Shop-Talk: PC in Fiction–When is a Joke Not a Joke?

Yeah, yeah, I know. Shop Talk is usually on Wednesday but I’m still off-kilter from the travel, plus we had a special guest yesterday :-). As always with Shop Talk, joining the discussion gets you in the running for a $10 gift card to the online book-tailer of your choice (international comments welcome, as always). I’m a couple of weeks behind on contest winner announcements so stay tuned for LOTS of winners on Sunday.

Now, let’s talk political correctness in our fiction. How much is too much? Where does one cross the line from being funny to being offensive? How cautious should authors be? Or are we about over being PC and ready to be simply courteous and tolerant of others?

It’s a fine line. I once wrote Katie Couric a SCATHING letter because she referred to a kid who wore glasses as “a cute little four-eyes.” As someone who’s blind as a bat (no offense to bats), I got irate at a broadcaster essentially making fun of a child on national television. The kid will get it enough from the school bullies (no offense to bullies). Overreaction? Absolutely. We tend to react to things that hit close to home.

Anyway, I always thought I was pretty conservative in the Halls of Politically Correct Verbiage because I’ve spent most of my career in higher-ed publishing. In education, one rarely ventures onto limbs, especially political limbs. Educational administrators are among the world’s most paranoid species (no offense to paranoiacs), so for one to survive, one must know how to be PC.

Because of that, a recent review caught me slack-jawed (no offense to slack-jawed people) by accusing my heroine DJ of being a slut-shaming, judgmental person and, therefore, extremely unlikeable.

To some extent, I see the reviewer’s point (this was a thoughtful, even-handed review, by the way, so I am certainly not bashing the reviewer here, just using it as a jumping-off place to talk about the issue). I mean, DJ says it right up front in Royal Street: wizards tend to be prickly and difficult. And she is a wizard. She’s not all unicorns and sunshine (no offense to unicorns or sunshine, or wizards, or prickly people). She mostly makes fun of herself, and I don’t think she has it in her to be deliberately cruel toward another person.

What did DJ do that was so egregious? She made disparaging remarks about a nymph’s sexual antics. She made a joke that she didn’t want to wear a red dress to meet Alex’s family because his Bible Belt parents might think she was a New Orleans tart. She makes a joke about not wanting to look like the “Happy Hooker.” Therefore, she’s judgmental and a slut-shamer. (I’d never heard that term “slut-shamer” before and it has become a new favorite so don’t be surprised if it shows up in a future book!)

(Thank God my editor made me hack the crap out of the full scene with the Satyrs, but just in case I decide to run it on one of my snippet Sundays, apologies in advance to Satyrs everywhere–no offense intended. It was funny!)

So where I think DJ is funny, and know that she uses her humor to cover up some serious insecurities from having grown up so isolated with Gerry, some folks find her offensive. Fair enough. It’s a Katie Couric moment.

Have you read something in one of your paranormal reads that offended you? Have you, like me, written a scathing letter to a member of the news media? (Katie didn’t acknowledge my email, by the way, nor should she have.)

What responsibilities do authors have to be politically correct? There are lines I’d never cross. DJ would never comment on a person’s ethnicity, religious beliefs, weight, complexion. She apparently can’t resist making comments about nymphs who go after her guys, however, although I’m thinking she probably learned her lesson, and she even admits that by misjudging one of the nymphs, she and her friends paid a heavy, heavy price.

What’s crossed the line with you?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban and paranormal fantasy and romantic suspense, currently living in Auburn, Alabama. Author of the Sentinels of New Orleans series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, and Belle Chasse (Nov 2016). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the upcoming Wilds of the Bayou series (Book 1, Wild Man's Curse) releases April 2016).

40 thoughts on “Shop-Talk: PC in Fiction–When is a Joke Not a Joke?

  1. I honestly can’t say that any book in particular has crossed the line into offensive for me. On the other hand, I think PC focus is a slippery slope. I have gotten highly annoyed and given up on books I found to be too unrealistic in their attempts to not offend.

    Basically I want my books (as unrealistic as the genres or topics might be) to be realistic in terms of the way people are in the real world. Let’s face it, not everyone is going to be nice and pc and inoffensive in real life. People are people and the characters aren’t going to be believable (for me) if the writer is too focused on trying not to offend people.

    Sadly there are always going to be folks who get up in arms about something and there’s just no way to avoid it at all.

    • I’ve come to the same conclusion, Becky. Because people are sensitive–and I might argue that readers are more sensitive than most–you’re never going to hit a home-run with everyone. I’d never intentionally offend anyone, but if authors get too paranoid as to who they MIGHT offend they’d only write vapid, emotionless fiction. So, with apologies to the nymphs, I’m calling this one a non-issue for me. 🙂

  2. i don’t think an author should bash a character (or a person) for his/her religious beliefs or lack of, nor should she use weight or disabilities…beacuse we often forget that even if it’s not the main goal of a book… people tend to copy what they like so if they really love a character they could adopt teh same attitute, authors can be models even when they don’t want too…

    Now it doesn’t mean all subjet can’t be used in a book but i think before writing it must be think over a lot… you can have a character who is different and if you do write it well it could help some people to get more confidence in themself… a bully can be horribly evil but then it would be best if he paid teh price after…you can use something to condemn a behaviour you don’t appreciate but to put a behaviour that is illegal or not proper at all on a piedestal that’s an absolutely no for me.

    In this example i didn’t feel bad which what DJ said…she was speaking of herself first and it showed how she was feeling, it’s typical of her to use irony and joke to hide what she is really feeling. As for the nymph… she comdened the attitude of one and let’s be honest how many girls and women thought exactly the same^^ but teh behaviour isn’t the person and it’s also something important

    • Totally agree, Miki. This is DJ’s character and she has to be true to it. I honestly still don’t think it’s offensive–it’s not like her disapproval of the nymph was the point of the story. What she WAS guilty of, and later admitted it, was making assumptions about Libby because of the way she dressed and behaved. And not to do any spoilery, but DJ and her friends paid dearly for that.

  3. I can’t think of any book that’s crossed the line. If a character was making comments to be deliberatly hurtfull it would bother me. But a character needs to be realistic and I think that everyone thinks things that may not always be PC.

    • True–I think the characters would be dull if all their internal dialogue went through a PC filter. No one likes a mean character, but I think humor will always rub someone the wrong way.

  4. No offense to: bats, bullies, paronoiacs, slack-jawed people, unicorns, sunshine, wizards, prickly people and satyrs. LOL. You got to more people than Stephen King has. The only thing that does cross the line with me is religion. Usually in conversation, not in anything I read. I did read a SF book once that offended me only because it went on and on about something stupid. Turns out it was just a waste of my time. Never read anything else by that author.

    • I aim to please 🙂 LOL. I too am very careful with religion, because people have a right to believe what they want. I don’t try to force my faith on others, and expect the same in return. I also try to avoid politics, although I have said that I pattern the Congress of Elders (and the upcoming Interspecies Council) on Congress! (IE, they talk a lot and don’t actually do much).

  5. I cannot imagine how boring fiction would be if everyone worried about being politically correct. Christopher Moore is one my favorite authors and I think he should be issued into a hall of fame for the amount of people he can offend in one book. It is epic. I think the defining factor is what is the point? Is the point to poke fun and make people realize how ridiculous some things are. I can make fun of myself. I think that if the character is more reserved, why would it not be appropriate for her to slut-slam? (FYI that is a great new term) If it fits the character to have certain prejudices (we all have them) and behave accurately why would that not be OK? However, I am kinda crazy and have always been on the outside. Religiously, artistically, and every other way imaginable. Also..I never thought of DJ as offensive. I personally took it as a twinge of jealously on her part that she was more reserved and wished she was getting more action. =)

    • EXACTLY! Yes, DJ’s snark always comes from her own insecurities, although she is maturing. Well, except when it comes to her new neighbor Quince Randolph. WARNING TO THE EASILY OFFENDED: There is much insulting of creepy stalker neighbors of questionable species in Elysian Fields!

  6. It takes a lot to offend me, so most books just don’t bother me. I did get very offended at an author on Twitter, enough so that I stopped following her tweets and stopped reading her books. She made very negative comments about people who got her books from the library, instead of buying them. I understand she doesn’t make money when people check books out from the library, as opposed to buying them. However, not everyone has lots of money to spend on books, or room to keep lots of books. I do check many, many books out of my local library, more than I could ever afford to buy (and store). Still steams me!

    • That’s craziness! I love it when people send me photos of my books from the library shelves. Then again, I practically grew up in a public library so I adore them. The important thing is if people are reading the books and enjoying them.

  7. What a great tongue-in-cheek post, Suzanne! As always, you inspire me. I think readers for the most part realize that what characters say and think are the words and thoughts of the CHARACTERS, not the author. Let’s hope.

    What bothers me most is realistic and/or sadistic violence in books. Just don’t want that entering into my emotional sphere.



    • I have to admit my books are violent, especially the Susannah Sandlin titles. I do think it depends on the genre and what the expectations are of the reader. I think I get rid of a lot of angst that way, although okay, one of my characters branded another character (like with a branding iron) and I had to think a while about whether or not I was going to let that happen. In the end, I did. But I did at least think about it first 🙂

  8. I can understand why that reviewer took issue with the slut-shaming aspect. I work in a women’s center so I am surrounded by these issues every day, so I’m much more aware of it when I see it in pop culture, media and other forms of entertainment. But in DJ’s case, it is very minor and I see it as a part of her characterization, not you inserting your *zomg moral judgment* into the story for your own ends. You created a fully-fleshed out character who has flaws and idiosyncrasies just like any other person. I am much more ok with that sort of thing than if a character was quite obviously created as a straw man or as a means for the author to soapbox.

    • Thanks, Galena–yes I can see that point and I do want to keep an eye on it to make sure some unintended things don’t creep in. With DJ, her reaction to Libby turned out to be a learning experience for her. She’s much less likely to be judgmental next time around. (Well, except for her creepy neighbor, but he SO deserves it.)

  9. I like DJ’s snark. And I really enjoyed Christopher Moore’s book Lamb about Jesus’ best friend. It certainly is not PC! I am more offended by cruelty in books, especially mentally. Wanton acts of violence also turn me off. A villain may be cruel and violent, but it has to fit the plot and character. In the real world unfortunately, there is bigotry and prejudice. How you respond to that is more important than a book being PC.

    • I think authors like Christopher Moore can do pretty much anything because they write satire. It’s sold as satire. People who buy it know what they’re getting, and I personally love it. But I have to agree about bigotry and prejudice–total turn off for me. (I don’t think commenting on a nymph’s behavior prejudicial, however.) Violence is a tough one; I think the worlds I write about have a level of violence in them that comes out of the strife between the characters or groups of characters. I hope none of it is gratuitous. The one I’ve worried most about was the opening scene of STORM FORCE, which was an act of terrorism, but as the inciting event for the book, it had to be big and splashy.

  10. Goth bashing! It happens in a lot of UF books: negative comments about Goths. It annoys me and if it keeps happening throughout a book I get violent with the book (throwing it across the room). I don’t understand it either. You’d think that Goths are a major part of an UF author’s readers so why do the majority of UF authors let their characters say nasty things about Goths?

    • Interesting….I don’t think I’ve read any goth-bashing. Does this appear more in UF books that are YA? Like you, I’d think Goths might be readers of UF, so it seems strange to bash them.

    • I can name as many UF as Ya books that do it, although in YA it’s more obvious. A YA book will more often actually make the heroine say/think something negative while UF will more often hide it by using negative stereotypes and give the idea all Goths are like that.

  11. Wow… that’s such a hard thing to gauge. What is ribald and offense to one is hysterical and witty to another. It’s so hard to judge! I guess I draw the line at outright discrimination and racism. The rest is take it or leave it.

    • I think that’s why humor is so very hard to write. There’s always the chance of alienating someone unintentionally. But even my Penton series, which is dark paranormal, has some humor in it. I can’t seem to resist 🙂

  12. This is an interesting topic. I can’t remember reading something that could be funny to some and offensive to another. But I see it with comics all the time. So I see what you’re seeing.


  13. Haven’t read anything that’s offended me. Think it’s subjective based on who reads it and how they interpret it

  14. I don’t think I ever have a problem with something like that, I can be tired or angry of the character but not really offended. I think it’s normal to have problems with some characters but maybe I forgot or it never happenned at this point for me. I’m trying to remember but so difficult… For my line I think it depends on the book and how the author manages to introduce what she/he wants to share.

    • I tend to agree. When I get annoyed with a character, it’s usually because of something they do that doesn’t make sense to me, rather than because of some joke they’ve made to themselves or a friend. I think each case is different, as each character is different.

  15. No book has ever crossed a line with me but yes, I do think that each and every one of us is different so some things are bound to hurt someone. It better to just keep your mind open and if there are jokes to take them without being too serious. Though there is obviously a limit for everything.

    • I think “without being too serious” is key here, especially when we’re talking about fantasy and urban fantasy…I mean, genre fiction is geared to entertain. While there are important themes in my books–usually to do with family and with self-acceptance or the struggle to trust–their #1 goal is to entertain, not to teach or to be reflective of society.

  16. I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s truly crossed a line for me. Since I usually check out reviews first and the reviewers will mention those things – then I’d avoid the book. But in some cases, it really can’t be helped since the author can’t control how his/her book is perceived.

    • Very true. As with the “slut-shaming” thing…it simply would never have occurred to me that DJ was being unfairly judgmental toward women who were sexually active. Especially given the upcoming events of Elysian Fields. Was that a spoiler? Nah, not a spoiler.

  17. I don’t think I have ever come across anything in a book that has offended me. I think that to really be offended by something, I would have to come across something that really hit close to home

    • And someone mentioned earlier about working in a women’s shelter, for example. I think if you’re exposed to those kinds of violence and abuse, you are more sensitive to how women are portrayed than someone who isn’t exposed to it in any direct way. We all have hot button issues.

  18. I do remember reading Minion a long time ago, and the heroine is black. That was new for me, and I really did not mind that. What I did mind, and really disliked, was the “hood” talk conversations. It totally rubbed me wrong, and made me stop reading this series. (And the extremely scary and evil way the vampires were portrayed).

    I have been shocked by books though, but those were mostly secondary characters. I really can’t remember which book it was, but it was a tribe of native americans against the KKK.
    I really don’t like too much swearing in my books either, (only if it has JR Ward on the cover) and do not talk about rape as though it is ok. You will get my hackles up.

    • Now that you talk about the “hood” talk, it reminded me of a book I read a while back–a romantic suspense–where I thought the line crossed into territory I found uncomfortable for much the same reasons and ended up setting the book aside. The author, whose name I’ll not mention, came under some heat for it as well.

      And, okay, you’d probably be put off by my Penton books, where there is some swearing going on, especially with the character of Mirren (Aidan and Will, not as much). It just felt right to have it be part of his character. I’ve kept the Sentinels books pretty clean in the language department, although a pirate who shall remain nameless does drop the F-bomb in French in the upcoming book 🙂

    • Nah, I can handle some swearing, but not the really badmouthing someone language. After all, if I can watch Gordon Ramsey, I can deal with a lot of f.. words 🙂

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