Live and Let Live: Re-writing Books for a Bias-Free Future

The last couple of weeks has seen two loved and deceased authors in the news subject to having their back catalogue rewritten to suit an audience of the future. 

Ian Fleming, the writer of twelve James Bond novels as well as collections of short stories, has become the latest globally acclaimed author to have his texts re-worked. 

Fleming died in 1966 having written his books in a different era. Some of his depictions of black people in the Bond stories were discriminatory to the point that even the newspapers reporting on the story this week did not write the terms fully, opting to blank them out instead, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. 

Whilst many sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and racist terms remain, some have been removed or re-written – with mixed opinion.  

The news followed recent articles covering the edits of Roald Dahl’s books which updated several descriptions, job titles of women and terms of reference. 

Women in Dahl’s books who were cashiers and ‘letter-writers for businessmen’ will now be scientists, and business leaders in their own right.  

Enid Blyton and Dr Suess books have also been subject to edits and discontinuation within the last year or two, and these edits always come with negative and positive reactions. 

Perhaps the resistance is unsurprising, as the love of a book is very personal, especially when the books were enjoyed by some as a child, or in their formative years, and remembered fondly. 

Toys and games have seen similar overhauls in an attempt by pressured manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel to root out bias and create more inclusive versions suited to a more diverse customer base. 

Many noticed a sudden change in a Telegraph headline this week reporting on new LEGO characters.

The Telegraph released an online story headed with, “LEGO goes ‘woke’ as new figures released with Downs Syndrome and missing limbs”, and then quickly changed it to the more informative “LEGO releases new figures with Downs Syndrome and missing limbs.”

Of course, the original headline and the amendment was noticed by many, and the comments which followed were a wide mix of support for the change, anger at the original headline, and comments about the new additions to the LEGO range. 

Why shouldn’t toys, clothes and books represent all of society? 

As a female writer, despite adoring Blyton’s Secret Seven books as a younger girl, I remember often feeling frustrated when the two girls were always left behind when the going got tough. 

Pam and Barbara were regularly subjected to eye-rolls from the boys for being ‘soft’ or ‘over emotional’, and told to stay at home when their brothers dictated that the mission was ‘too dangerous for girls’.

I remember feeling conflicted by this when I was reading into the next chapters, like an imposter. The boys had demanded that the girls stay behind, and yet here I was, with them, in their rubber boots, with their torches, catching burglars. 

I wasn’t supposed to be here…

This dark night-time world is not a place for me…

People who’ve never felt this personal sting when reading books are privileged indeed, and those frustrated by refreshed versions of stories need to ask themselves some important questions:

– Does the re-write hurt people more than it helps people? 

– What are the benefits of updating toys, clothes and texts, versus the implications of not updating them?

– Does the racial bias in Ian Fleming’s books add so much to the stories that they are watered down, poor examples of literature without them?

– The changes to Fleming and Dahl’s works are the latest in a long line of updates… and so are all of these publishers wrong to do this?

We’re sold a dramatic story about re-writes and modifications through the press too, which only unnecessarily exacerbates the backlash against changes; amendments which arguably might otherwise go unnoticed, or be seen as perfectly logical. 

Articles then reporting the backlash highlight only the most extreme views, prompting further frustration and hot-headed replies to articles and on social media. 

Those throwing their hands to the air and complaining about censorship may wail further when we ask…what might this mean for marital status titles? 

The removal of titles may be a long way in the future, but it doesn’t stop campaign supporters from making their own personal edits to texts when reading books to their children at night, especially when the titles do little to support an open minded view about the roles of women and stereotypes of gender and marital availability.

Many texts about children often mean descriptions of schools and teachers, and therefore hundreds of examples of marital status titles. 

(We challenge any literary rising star to write a children’s book without ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’!)

In the meantime, a simple rework making every ‘Mr Hawtrey’ and ‘Miss Windsor’, ‘Headteacher Hawtrey’ and ‘Teacher Windsor’ might hopefully plant a seed that marital status, and gender, has no relevance to the world of work, and that titles can be removed at no detriment to the tale being told. 

If the removal of titles, or the omission of them in the future, seems ridiculous and ‘woke’ to anybody who feels they need them, do rest assured that there has been no call to create a worldwide bonfire of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming books just yet.

There has been no Opernplatz-esque censorship of previously published versions, and so freedom for those who want to see the original texts remains intact…if they feel they so desperately need to experience the derogatory vein running through the stories. 

Biases exist within us because of repeated patterns absorbed throughout our lives in social settings, in the media, and in the films, books and programmes we choose.

If making small tweaks and changes can mean that any person can read novels and feel the story, instead of a sense of exclusion, then it’s a change worth making. 

The changes also shouldn’t go unnoticed. Publishers should state their intention to continue assessing the texts they are responsible for to make sure that creativity and popularity does not happen at the sacrifice of humanity. 

The edits are not re-writing history or censoring the voice of important literary geniuses, they are creating a future where classic literature can continue to be loved by more people.

Nostalgic parents reading books from their own childhood may suddenly be gripped by the need to edit the words on the page from, ‘Fanny helped her mother in the kitchen, and Joe worked hard in the garden”, to simply, “The children helped their parents in the kitchen and the garden…”, and let’s be honest, the child reader of the current day won’t care at all. 

They all just want to skip straight to the next visit to the Faraway Tree, and know that they’re all welcome. 

Stella Sutcliffe


How can you demonstrate support for the GoTitleFree campaign?

  1. Sign our petition. This is something everyone can do, and helps us to build the business case for changing the Equality Act, GDPR law, and business behaviour.
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