensitivities ... Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries have had original passages reworked or removed in new editions published by HarperCollins.”

The paper spells out a variety of alterations made:
The author’s own narration, often through the inner monologue of Miss Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, has been altered in many instances. Sections of dialogue uttered by often unsympathetic characters within the mysteries have also been cut.

In the 1937 Poirot novel
Death on the Nile, the character of Mrs. Allerton complains that a group of children are pestering her, saying that “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.”

This has been stripped down in a new edition to state: “They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children”.

Vocabulary has also been altered, with the term “Oriental” removed. Other descriptions have been altered in some instances, with a black servant, originally described as grinning as he understands the need to stay silent about an incident, described as neither black nor smiling but simply as “nodding”.

In a new edition of the 1964 Miss Marple novel
A Caribbean Mystery, the amateur detective’s musing that a West Indian hotel worker smiling at her has “such lovely white teeth” has been removed, with similar references to “beautiful teeth” also taken out.

The same book described a prominent female character as having “a torso of black marble such as a sculptor would have enjoyed”, a description absent from the edited version.

References to the Nubian people—an ethnic group that has lived in Egypt for millennia—have been removed from
Death on the Nile in many instances, resulting in “the Nubian boatman” becoming simply “the boatman”.

Dialogue in Christie’s 1920 debut novel
The Mysterious Affair at Styles has been altered, so where Poirot once noted that another character is “a Jew, of course”, he now makes no such comment.

In the same book, a young woman described as being “of gypsy type” is now simply “a young woman”, and other references to gypsies have been removed from the text.
The Telegraph says some of these new, expurgated HarperCollins editions of Christie’s mysteries have already been released, with more to come. The publisher apparently employed “sensitivity readers” to determine what might shock or offend other modern consumers.

All of this is patently ridiculous! Trying to sanitize or dumb down older crime and mystery novels (or any fiction, for that matter) presupposes that modern readers are stupid, that we don’t recognize how terminology and tastes have evolved over the centuries, and that we’re liable to faint or fume, or else be confused by, the presence of outdated slang and comments that would now be deemed belittling. These actions by HarperCollins suggest that it’s listening not to common book buyers, but to a segment of intolerant, over-thinking pearl-clutchers who simply can’t imagine that readers might be able to judge the material before them with discerning and critical eyes. Furthermore, stripping allusions to intolerant attitudes from older works is an attempt to rewrite history, to make people believe those attitudes never existed. And if we forget they existed, we may drop our guard against their foul revival in the future.

Older crime fiction should be read and appreciated as reflecting social tastes and mores that may sometimes be at odds with our own. There’s no need for publishers to try and protect us from our past!


Gram said...

I'm happy that I have some of the older books and don't have to read this "stuff"

Anonymous said...

This is as bad as book banning — both are censorship — and must be halted. Libraries and bookstores should refuse to carry these vandalized editions.

Todd Mason said...

I'd countersuggest they are mostly listening to the Mammon-bot in their withered hearts. No one "clutching pearls" all that hard is going to turn to Christie for cultural critique nor sensitivity to much of anything...the class snobbishness alone, albeit her use of Poirot to mock her fellow Brits can be some latter-day fun, when apparently he wasn't (silently?) baiting Jews (haven't come across that yet, but haven't ever read her Poirot novels yet, either). Are you going to kick against the retitling of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, as well?

And as with most of the other Bowdlerizations of in-copyright writers (and Twain), look to see both Sensitivity Editions and Whatever Got Past the Editors Back When editions side by side in new sales offers, for as much saturation as possible.

HonoluLou said...

What the hell, why don't they only allow everyone to read "cozies" in the mystery genre! (not that I don't love them, also :). This is quite ridiculous as true crime that you read--or view--in the news is usually more gruesome (Jeffrey Dahmer--yum, yum eat'em up, Jim Jones--909 dead by cyanide poisoning, and John Wayne Gacy--AKA The Killer Clown who'd stuffed 33 bodies underneath the crawl space at his Chi-town home.) Or the antisemitic shooting at synagogues, attacks on Asians or just now the catholic school shooting. Close their eyes and cover their ears against the most dangerous of all animal they should fear most on this planet. And then watch them make that fatal mistake of not trusting their instincts when they should have, because they didn't read the Grimms brothers stories or watch Frankenstein and the Wolfman. Sheesh.

E. Ellis said...

I wonder what is going to put a stop to this madness? I do know what needs to be done is for the most visible of authors to step forward and speak out loudly and harshly to put a stop to this idiocy.

Oddly, I noticed something similar to this a few years back with writers like Michael Connelly using dashes to spell out words deemed offensive in their novels.

Anonymous said...

Yippee!! and congratulations. did you think the PC crowd wouldn't reach books??

You get what you play for and what the world has been and continues to play for is stuff like this.

Congratulations again. You know who you are.

John said...

Presentism is a blight on the planet. The arrogance!

E. Ellis said...

On a lighter note, did everyone see some jokester created and spread on Twitter an April Fool's joke of an article from The Guardian stating sensitivity readers were going to remove all objectionable content from the writings of James Ellroy?

It looked real and it got a bunch of people going.