The French novelist Eric Chevillard once wrote: “Literature, more than the zoo, makes it its mission to be a conservatory of animal life…”
When I read that quote in the London Review of Books, the quote and the author were new to me, I didn’t at first understand it; Chevillard, one of the ‘most inventive writers working today’ was referring to literature conserving the names of animals. However, I was drawn to a connection between the words ‘literature’ and ‘zoo’ although it wasn’t clear to me what it was.
(This post is an example of writing something down in order to know what I think.)
That connection became relevant with the following rephrasing, considering the recent brouhaha about changing past writer’s work as in the re-editing of the works for children of Roald Dahl:
“Literature, more than the zoo, makes its mission to be a conservatory of …” its own evolution.
Just like a zoo can conserve species and show us the workings of evolution, so too can literature do the same thing with language.
We may think now that calling a short round woman, even affectionately, a Tallow Ball – or to be more contemporary, Butterball, as in Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) – is misogynistic but literature in order to get to where we are now needed to say that then.
We can only understand the nuance of language we use by knowing how that language has changed over time, and it does; it always does.
Re-editing the work of literature’s past writers because the language they used is now thought of as ‘bad’ is like erasing history just because it isn’t now considered nice or convenient. That’s what autocratic rulers do.
If we are worried about children getting hold of ‘bad’ books, being exposed to misogynistic ideas, there are always guides to help them through: parents and carers.
This issue seems to have faded from public view, and rightly so.
Changing past writer’s work is wrong.