I recently read this post Over at Mysterious Matters, a blog about publishing mystery novels. (Disclaimer: I don't have any inclination toward publishing mystery novels. I barely read mystery novels, unless you count Agatha Christie and my new-found love of Tana French. I just like reading blogs. In other words, I have no expertise or qualifications to discuss what I am about to say, but I figure why should this topic be any different from anything else I talk about here? )
The post describes the publishers' reaction to a recent submission that they liked, but had some issues with, one of them being that the villain was a Muslim with ties to terrorism. It then goes on to suggest that asking a writer to change the ethnicity of a villain is "respectful of our readers' expectations" in part because "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."*
Yeah, I don't know. It seems to me that we get in trouble when we use the "writing is not supposed to reflect reality" thing for suggesting that writers make changes. On one hand, I sympathize with the publisher, because you know what we don't need? A bunch more books where the Muslim with ties to terrorism is the villain. That's like making the Russian the villain in a book set in the Cold War. Or a Nazi the villain in a book set in WWII.**
But, on the other hand, if books don't need to reflect reality, then aren't we running the risk of leaving out non-normative characters altogether? Since we don't have any obligation to reflect the "mean fat people, and crazy gay people, and villainous Asian people," then aren't we just perpetuating the desexualized gay best friend, or the Magical Negro? Shouldn't the ethnicity of a villain sometimes be something other than white and straight?
Like I said, I don't write mysteries. But it seems to me that the villain should be something that adds to the story. If, for example, the only way that the story makes sense is for the villain to be a Muslim with ties to terrorism, then that's who the villain should be. If that stuff is just code for "Bad Guy!", then, yeah, the suggestion that it be changed is a good one. But the heart of the request should be, in my opinion, the demands of the story. Respecting the requirements of the story is, I think, respecting the expectations of the readers. As E.M. Forster says, a story "can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next." Once we have taken care of that, the rest of the issues are secondary.
*That's just one of three reasons the post gives for the suggestion.
**NOTE: I AM NOT comparing being a Muslim to being a Nazi! I am saying that, in US fiction set in contemporary times, making a Muslim the villain is as typical as making a Nazi the villain in a book set during WWII.