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?

Shop Talk: Paranormal Fantasy’s Ever-Changing Shapeshifters

Welcome to Shop Talk, where every Wednesday we chat about some aspect of books or writing or publishing or all that jazz. Leave a comment and take part in the chat for a chance to win a $10 gift card to Amazon or your other favorite online retailer.

Before I start, thanks to Miki over at Lecture toute une Aventure, who’s featuring Storm Force today. Get an extra entry in the contest if you hop over and leave a comment (even if you aren’t reading the book). Here’s the question: how far would you go to follow orders from a commanding officer if you’re in the military, or your boss at work? What if a direct order went against your personal moral code? What lines would you cross? What would it take for you to cross that line? Go over and join the discussion!

Today, I want to talk about shapeshifters! As paranormal fantasy has matured, vampires and werewolves have become the go-to mainstays of the genre. (I’m using “paranormal fantasy” to gather urban fantasy and paranormal romance under a single umbrella, and I’ll give credit where it’s due–I first heard the term used by veteran book reviewer Paul Goat Allen, who was kind enough to include Royal Street on his list of top paranormal fantasies of 2012. But I like the term, as it seems more accurate now that “urban” fantasy can take place out in the sticks, or at different points in history.)

So, if vampires were the first paranormals to come out of the closet, when did werewolves become popular? The first “modern” werewolf I remember is probably Richard from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. I loved me some Richard until he got so whiny and petulant that I just wanted to belt him upside his sexy head and finally, like Anita, wanted him to just go away. Who was your first wolf? Patricia Briggs brings on the wolves in her Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega series. There are some werewolves in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series.

Dresden….Dresden…Yep, there are wolves in the Dresdenverse. In fact, in one of the early Dresden books, I was introduced to my first skinwalker, as Harry takes on a variety of wolfy types.

So, lots of wolves. Once authors got tired of wolves, we all began to cast around for new types of shifters. Anita, of course, has a virtual menagerie, including some I have to admit are just bizarre–I mean, swan shifters? Big cat shifters got very popular, and still are. The Sookie series has an interesting distinction between the weres, who change to a specific form, and a shifter like Sam Merlotte, who can change into any animal.

In my Sentinels of New Orleans series, I’ve played around with blending the idea of shifters (born, not made) and were-creatures (made, not born) with the culture and legends of South Louisiana. So Jake isn’t a normal werewolf but loup-garou. The loup-garou (or, sometimes, rougarou) is an old, old legend in Louisiana. I decided to make my merpeople, like Rene Delachaise, Cajun aquatic shapeshifters. In one of my short stories, I introduced weregators, although they have yet to make it into the books. In my current book Storm Force (written as Susannah Sandlin), I’ve stretched the shapeshifter world further with a golden eagle shifter named Robin (ha!), some jaguarundi shifters (a breed of cat in the puma family that’s now extinct in the US) and black-cougar shifters. Also species that are born, not made.

I’m not yet tired of shifters, and I think there are enough variations and interest in the wild things within all of us to sustain them even when the genre seems to be slowing down a bit. Are you still interested in shifters? What do you like about them, and what type are your favorites? Is there a type of shifter (like me with the swan-shifter) that you thought took it a step too far?

Let’s chat about shifters!