All the way back in February 2023, the Internet was briefly aflutter with the news that one of the largest publishing corporations in the world had decided to update some of the nastier language found in beloved children's books by noted anti-Semite and general prick Roald Dahl. To some, this was a clear act of "censorship" — of sensitive snowflakes retroactively inventing offenses to classical works, just as they had "done" to Dr. Seuss. To others, this was very clearly a publishing-based PR initiative designed to bring attention (and sales) to a typically-evergreen IP (just as they had done to Dr. Seuss).
I doubt as many pundits will be decrying similar changes made to the work of the acclaimed anarchist feminist sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin. As LeGuin's son and literary executor Theo Downes-LeGuin explained in a recent article for LitHub, the estate is preparing to publish new editions of her Catwings book series, and was faced with a predicament of exactly 4 words that occur exactly 7 times across 3 books: "lame," "queer," "dumb," and "stupid."
This might make some people do a double take. Certainly, those words can't be comparable to Seuss's orientalist caricatures, or Dahl's, well, everything? But they technically all rooted in some sort of marginalization. And as Downes-LeGuin noted, his mother had an established history of updating her own work — for example, changing the default pronouns of the genderfluid aliens in The Left Hand of Darkness from the original universal "he."
After deep breaths, and with Ursula's own revisionism in mind, I contacted a disability rights attorney, a youth literature consultant, a racial educator, and some kids. My advisory group leaned toward change but was not in consensus. I genuinely didn't know what my mother would have decided. But she left me a clue: a note over her desk asking, "Is it true? Is it necessary or at least useful? Is it compassionate or at least unharmful?"
I like to think that truth and compassion are immutable even as the language we use to express them changes. But cultural constructs of harm are mutable; we frequently revise our definition of what's harmful to whom, how it is spoken of, and who gets to do the speaking. My mother's note tipped me toward changing her words. I found substitutes that would retain the original meaning and cadence, and stipulated to the publisher that the new editions would note that the text had been revised.
"Is it true? Is it necessary or at least useful? Is it compassionate or at least unharmful?" I think that's a pretty good guiding principle for language and art in general. And at the very least, a strong argument for righting past mistakes, however unintentional they were. As Downes-LeGuin notes, it's a very, very different circumstance from Dahl.
Why I Decided to Update the Language in Ursula K. Le Guin's Children's Books [Theo Downes-Le Guin / LitHub]