Anthony Horowitz: there will be no more ugly villains in my children’s books

 Anthony Horowitz - Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
Anthony Horowitz - Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
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From the clawed hands of the Wicked Witch of the West to the snakelike nose of Lord Voldemort, literary villains are often marked out by their ugliness.

But Anthony Horowitz has said he no longer creates unsightly villains in his children’s novels in order to “move with the times”.

Speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday, Horowitz suggested the idea that “physicality denotes evil” has become controversial in recent years.

The novelist, who has written more than 50 books, including the hit spy series Alex Rider, said he has made a conscious effort to “move with the times” and make his villains more ordinary looking.

In response to a suggestion by journalist that he has a tendency to make the evil characters in his novels "ugly and disabled and grotesque”, Horowitz said: “It has become, recently, a hot potato, this idea that you use physicality to denote evil, that they are disfigured or whatever.

“And I’m doing it less now because one has to move with the times. The villains in my new book are all perfectly ordinary looking – there’s nothing weird about them.”

Horowitz, also known for his screenwriting on ITV’s Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot, indicated that the next Alex Rider novel could be the last as he doesn’t feel he has the “right” to pen children’s novels as he gets older.

The author, who is 67 and has two grown-up sons, Nicholas and Cassian, with his wife Jill Green, said contention over what is suitable to include in fiction for young people is something which “preys” on his mind.

During the talk, which was held at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, he said: “I’m not saying it’s the last ever but there is an issue for me, and it’s one of age.

“I always say I don’t mind going and talking at a school where the kids see me as something of a father figure, but when they start to see me as more of a grandfather figure that’s a bit dispiriting.

“And I just wonder if I have any right now – if I even understand what young people are thinking and feeling. I don’t have young children in the house any more so it’s very difficult to know their language and to know their thoughts.

“And there are of course issues now with what you can and can’t write about for young people, which also preys on my mind.

“I’m not going to say I’m not going to write anymore books, although this is probably the last Alex Rider, but it is a pause for thought.”

Horowitz’ comments come after The Telegraph revealed that publisher Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company had made hundreds of controversial cuts in the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books, excluding references to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race.

A discreet notice has been added to the copyright page of the most recent versions of Dahl’s books, reading: “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters.

“This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

Puffin faced backlash for the decision including from its European counterparts. Dutch publisher Joris van de Leur criticised the move, suggesting he would stick with the original text.

Speaking about the decision to no longer refer to Augustus Gloop as “fat” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he said: “Exaggerations are a figure of speech with him: if a person is fat, it represents gluttony and excess. Children understand what such literary hyperbole is. They really don’t think all fat kids are greedy.”

Other changes made to references to appearance in Dahl’s books include Miss Trunchbull’s “great horsey face” becoming simply her “face” in Matilda. While the “fat little brown mouse” in The Witches just becomes “little brown mouse”.

Likewise, the line “there was something indecent about a bald woman" is entirely removed in the 2022 version of The Witches.

‘Remain true to your calling’

The Queen Consort also appeared to criticise the changes, urging authors to resist curbs on “freedom of expression” at a Clarence House reception marking the anniversary of her online book club.

She told assembled writers: “Please remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination.”

But Puffin defended its decision, saying it had a “significant responsibility” to protect young readers.

A spokesman for the publishing house told The Bookseller: “Children as young as five or six read Roald Dahl books, and often they are the first stories they will read independently.

“With that comes a significant responsibility, as it might be the first time they are navigating written content without a parent, teacher or carer.

“It is not unusual for publishers to review and update language, as the meaning and impact of words changes over time.”