A question we have been discussing in the office this week is: Has the mystery genre become politically correct? In other words, Have we started to play it safe, and do we make editorial and acquistions decisions to prevent people from being offended?
The question came up because one of our editors is interested in a manuscript that features a villain who is a Muslim with ties to terrorism. She asked a few of us to take a look at it, and we liked it, too...with reservations. When we tried to pinpoint the source of our concern, we realized that the mere existence of a minority group member as the Bad Guy in fiction opens us up to all kinds of criticism and hostility, which makes everyone's life more stressful.
And we've all been there before. I once published a book where the villain was gay, and I got all kinds of flack for it. Among us we've been ripped apart for publishing or publicizing books that feature negative portraits of: African-Americans, obese people, the mentally ill, teenagers, teachers, Latinos...the list goes on and on. Reviewers can grab onto this topic and decimate a book because of it.
So does this mean that the only "acceptable" murderer or villain in fiction is the White Male? That membership in a minority group automatically confers sainthood and moral perfection on a person?
These are provocative questions within the alternate world that is twenty-first century genre fiction. Certainly, black people can be villains, when they are operating within a novel peopled solely or almost solely by black characters (such as the work of, say, Walter Moseley or Toni Morrison). Gay characters can be villains in gay-themed fiction. And so on. It's when we get into the "mixed world"--where everyone lives and works side by side, which is probably the case in most places these days--that we get into trouble. So, in a novel taking place in a traditional English village, having a Pakistani or Jamaican villain seems like a bad idea.
Ultimately, we decided that we are not being "politically correct," but instead respectful of our readers' expectations when we advise our authors to reconsider making a minority group member into a villain (or, just as bad, a stereotype). This is true for several reasons:
1. Rarely is someone's race, ethnicity, or background central to plot resolution in the modern mystery. (This wasn't necessarily the case in the Golden Age.)
2. Genre mystery fiction isn't reality, and it's not supposed to reflect reality. Rather, it's supposed to offer an alternative universe that's real-ish. In reality, there are mean fat people, and crazy gay people, and villainous Asian people, and [insert negative adjective + minority group here]. But in escapist fiction--the goal of which is to provide refuge from reality--such types need not exist.
3. Most readers read mysteries for enjoyment, and if we are going to develop a series, we want to make sure that the books are indeed enjoyable. Anything that detracts from a reader's pleasure is a negative.
If we were publishing literary or contemporary fiction instead of genre books, the situation would be different. But our job is not to be provocative--it is to make friends (book buyers) for the protagonist and the novelist. You don't accomplish that by including things that people might consider offensive.