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To warn or not to warn, and is that even the...

As some of you may know, Riptide author Amelia Gormley recently stirred some controversy on her blog regarding book warnings. Her dubcon f**ck or die m/m erotica (or erotic Romance, depending on your confidence in publisher tagging), Strain, is the specific subject of her post, in which she argues a number of things, not the least of which is that warning labels are “infantilizing” to readers, and that they are a mark of “smaller, niche presses.” Specifically,

Here’s where I stand on warnings (on and within books themselves, in other words, content labels): Unless and until I sign on with a press that includes content warnings in their books–which I almost certainly will never do–you will never see content warnings in my books. I may put them on a website listing or in a post, for those who actually care about such issues enough to do some research before they buy, but not in the book itself. Why?

Because “content warnings?” (again, within and on books themselves; aka labels). Are the mark of amateur publishers. Whenever I see a press that includes them, I automatically lower my expectations of the quality of the content I will find coming out of that press, because I know they are not approaching their craft as a professional publisher would. Content warnings are a standard that was born in fanfic circles that fanfic readers have carried with them and expect to see applied in professional publishing.

I’m not am amateur. I will not apply amateur standards to my books. It’s really that simple.

A number of the comments to her post do a good job of unpacking some of the language in the post as a whole, so I will refer you to those (especially Ann Somerville’s comment), and to a post and comments at Sunita’s blog, which focus more on the “fetish” or “kink” aspect of books like Strain. This later issue is relevant to my post, but not in the same way Sunita frames it, although she makes some excellent points and hosts some outstanding comments (as usual).

As for Gormley, what I want to focus on here is a) the distinction she draws between placing warnings on websites v. books, and b) her insistence that warning labels are “unfprofessional” and “infantilizing.” In regard to the first point, I will direct you to Shannon C.’s comment here about working for a very professional National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which, among other things, is part of the Library of Congress. I will also direct you to Riptide’s website gallery of the book, which does, indeed, contain warnings. I can only assume the distinction Gormley made between websites and books depends on the fact that Riptide carries these warnings on its website description of the book, and her insistence that she would never ever ever ever ever sign with a publisher that places content warnings in their books. I’m assuming that Gormley is okay with piracy and copyright warnings in her books, since one sits front and center, right before the “about Strain” blurb. A blurb that starts this way:

Rhys Cooper is a dead man. Cut off from the world since childhood, he’s finally exposed to the lethal virus that wiped out most of the human race. Now, his only hope for survival is infection by another strain that might confer immunity. But it’s sexually transmitted, and the degradation he feels at submitting to the entire squad of soldiers that rescued him eclipses any potential for pleasure – except with Darius, the squadron’s respected capable leader.

In other words, a clear statement that you’re about to read a f**ck or die story.

So here’s the thing: I’ve historically been very anti-warning label, in part because I’ve felt that they are often used pejoratively toward anything sexual, especially anything that is sold to children and women (as if women were children). However, Gormley’s post, as well as some of the discussion around it, has actually convinced me to reconsider my position. So I’m going to do a quick rehearsal of my own thoughts on this issue and then ask for your take (feel free to discuss any of the issues around the posts and issues I’ve linked to, but I’m going to stick to the labeling for this post).

First, genre fiction reading is, I’m coming to believe, fundamentally distinct from other types of reading, in part because readers expect – based at least in part on the genre’s definition – certain elements. And in Romance and erotica, because so many of those elements are highly emotional, often physical and/or sexual, and frequently extreme and intense, there is a lot of personal engagement with the books that you may or may not have when you’re reading in other genres or within literary fiction or “classic” literature. Add to that the fact that sexual fantasies are frequently woven into these two genres, and you have the potential for a highly reactive interaction between book and reader. As Sunita points out, forced sex is a very common trope in both Romance and erotica, perhaps in part because more than 60% of women experience and/or enjoy rape fantasies (and this is the reported statistic – I suspect it’s actually much higher). However, despite its ubiquity, tropes that involve forced sex can still be controversial, with endless debates about issues of consent, appropriateness, romantic function, and symbolic meaning.

As often as not (perhaps more so), genre readers are looking for a certain type of reading experience, and they seek out books that promise that experience. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons we see so much replication and mimicry in the genre. However, because genre readers are often engaged proactively in the search for books that they believe will meet their reading desires, doesn’t it figure that they will also want to avoid books that do not meet their reading desires? And if we are willing to see the first type of selection as unproblematic or non-pejorative, why do we have to view the second as pejorative?

Moreover, what is the difference between placing a warning on a publisher website and placing a blurb inside the book that effectively acts as a warning? Sure, you may have to know the trope code a bit more to see how obviously that blurb is either an enticement or a warning, depending on the reader. However, the fact that basically the same information is being delivered in one context as a warning and in another context as advertising is not an insubstantial point. We already know that labels themselves act as both warnings and enticements to readers, depending on the reading experience they are looking for.

However, I think it’s important to note that both authors and publishers understand this in the way they use those more controversial elements of a book to sell it. And the selling works in two ways: it helps readers who are searching for a certain type of book pick that one up, and it helps readers who will be unhappy with that same type of book avoid reading it, and thus, perhaps, avoiding a negative review that will focus on the objectionable element(s). Because this has to be a consideration on the part of professional (aka commercial) publishers when they release a book they know will not necessarily have broad appeal (or that will have broad appeal once enough readers enjoy and recommend it, even with certain controversial elements) – it is not in anyone’s interest to have readers complaining about and returning books because they felt duped or unpleasantly triggered or surprised.

I think Gormley’s most compelling argument is that reading has never been a completely “safe” activity. But it’s also the case that with so many readers checking reviews and relying on recommendations (even if they are non-participating readers in regard to commenting and reviewing themselves), there is already an informal warning system that operates in the form of reader discussion and recommendation. It’s just that in our online environment, there can be much more transparency, or at least open discussion and debate. Now, would Gormley argue that such a reviewing and discussion system inftantalizes readers? Should potentially objectionable elements be treated as spoilers and not disclosed? Or should readers have the ability to be as informed as possible about the books they are selecting from an increasingly large pool of potential reads?

In regard to Gormley’s assertion that reading can be most rewarding when it’s challenging, I feel the same way. But I also know that’s my philosophy of reading, and it’s not fair to impose it on those readers who don’t want books to push their limits or challenge their emotional triggers. I understand and even sympathize with the perception that warning labels can be stigmatizing for a book, but I think that depends on how they are employed. I have, for example, enjoyed Samhain’s often tongue and cheek “warnings,” because I think they do a good job of not making it seem like certain tropes are being “targeted.” Also, how many readers depend on labels and tags like “multicultural” or “interracial” or “m/m” or other general tags because they are actively looking for those books. Genre fiction loves tagging, and so do professional publishers who understand that they are, in the end, selling a product.

In fact, genre fiction especially loves tagging a book Romance, because we all know Romance sells, especially if it can be combined with “erotic.” And I wonder if part of the problem here, and part of the objection to labels by authors like Gormley, is that it becomes more difficult to tag a book Romance if it contains certain types of tropes. Not that books containing more extreme or controversial tropes cannot be Romance – just that readers with narrower expectations about what does and doesn’t count as Romance will likely be more skeptical of picking up books with certain warning labels. And while I – as someone who is always trying to keep the genre as wide open as possible without losing its formal coherence – might get slightly frustrated, I’m not sure my frustration is related to the Romance label being potentially narrowed, or to its over-use or even its deceptive use in books that aren’t really Romance. Because I do feel that for every book that has its legitimate Romance credentials questioned there is a book that is tagged Romance for the purpose of sales rather than true generic classification.

Given the genre’s love of tagging, however, perhaps the key here is to stop thinking in terms of “warnings” and “labels” and to change the terms of the discussion to focus on tagging. We tag for so many elements, tropes, and issues, and because tags speak to classification, rather than judgment, they may accomplish what “warning labels” do without imparting stigma and marginalization. Because the information about controversial content is being related, whether it’s through “warnings” or reviews or blurbs or reader discussion. One advantage to tagging is that it could help to keep everyone honest, because without the sometimes sensationalistic rhetoric around labeling, tags can serve a descriptive, and therefore more straightforward and objective, function.

Although I could keep going (what else is new, right?), I’m going to stop here and ask you what you think of the warning label debate – should we or shouldn’t we? And are labels really even the issue here, or is there something else going on here, and if so, what do you think it is?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

70 Comments

  1. Ros
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 05:04:16

    “more than 60% of women enjoy rape fantasies”

    Sort of. But in the study you linked to, almost half of those fantasies were found to be aversive, rather than erotic. Aversive fantasies aren’t about finding pleasure or enjoyment, but more about exploring ‘what if’ scenarios. From this article:

    Women generally do not experience sexual arousal during aversive fantasies, but often the self-character experiences pain and violence. In such fantasies, the perpetrator (typically male) is usually older, less attractive and a stranger. Therefore, aversive rape fantasies are more consistent with stereotypical depictions of rape (i.e. a violent attack, with an unknown perpetrator, even though research indicates that nearly 90% of rapes include a victim known to the perpetrator, with minimal violence). Given that aversive rape fantasies often do not include pleasurable or arousing thoughts, they typically do not fall under what most people would consider a traditional “fantasy.” Instead, aversive rape fantasies seem to be an internalized response to the question–what would occur if something bad [such as rape] happens to me?

    I think it’s entirely possible that women whose rape fantasies are sometimes or always aversive, rather than erotic, would also be interested in reading rape stories, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

  2. Ros
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 05:12:01

    And on your main point, I think labelling is good. I think giving readers information upfront is better for readers and better for authors/publishers. Readers should be allowed to choose the kinds of books they want to read – sometimes I like a challenge, sometimes I like comforting reliability. My choice. I’d even be happy if we had a standardised labelling system such as you get on DVD’s – for language, sexual content, violence etc. I think maybe we don’t need to call the labels warnings, because what one person wants to avoid, another may be seeking out.

    As for Gormley, people generally don’t get that incoherently, irrationally ranty unless there’s some other issue going on. I wouldn’t like to guess what that might be, however.

  3. ktgrant
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 05:21:12

    I know a few Riptide titles were banned from Amazon because of certain descriptions or warnings. The Flesh Cartel series is one that was banned from Amazon because of graphic nature of the story. Perhaps that’s why there aren’t any warnings, so certain titles aren’t banned from being sold on Amazon and elsewhere?

    Most epubs have tags or “warnings” for their books. Lyrical, Ellora’s Cave and Samhain have them to name a few, but they’re more tongue in cheek.

    But if you’re going to write “f*ck or die” or rape-fic or dubious consent or what have you, and it’s not stated in your blurb or as a warning, an author should expect black lash or readers complaining. It’s a big trigger for some readers who don’t want to read that trope and they may feel tricked into reading something that isn’t what it states it is in the blurb to grab reader’s attention.

  4. Angela
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 06:12:18

    I was just involved in a discussion on this the other day. Even though I have triggers I’m not entirely sure that ‘warnings’ or ‘labels’ are the answer. And maybe that’s just for me.

    I shelve on the most broad categories on my Goodreads shelves, for example: mm, fantasy, ya, romance, historical…etc. I have shelves for witches and vampires, pirates and beta-heroes. Where I, personally, don’t want to see labels is in regards to triggers – and I have a strong rape trigger – but labels, tags, and warnings can be so subjective. Even though I have a rape trigger some of my favorite books contain it. I think I’m with you in that I don’t always want to be comfortable in my reads. And I always want to read a book with anticipation to see where the author is going to take me. I think that labels and tags can be equated to spoilers to some readers – especially if you start labeling for ‘character death’ or something similar.

    On the other hand, I don’t always want a ‘dark’ read, just like I don’t always want a ‘light’ read. So sometimes it’s nice to know if something is light and fluffy fun, or dark and going to test my boundaries. I think labels can be helpful in these instances. For me I think it’s the specifics of some of them that would make them not useful. The more general labels (‘dark’ ‘menage’ ‘bdsm’ ‘historical’ ‘fantasy’, etc.) work well for me though. I don’t want to know every twist and turn to the book before I start, and I wonder if that’s where labeling would lead – with ever increasing detail so people can avoid triggers, or tropes, or actions and things they don’t like.

    In the end it comes down to the fact that it doesn’t matter to me. As long as the warnings and labels aren’t shoved in my face before buying or reading a book – because I don’t want them – then label away!

  5. Kaetrin
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 06:14:37

    I commented on Ms. Gormley’s post because I’m a reader who likes to know what she’s getting in her books. I also didn’t like the dig at romance as if wanting a HEA/HFN is somehow absurd. I don’t think I’m fragile or incompetent as a reader or otherwise being unreasonable for wanting a fair idea of what is going on between the covers before I buy and read. As Ann Somerville points out, digital books bring different challenges – one can’t flick through them like one can at a library or a bookstore with a paper book. But even with a paper book, I’d appreciate content information. And Sonoma Lass said it exceptionally well on Sunita’s blog, that in a feel-good genre such as romance, being blind-sided can be a double whammy.

    I do favour using language such as tags, notes or information – language which doesn’t imply a value judgment the way “warning” does but I also favour having the information easily available.

    I don’t want to have to spend my valuable time hunting down reader advisory’s and doing “due diligence” on a book. If it’s not readily available in or around the book at point of sale it’s too much work. There are plenty of other books to read. If I’m in doubt or have had a bad experience with a particular author springing something on me I wasn’t expecting, I’m more likely to just choose one of those other books to read or some other form of entertainment altogether.

    As a society I think we have an obligation to the more vulnerable members in it and if a reader advisory helps someone avoid a triggering event, well that seems like a good thing to me.

    It seems to me though, that Ms. Gormley’s rant was more about a small group of right wing book censors who wish certain books not to be published or available. I don’t know who “they” are but they’ve always been around and I don’t think they’re going anywhere. Censorship is a completely different issue to reader advisories and whether Amazon will sell your book if it is tagged a certain way is yet another issue again. I felt she was conflating a number of different annoyances into one general spray, which was not helpful on a number of levels.

  6. Robin/Janet
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 06:26:50

    @Ros: When I was searching for the article online, for some reason I could not find the whole thing (I’ve used it previously), but here it is: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+nature+of+women%27s+rape+fantasies%3A+an+analysis+of+prevalence,…-a0196534089

    I don’t know if the blurb specified this or not, but the article itself indicates that it’s over half those fantasies that have *aversive elements* – in fact, only 9% are completely aversive, and it’s even more complicated, because not all of those are perceived to be motivated by aggression or control; at least 25% were perceived to be motivated by sexual attraction, which goes to the way in which researchers have been unable to fully understand what drives the rape fantasy. Also, in 75% of what they describe as the erotic-aversive fantasy seem to follow a similar pattern that we find in, say, some Romance novels (initial non-consent that gives way to consent). And then, as you say, is the way in which people read particular scenarios for any number of reasons, probably not even reasons that gain full awareness by the reader.

    I actually think I should have used the term submission fantasy, which tends to be the way Nancy Friday, for example, refers to it (especially in her 2009 book, Beyond My Control: Forbidden Fantasies in an Uncensored Age), because there really is a range of these fantasies, just as there is in erotica/Romance/erotic Romance. If we move into that terminology, Friday has convinced me that the numbers are even higher. Friday also notes the way in which rape survivors will have erotic rape fantasies following their rape, which further complicates the issue. And a number of folks who work on these issues have pointed out that because there is still so much stigma and taboo assigned to these fantasies (aversive or erotic or erotic-aversive), both women and men (because men also have fantasies in which they are submissive, as the Friday book details) are reluctant to admit having them (especially when there is any kind of pleasure derived from them). In fact, Friday insists that men having fantasies of sexual submission to women is “more prevalent today than ever” (p. 18), which is interesting, too, and not something we talk much about.

  7. Kate Sherwood
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 06:38:40

    I’d appreciate tags/warnings not because I get TRIGGERED by certain things but because I get ENRAGED by it. Rape-y heroes who deny the heroine’s agency because they “love” her? I want a warning for that, for sure!

    Of course,the authors who write that stuff probably wouldn’t think it was problematic enough to warn for it. For them, I guess it’s just hot or romantic, a manly man being suitably manly for a woman who appreciates his manliness?

    And maybe that’s part of the reason some authors are against warnings in general – maybe looking at their work for triggers makes them look at it a bit more closely than they want to.

    I’ve written a few things that I think could be problematic to certain people, and it WAS hard to look at them and decide if they were justified by the story and if I was confident enough of their worth to include them despite the possible issues. And I’m a pretty ‘safe’ writer, not one who pushes the boundaries of fetishes or anything.

    So for someone who DOES push boundaries?

    It must be a bit frightening, exploring a fetish/kink and pushing for intensity in the writing, and then exposing this writing to the public. Maybe it’s even MORE frightening to think about going back over the exploration and sorting through it all and classifying it into simple, clear warning categories? Maybe there’s something about classifying the acts that makes them feel more ‘wrong’ or ‘dirty’ than they did on the initial writing?

    None of this would mean that we shouldn’t use warnings, of course. If the writer can’t produce them herself, the editor or someone else could do so. I’m just trying to figure out the intensity with which the idea is being rejected, and I don’t think the whole ‘unprofessional’ argument is enough to justify it.

  8. Carolyne
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 07:05:49

    I’ve read most of “Strain.” Overall, it wasn’t for me. I found the descriptions of sexy times less interesting than the rest of the scenario, but I understand the point of the scenes and what the author was building toward. No amount of warning labels would have told me the story couldn’t keep me interested in its particular kinks. I gave it a try based on a review, in spite of it containing elements that I don’t usually gravitate toward reading. Not everything works for everyone, so I’m fine with that.

    For those of us who first encountered warning labels on fanfic sites (as opposed to “don’t look under the cut, there’s a picture of a snake”), they do immediately act as a tag of “non-professional writing”–though that’s changing through sheer use of them everywhere. I found the snarky/funny labels amusing at first but unless they’re very clever, now they feel ho-hum and overused.

    My personal feeling: 1) I’ll skip reading warnings or tags because, for me–to me–it does feel infantilising, because of how I first came to know them; or 2) I’ll use them to find something interesting if I’m so inclined that day to look for elements piecemeal rather than choosing a story based on the plot blurb; and 3) I’d provide them on my own site because you pretty much have to. There’s usefulness in reading tags if I want a quick read with specific elements rather than the story described in the blurb.

    My worry is that labels paint erotic romance as being ONLY about what gets the reader off, not about the story itself–”this fantasy story contains rings, long journeys, surprise attacks, injuries, dangerous escapes, magical creatures, major character death, undead encounters, a couple of girls,” etc. Maybe every story is about how its individual components excite the reader, but erotic romance is one of the few genres where those parts are singled out. There shouldn’t be, but there’s a stigma attached to the elements primarily being bases around sexuality, a stigma attached to picking up a book specifically because you’re looking for “dub-con and size fetish.”

    The trend for funny warnings to spread beyond erotic romance and romance actually would be a good thing–the more genres use them, the less using warnings marginalises “those books for women.”

    If readers find warning labels useful, then I wouldn’t campaign for them to be taken away. I might not want them on my book because I do have strong feelings about it. But that’s like saying you don’t want a rating on your movie; if you’re going to publish erotic romance, you risk losing your whole audience if your personal choice is to opt out.

  9. Angela
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 07:53:38

    @Kate Sherwood: Saying that it would make authors look more closely, and maybe they don’t want to, makes me feel like there’s something wrong with what they’re writing and that’s why it needs a label.

    I think a big problem with labeling in general is that there are SO many (potential) triggers, and SO many people react differently to them. Even very close friends and I have reacted at extreme ends of the spectrum regarding specific scenes. I found it incredibly problematic and it enraged me, and she loved the way it played out.

    Labels don’t feel infantilising or unprofessional, but they do feel like they can verge into spoilery territory to me, which is also something that really enrages me.

  10. Sara Thorn
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 08:29:17

    Covers are a kind of label too, aren’t they? A lot of sub-genres have the same sort of look. Like skinny women in tight leather viewed from behind signals paranormal romance. And lighter colors indicate more humorous reads and so forth.

    Personally, I like to be surprised when I read, and some labels can sort of give the plot away. On the other hand, if there were some trope I absolutely hated, I might want a label so I could avoid it…

  11. mari
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 08:39:40

    I don’t think we will ever get back to “you get what you get and don’t be upset, reader beware” days of the pre-Internet. An agreed upon (on the surface anyway) set of morals and boundaries (which is what this is all about) is not possible with the formation of micro-communities based on liking /reading about any kind of kink or sexuality. No reason why those readers/authors should not have their reading needs met. There also no reason why a reader like myself should be subjected to things I find abhorrent. So as much as tags and warnings, arouse, titillate and draw readers to books that meet their interest, they also serve to act as, well, warnings to readers like me. I do think there is a ghettoization that occurs because of this….
    I would like to see more tags regarding violence, which I find more upsetting than the sex stuff.

  12. DS
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 08:51:48

    I’ve noticed over time that the idea of warnings on fiction makes me feel annoyed, but tagging books with content information can be helpful in locating a particular type of read. Purely a matter of semantics as you mentioned, one meant to help me find a type of book I would like to read, the other suggesting avoidance.

    I had never heard of the idea of warnings until I blundered into the world of fan fiction, where it was at the time also a matter of dispute– not quite rational enough to be discussion, more like a flame war.

  13. DS
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 08:54:43

    Whoops, pushed button too soon. Didn’t mean to say you meant it was purely semantics, I think it’s semantics and picked that up from your statements about searching for v. avoiding.

  14. dick
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:04:06

    I like labels. Were it not for the content labels on foods and medicines, I’d spend half my life in the ER trying to reverse allergic reactions. I don’t see how the content I put into my head when I read differs much.

  15. Isobel Carr
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:30:31

    In regard to Gormley’s assertion that reading can be most rewarding when it’s challenging, I feel the same way. But I also know that’s my philosophy of reading, and it’s not fair to impose it on those readers who don’t want books to push their limits or challenge their emotional triggers.

    There’s a difference (to me) between a book that challenges me and one that repulses me. Also, there’s nothing particularly “challenging” about a book that uses sexual degradation to titillate. That’s been around for centuries.

    There’s nothing pejorative or judgmental about basic disclosure. As you said, we disclose tropes/themes all the time–such as BDSM or ménage in erotic romances or secret babies in category books–I don’t see why dubcon/noncon/f*ckordie should be any different. Some people like it, some people don’t, and some people like Kate Sherwood and I just get all HULK SMASH when we encounter it. Assuming you don’t want HULK SMASH reviews, do us both a favor and clue me in so I make an INFORMED DECISION about what I read.

    I *REALLY* think Sunita was bang on with her thoughts about fetish/kink reading and the spillover of certain tropes from fan fiction (Gormley refusing to get why the labeling tradition in fan fiction need to follow the tropes into “professional” publishing is just mindboggling IMO).

    @Ros:
    And just because one has fantasies, doesn’t necessarily equate to wanting to read a romance where that fantasy is centered as a feature of the relationship (rape might work as part of your spank bank, but not work as part of a romantic fantasy).

  16. Jane
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:33:20

    I read a review on Amazon of a book containing a rape and the reviewer said that she wished she had been warned because she was a rape survivor and the book made her feel like she was being raped all over again. She said she wished she could stop reading it but she couldn’t because she had to see if the rape victim (heroine) was going to survive but it was a horrible experience for her.

    I felt terrible for that reader and frankly if a warning prevents someone like her from going through that experience I’m all for it. There is far more harm that can be done without warnings than with warnings.

  17. Ros
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:40:40

    @Isobel Carr: Yes, and I didn’t mean to imply that. Just that having aversive-type fantasies doesn’t necessarily mean that you wouldn’t want to read those books.

  18. Mel
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:53:12

    I don’t think blurbs/descriptions can do the heavy lifting Ms. Gormley is asking them to do. They are a sales tool, not a categorizer. They are often deliberately vague or misleading to try to pique interest. Even when they aren’t vague they may not cover all the questions a reader might have. The blurb given as an example above raises more questions than it answers for me so I’d go to tags to check if plague = zombies, are the soldiers male or female or both, etc.

    I guess in my world I’d leave the blurbs alone and make a clickbox for the tags so I could see them or not as I wanted online. I’m not sure what I’d do for paper books as I gave them up years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect warning system. Just from the articles on this site I’d say the “moist” warning is missing from a lot of books. (-:

  19. hapax
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 09:55:49

    I’m rather ambivalent about “trigger warnings” per se. On the one hand, I don’t think that any book sale or unspoiled plot twist is worth the potential harm of causing what can be SERIOUS emotional, mental, even physical distress. On t’other, I have often used myself as an example of a person who has a highly specific and extremely unusual trigger, to the extent that requiring “warning” about it would strike 99.999% of readers as ridiculous and insulting.

    I do think there is an advantage TO AUTHORS in “content labels”, “tags”, or whatever neutral nomenclature is chosen, however. I heard a report on NPR just recently, about how ingredient labels for food were scientifically proven to affect the body’s physiological response — specifically, the very same milkshake would more often trigger hormonal indicators of fullness and satisfaction if it were label as high calorie and “indulgent”, instead of low calorie and “healthy”.

    And I think tags can work the same way. As several commenters on the other articles noted, a tag like “dub con” vs “non con” can shape the reader’s expectations *going in* to look for certain elements in the characters’ thoughts and actions that will frame the events of the narrative differently.

    Similarly, when I pick up a sff novel from the 30′s or 40′s, I have already mentally “tagged” it in a way that will make certain elements (e.g. racism, misogyny) more palatable and less HULK!SMASH! rage-inducing than they would in a more contemporary story.

    With such an enormous benefit in managing reader expectations, is it worth the trade-off to the author of “surprising” or “challenging” the reader with potentially distressing elements?

    Especially since, now that I think of it, if the artistic merit of your story depends on the reader being shocked or upset, that automatically makes it a story that loses value upon re-reading.

  20. Bronte
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 10:36:06

    I honestly don’t know where I stand on labelling. I will say that I have been put off from some books that I have ended up enjoying because of the way the book was labelled. I also don’t know at what point you stop because you can’t predict everyone’s triggers. Case in point, I was travelling internationally and decided to watch season one of homeland to pass the time. Without a warning there was a scene in a psychiatric institution where the lead actress was undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. My mother had just spent three months in a psych ward and had finished a course of ECT. Was I upset? Yes. I ended up crying on the plane. Did showtime owe me a warning? I’m still not sure.

  21. Carolyne
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 10:43:05

    From reading more of Amelia Gormley’s site it seems, to me, that part of what contributed to her own HULK SMASH reaction was the prevalence of people wanting “warnings” for the inclusion of sex involving women–or the mere description of girly parts–in m/m books. I can see why this would get stuck in one’s craw and affect one’s reaction to labelling books.

    Not wanting something shocking about the plot revealed in advance isn’t only about putting all the value of the story in its ability to upset a reader. It can also be about the emotional journey the author is crafting for the reader. It’s the author’s prerogative to say, “if you’re uneasy about taking this journey without warnings, my book isn’t for you.” It’s the reader’s prerogative to say, “then I won’t be reading any of your work.” As long as it’s easy to avoid seeing tags/labels/warnings/spoilers, we can all get what we want.

    Frankly, I wish every sitcom that’s going to spring a “main character discovers she’s quickly, uncomplicatedly, and happily fallen pregnant” scene had a warning on it, but I’m never going to get that (at least it’s usually easy to see coming, given how sitcoms are written). So I’m not unsympathetic to why labels are desired by so many readers. I’m not sure it’s useful to fight against them. I’m also not sure it’s not. I’ll just sit here and mull.

  22. Mara
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:00:07

    Thank you for this piece.

    In the age of the ebook, if you respect and care about your readers, you tag.
    It’s as simple as that.

    Writers like Gormley can come up with every reason under the sun to avoid tagging, but in the end, it’s a matter of whether the writer gives a damn about the reader’s experience. If she’s writing for shock value, I’m sure she’ll find ways to shock readers who are looking for that particular kind of story. She might show some simple empathy for those readers who are not.

  23. Sirius
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:02:34

    @ktgrant: Actually as far as I know the first book of “Flesh cartel” was temporarily removed by Amazon (and I remember getting enraged by it – as in “will never want to read it myself, but am upset that other readers who want it wont be able to get it so easily”) and very quickly came back. I am going to assume that it was at least in part because readers complained. So this was doubly ironic to see Ms. Gormley calling readers like myself “content police” knowing that I want warnings to protect myself (I am NOT a rape survivor, I just need to be in the mood for this type of reading and rarely am), but will never never ever be so arrogant as to even attempt to police anybody else’s choice of reading material.

    And I checkec, all “Flesh cartel” parts now seem to be on Amazon (14? 15?)

  24. Sirius
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:03:05

    @Sirius: UGH “checked”.

  25. Angela
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:04:36

    @Carolyne:

    As long as it’s easy to avoid seeing tags/labels/warnings/spoilers, we can all get what we want.

    100% agreed. @Jane: I’ve had friends that had similar reactions – and I will never, ever, be against something that prevents that for other people. I have a friend whose trigger is casual drug use and I’m always sure to be sure I don’t recommend things to her that will trip that trigger – and I warn her if I see her considering something that contains it.

    @hapax:

    On t’other, I have often used myself as an example of a person who has a highly specific and extremely unusual trigger, to the extent that requiring “warning” about it would strike 99.999% of readers as ridiculous and insulting.

    It’s another of those things that you’re never going to be able to capture all the possible triggers. There are a lot of triggers out there that I don’t even realize *are* triggers until someone mentions it to me. That doesn’t mean that I’d have been uncaring or cruel if I weren’t to tag/warn on a book I’d published, just that I didn’t know.

  26. Angela
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:05:43

    @Angela:

    It’s another of those things that you’re never going to be able to capture all the possible triggers. There are a lot of triggers out there that I don’t even realize *are* triggers until someone mentions it to me. That doesn’t mean that I’d have been uncaring or cruel if I weren’t to tag/warn on a book I’d published, just that I didn’t know.

    Hit post too soon. To clarify: Being unable to capture them all/please everyone doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t exist though.

  27. SAO
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:08:27

    I think fairly generic labels would work for me. I think the fear is that people will write to fit into the more popular labels, ostracizing more extreme work, but that assumes people aren’t willing to try something new. I find the idea that we need to be pushed beyond our boundaries presumptuous. I know what I don’t like. I’ve dabbled in it and been turned off.

    I’m pretty sure that if I accidentally bought any of Gormley’s work, I wouldn’t make it past the first chapter and I’d be annoyed that I wasted my money. It would only make me less willing to fork out more than $2 for a book by an unknown author. I doubt that’s the goal she wants.

  28. Heidi Belleau
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:13:06

    @ktgrant:

    What happened with Flesh Cartel was, it got removed due to content, we tried to start an appeals process (basically asking how we could make the series saleable, whether we needed to edit the content for the amazon edition, etc etc.) and what it wound up coming down to was the use of detailed warnings. It’s up on Amazon now without those warnings in the blurb, Amazon is still aware of it, but apparently it no longer violates guidelines.

    This is super frustrating to me because: as a rape survivor myself I’m passionate about trigger warnings and their validity & importance, but frankly Flesh Cartel is my best seller and funds everything else I write, and without that Amazon platform, I don’t know where I’d be money-wise. That’s a shitty compromise for me to make and I feel shitty about it. If it was outright blocked from sale, that would be one thing–and if Amazon was consistent and clear in their reviews process with regards to what books they sell and where and how–but what wound up happening is “sure we’ll sell it and make money off of it as long as you’re not upfront about it” and that really sucks. The responses to Strain and Amelia’s post, however, makes it really obvious to me that it’s not fair to readers to have inadequate warnings on Amazon’s behalf, and I’m trying to come up with some kind of palatable solution. Riptide does have a detailed content warning/tagging system on their site, but if Amazon users aren’t finding it, then to me as an author who writes for them (and writes content that genuinely needs to be warned for), it’s not effective enough.

    It’s true that you can’t predict every single trigger (my own is so innocuous and commonplace I regularly get triggered by fucking fast food commercials, and if that’s not the saddest thing you’ve ever heard don’t tell me what is because wow that must be sad), but I think we can exercise common sense that certain content is more likely to trigger than others, and a lot of the time a trigger warning isn’t an AVOID THIS YOU WILL BE TRIGGERED flashing neon sign so much as a POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING CONTENT AHEAD USE CAUTION sign. Not being blindsided helps a surprising amount.

  29. Sirius
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:13:40

    @Carolyne: I think warnings for violence are separate from all other warnings . I can see SAO’s comment about fairy generic labels and I agree – generic warnings for violence and for sexual violence is all I need. I don’t see how it will harm anybody.

  30. Amanda
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:25:34

    I know one publisher (not sure which) use to put something like “m/m sexual practices” in warnings for what was an m/m romance. To me that seemed rather ridiculous since if I am buying an m/m romance I am rather expecting these “practices” .
    However bookswith rape or dub/con do need some sort of warning for those readers who do have triggers. Also when buying a romance all readers expect to at least get something that fits their idea of that genre. For some readers these books in no way fit the romance category. Many years ago I read a historical that came off like stockholm syndrome instead of a love story and I don’t think I would ever have read it if the internet been around to warn me off.

  31. Sunny
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:31:44

    I think that there is an assumed premise that people who have rape fantasies want to read books that have rape in them, especially if it eventually turns to a loving relationship between characters. I don’t know if this is the case.

    I’ve been up-front about this before, I am a CSA survivor and have been sexually assaulted, I have rape fantasies that are not aversive (and I feel really gross about that, to be honest), and I absolutely do not want to read a book with rape or dubious consent in it. I have, but it is often enough to have me throwing up if it catches me off-guard, and hunting down anxiety medication I otherwise haven’t needed for years. Same goes for movies (movies are worse, so much worse, I cannot get Girl with the Dragon Tattoo out of my head years later). I try to vet things very heavily because I know I have such an extreme reaction (and quite frankly, can’t possibly enjoy it!).

    I appreciate warnings tremendously. I’m not asking for people to cater to me, but I am absolutely grateful for authors/publishers and reviewers (especially! This is where I get most of my warnings from!) who alert me to it before I go in.

    I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong or shameful to write them or to enjoy reading them (I may have feelings, but I prefer not to push them on others because I feel it’s a topic I can’t be objective about, and quite frankly don’t want to be objective about, but pick my hills). I can only speak for myself that A does not lead to B does not lead to C. In personal fantasy I am 100% in control and can consent, or withdraw it, at any time. I can stop reading but it will never stop from having happened, and like Jane said, I desperately want to know that the person involved will be okay. Them magically being in love with the person is not okay for me.

  32. Heidi Belleau
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:41:22

    @Sunny:

    Totally off-topic, but have you seen this website yet? It’s a public database of triggering content in movies: http://www.movietriggers.com

    I get triggered really badly by movies too so stuff like this is pretty amazing. Thank you internet!

  33. Janine
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:00:40

    I don’t have time to read all the comments right now but I agree with you, Robin, that the author’s concern is likely sales rather than professionalism.

    In the romance genre, at least, I think many readers want indications of potentially triggering or controversial content, and I think that should be respected. I personally would prefer a non-pejorative indication, like a tag, over a warning, but I can live with warnings. Like Jane, I hate the thought of a rape survivor having to relive that trauma, and I am willing to put up with spoilers for that. When I review, I always try to warn about potential triggers.

  34. Emily
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:05:09

    I personally side with those who request trigger warnings. I have a few.
    I am always surprised more people don’t do more research before seeing movies or reading books. I generally like to have all the knowledge all I can particularly before seeing a movie. That being said even I am blind-sided occasionally. Nobody gave me any trigger warnings when I started the In-Death series. It took me a long time to be able to come to terms with the issues in those books.
    Speaking of triggers warnings, that statistic of 60% of women have rape fantasies needed a trigger warning. WTF?

  35. cleo
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:15:37

    This is good conversation. I have such complicated feelings about it. I have PTSD and I do like to avoid being blindsided by a book – although that’s not always possible and I know that. As Sunny says, I don’t expect to be catered to, I just want to be able to (easily) find the info I need. I don’t find the “may not be suitable for sensitive viewers” type warnings you see on tv to be helpful at all. I’d rather just know if there’s graphic violence or sexual assault.

    I see the conflict between labels and spoilers. I’ve been blindsided by things that happen in the last third of a book or movie – that no reviewer mentioned because of spoilers. But I get not wanting to be spoiled. I really like how Riptide does it on their site – you have to click the warning tab to read them. I honestly would love it if there was a code for something like CSA ( which often doesn’t get much warning) that those of us who need/want to know about in advance could memorize and everyone else could blissfully ignore.

    @Heidi Belleau – thanks for the link. It’s like the creator read my mind – I’ve been waiting for something like this.

  36. Liz Mc2
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:18:08

    I think one problem in these discussions (I don’t mean this thread) is the loose way “trigger” is used, so I appreciate comments like Jane’s, Sunny’s and Heidi’s that point out what it actually means. I have mixed feelings about labels (except that there is no perfect system), but I also feel like my opinion doesn’t matter much, because while I have certainly had unpleasant reading and viewing experiences that I would prefer to have avoided, that is not the same as the experience of someone who is a survivor and is triggered by what she reads or sees.

    I am not surprised that these discussions are particularly salient in romance. I know tons of readers–many of them much more adventurous as romance-readers than I am–who say they no longer read literary fiction or (some) other genres because it is too depressing. If readers are turning to the genre for a certain kind of experience (of safety, escape, pleasure), of course they are unhappy to encounter things that seriously disrupt that experience.

    Finally, re. the point on being challenged by reading. I (sometimes) like to be challenged by what I read. But I also do not find all kinds of “challenges” or trips outside my comfort zone to be equally worthwhile, interesting, enlightening, etc. Just because material is upsetting or uncomfortable to me does not mean that it challenges social conventions or my prejudices or whatever. Often quite the contrary (see: torture porn/women in refrigerators in thrillers). The idea that “dark/gritty” material is *inherently* superior, more complex, or challenging to the status quo in some way is ridiculous. (I’m not arguing with you here, Robin, but with Gormley’s comments–and these views are hardly unique to her).

  37. Michele Mills
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:21:32

    @Heidi Belleau: After reading the comments here I went to Amazon and looked up Flesh Cartel (this book was new to me). I saw that your co author is Rachel Haimowitz, which made me smile (I loved Break and Enter). I was intrigued by the cover/blurb, which at the end said this: Reader descretion advised. This title contains explicit m/m sexual situations of a non-consensual nature. Then, below, in the first five reviews was one titled: Well done, but read at your own risk, which I read. One-clicked, because well, I like edgy. BUT, like you said before, you know that not everyone does, and you’re concerned about your consumer, which I appreciate. Just wanted you to know that btwn the blurb, blurb warning and revs, I felt sufficiently warned about content prior to purchase. No worries.

  38. Sirius
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:28:42

    @Liz Mc2: I just want to stress that I totally agree that people who have triggers are not necessarily encompass all the readers who would like to see warnings/tags/labels (whatever) about violence/any violence, or just sexual violence. I am personally not triggered by the rape in my reading, but as Isobel Carr said, I am very very likely to get enraged about it and when I say enraged, I mean on behalf of the characters, not that such reading exists, etc. I am not sure why my opinion should count less – ONLY in a sense that I want those labels, warnings, you know? I am not claiming any real harm from such reading, but as a customer, I want to be able to avoid such reads or just wait till I am in the mood for it. And why the author would prefer to see a pissed off one star from me, rather than not, is something I just don’t get

  39. Suzy K
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:34:31

    In a way, there has always been ‘labeling’ or ‘tagging’, even before ebooks & the ‘net. I remember discussions about book cover art being coded for content. (I’m thinking the 70′s & 80′s and before) Different things on the cover, placement of hands, & mouth & clothing, were indicators of how ‘description’ the content was. Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part, the publishers kept to those guidelines.

    But, we are doing the same thing today. Think of the erotica genre with all the wanna be 50 shades books… the covers all have the same look, signaling that if you liked 50 shades, you’ll like this book…. or lying about it.

    One of my all-time favorite books, a California historical family epic, has a rape in it and it is important to the plot and characters, but if I had known at age18ish, that there was a rape scene, I would have steered clear. I didn’t know, so when I read it, I was surprised/shocked, but it fit the story and was told well (& was revenged by a secondary character) I love that book, but even though it was published in the 70s-80s, I won’t spoil it here.

    There is a current author whose books I enjoyed but the trope of “super dominant male” and “strong but must be submissive female” was driving me nutso. So I stopped reading her books. I know she’s a good author, but I know that I’ll throw the book through my picture window if I have to read “too bad, this is what must happen if you are to be my woman” crapola.

    The coding goes on and it always will, either directly or indirectly. So, someone makes a purchase and doesn’t like a book. Ok, read more about a book before buying it Get recommendations. Check with sources you trust for recommendations. Take chances on new authors, but realize that sometimes you will get a “cannot finish” book.

  40. MaryK
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 13:49:07

    @SAO: “I find the idea that we need to be pushed beyond our boundaries presumptuous. I know what I don’t like. I’ve dabbled in it and been turned off. ”

    Additionally, “erotic romance” covers a whole lot of territory from intensely sexual but vanilla to hard core kink. No reader is going to be interested in every sex act that erotic romance can possibly include. I don’t see what the big deal is. Labeling helps customers find what they want and part of that process involves weeding out what they don’t want.

  41. Kate Pearce
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 14:16:09

    I don’t tag my books because I’m worried about professional backlash, I tag them because I write across a wide variety of romance from steamy to kinky under the same name and I want to give my readers a heads up as to what a particular book or series entails. Readers have told me many times that they appreciate the tags. It’s just a matter of courtesy.

  42. cs
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 15:26:06

    @Heidi Belleau: Can I just say I really appreciate what you wrote.

    I left a few comments about this elsewhere and I did mention about tagging/relevant warnings. Samhain’s warnings are idiotic and more about being witty than actually giving information. Loose Id and Dreamspinner are incredibly broad. Riptide do give you a list and the thing is (if I’m not mistaken) you can view them if you choose too so it gives people the option to see the warnings vs people who don’t want to see them. This is effective and very appreciated but my point remains – I very rarely buy from the publisher. I understand Amazon has strict guidelines but it is infuriating to pick up a book and be hit with something you would never want to read.

    Riptide labels this book as dub-con but it’s not. It’s non-con and that in itself is a problem. Like @Jane said people can be triggered and that was another point I had made. You can’t control what people read but at the very least you should have the relevant warnings and if you’re writing a book that can trigger someone then in my eyes it should be there.

    To be her post just read like a knee-jerk response. I’m not going to lie – I need my warnings (if relevant) that’s all I ask when I’m buying a book.

  43. Sirius
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 15:52:15

    @cs: Yep, about Samhain – although I have to say that I had seen their warnings get better. Not sure if it is an overall improvement, or only on a few books, but say the book from them I will be reviewing in a couple weeks has the warning for violence and implied sexual abuse.

    Somebody upthread mentioned a warning for m/m sexual practices. I am not sure if Samhain used to do it too , but Loose Id definitely did, not sure if they still do. These warnings used to drive me bonkers, you know? Could be offensive for some readers, blah, blah, blah. But then somebody said that it is a good business practices, and I started thinking – still not sure if I am in agreement, but if it helps avoiding those one star reviews – oh noes, two men in love and I did not realize that, maybe it is not a bad thing either.

  44. jane
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:23:03

    @Liz Mc2: Trigger, like bully, is going to become meaningless. I saw a self pub author use it today to describe how she felt when she had criticism directed toward her on the internet. I was going to comment on her facebook page, but refrained.

    There is also the problem about readers (and authors – seeing this again in the self pub world) complaining about spoilers. And spoilers can be everything from a particular disability a character has (revealed in the 14%) all the way to the fact that a book does or does not have a cliffhanger. So while readers are trying to help other readers in providing spoilers, more information, etc. there’s a backlash against it from those readers who are militant against spoilers.

    I’ve seen popular indie bloggers refer to readers who place spoilers in status updates on Goodreads, frex, be very vocal (and not in a very kind way) against this.

  45. Harper Kingsley
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:23:41

    I wish sci-fi and fantasy came with some warnings. It’s been years, but I’m still pissed off by David Feintuch’ s “The King,” not just because of the frustrating and enraging reversal of character growth, but by the unexpected mutilation. I have an amputation phobia — I’m fine with real people and I can look away from movies, but reading about it gives me a tight chest and sick feelings. I threw that book across the room, but it was still in my head :(

    It’s the same with The Runelords series. Awesome premise, I was enjoying the series and had read 3 or 4 of the books, then ugh. Mutilation of my favorite character. I’ve never read another book by that author and I don’t trust him at all.

    So I think there should be tags on books. General warnings that can be put on the copyright page, since no one really looks at that page anyways. Like for The King I would have put: “Genre: fantasy, m/m, adventure” and below that “Warning tags: internalized homophobia, violence, non-con, mutilation of secondary character, disturbing imagery.”

    But because it’s general fantasy, no one thinks a reader might want some kind of warning :(

  46. MrsJoseph
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:28:29

    Count me as another person who prefers tags/warnings. Extreme violence and sexual abuse trigger me – more the sexual violence than anything else.

    I manage to avoid 99% of these triggering books due to warnings/tags. There was one book that I started that had a gang rape in the first paragraph. I wrote a blisteringly angry review and the author complained – but had she used warnings/tags I would have never picked the book up.

    I don’t want to give an angry review but I also don’t want those images in my head. And I can’t unread it and I hate to feel hostage to a book.

    I greatly appreciate every author who tags/labels their books.

  47. MrsJoseph
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:29:11

    @MrsJoseph: Oops! That was the first chapter, not paragraph!

  48. Carolyne
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 16:47:47

    @Angela & @Sirius: I’ve become aware that my initial response to labels includes a knee-jerk reaction to the presence of a trigger warning as being a trigger in itself–”I went through [whatever situation], don’t treat me like I need a warning.” But that only reinforces how individual we all are. My own brain doesn’t even agree with itself–I usually want to be forewarned if there’s going to be gross-out, bloody violence. I appreciate that Riptide’s website, in addition to hiding the information from view but making it simple and obvious to access, divides it into “warnings” and “additional details,” and subdivides additional details even further. If I don’t want to know that the plot includes a slow reveal of the love interest’s traumatic personal history, I can avoid looking at all the details.

    (Well, so, hmm: I just clicked on a random Riptide historical novel to see how tags are used, and there were so many things listed under the additional details–but no warnings at all–that I think I need to buy this book just to see it for myself. There’s a female protagonist…and a whole lotta other stuff…I don’t even know what one of the tags means…but anyway. I claim I don’t like tags, but there you have it: Tags = potential sale. And I can’t complain to anyone if I don’t like the content, because I know exactly what I’m getting.)

  49. Moriah Jovan
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 17:00:48

    To me, generic tags are fine: “BDSM,” “M/F/M,” “exhibitionism,” etc. Tags like “dubious consent” and “forced seduction” are only problematic with regard to who’s doing the defining. I liked one author’s way of handling it which was “GENRES: x, y, and z.” It avoided both “tag” and “warning.”

    But I am rabidly anti-spoiler, and yes, some warnings venture into spoiler territory, which includes the really cutesy ones. But for every one of me who won’t pick up a book because of it, I’m sure there are three who will.

  50. theo
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 17:30:23

    For me, the tags of m/m (don’t read it, just not my style) or HFN or menage or any of a dozen other in that category is a good thing. I’m spending hard earned dollars and since I’m not one of the chronic returners of books, I want to make sure I’m spending my money on the things I want to read. The last thing I want to read though is forced rape (been there, have the scars) abuse, anything derogatory against a child or a few other things…things that yes, are ‘triggers’ for people, because some of them are triggers for me as well. If an author is so convinced that her writing is that glorious that it needs no warning, no tag, no label, she/he is not an author I’m going to read anyway. And unfortunately, unless the author is read by enough people to look for balanced reviews, or is an emerging author someone I know has already taken the chance on and recommends, the only thing I can go by is the tags.

    The problem with any of this, tags, warnings, what-have-you is that what one person doesn’t want to see, another does. So how do you end up satisfying everyone? You don’t. :/

  51. azteclady
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 18:53:12

    I am famously spoiler phobic, yet I definitely prefer to have content tags available everywhere the book is visible, from the author’s website to the different sellers to reviews. I don’t want to know the surprise twist on the third to last chapter of the book, but I definitely want to know what I’m getting into.

    Because while it’s likely that some things will fall through the cracks, that some readers will have adverse reactions to things 99% of readers won’t blink at, yet at least by having the tags there we are making a good faith effort not to harm others.

    Having tags doesn’t infantilize readers–saying, essentially, “well, if you are an adult you don’t need to know anything about this novel before hand, so just stop whining and read” now that is not just offensive, that does infantilize readers and is, as SAO says above, presumptuous.

  52. Sunny
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 18:59:32

    @Heidi Belleau:

    Oh, this is fantastic, thank you! Until now I’ve relied on friends who have already seen something or comb through reviews. I’ll admit that for things in theatres, I mostly take my nieces or nephew to go see G-rated movies or don’t go to anything rated higher than PG with my husband. We just saw the new Captain America movie and I’m kind of surprised it had a PG rating, but I guess PG really does stand for “plenty of guns” now. ;)

    DA reviews tend to be very up-front about things that are harmful to me, even the daily deals will mention if something has issues I should be aware of when possible, and as I said I am grateful for these and for people who chime in about them. Again, it doesn’t mean they’re bad books or the authors are bad for writing them, they’re just definitely not for me and picking one up doesn’t just fill me with regret, but can honestly short-circuit me for a day or more. I certainly don’t blacklist an author or report something on Amazon if a book contains it, especially if they’ve taken the time to warn me! Well I wouldn’t anyhow, but I’d definitely write a review that mentioned it.

    As for some people liking some things and not others, the SBTB “what is your catnip” posts are just amazing for me to find books with tropes I really love, so if authors also tag things as say, “Snowed In” or “Geek Love Story” or “Puppies” I am clicking buy so fast! SO fast. I bought every book from a Goodreads list of a reader’s favourite snowed-in stories, so discoverability — it might be in tags!

  53. » State of the Shannon: The High on Cold Meds Edition Flight into Fantasy
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 19:27:58

    […] have been a couple of fascinating blog posts on the subject of whether or not romance novels should come with content warnings. I’m in the […]

  54. cs
    Apr 16, 2014 @ 13:52:09

    @Sirius: I rarely buy from Samhain unless it’s an auto-buy author. It’s good to know that they actually forewarn the reader about some serious elements the book will tackle.

    I think Loose Id still use the generic “this is m/m you may object to it” line. It’s the most confusing and insulting thing to add to a m/m book. I’m not sure how it’s good practice but I don’t think they have changed it. The warning I do like is their BDSM one though. People are incredibly influenced whether they read fiction or non-fiction and I wouldn’t put it past someone to do something they read in a book. Even if the BDSM element was written with research done properly beforehand – I think it’s a nifty thing they added. Probably to cover their back in case someone tried to sue them…but hey ho.

    I have no problem if rape is written in a book for what it is – I am incredibly uncomfortable and get easily upset when it is used in a fantasy/sexy/glorifying way. I’m not demanding anything from authors or publishers but if I’m not warned about an element especially an element like rape – I will criticise in my own space (or in a forum like this). I will not email the author or publisher nor will I comment on the author’s post. I understand authors and publishers do as much as they can and I understand that Amazon does not make their lives easier. However, I believe as a reader I should never be blindsided.

  55. Sirius
    Apr 17, 2014 @ 11:45:53

    @cs: Oh I know Loose Id still does it and no, I do not like it, all I meant when I said that I wonder if it indeed may be a good business practice is that it may protect the books from the one star “reviews” which say something like this “I did not realize this was about two men having sex with each other” (I saw those “reviews” more than once, funny none of them said “I did not realize this was about two men in love with each other”, even though I only saw them on romances) – one star.

    So in that sense I did start wonder whether it is a good business practice – did not become any less insulting though of course.

  56. Diana
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 10:43:31

    @Jane: Yes. For people with PTSD and lingering trauma-based symptoms of fear, aversion and depression, coming across things that remind them of their trauma can be devastating. As a social worker and therapist working in child welfare, I’ve seen first hand the reactions to people being triggered — it can be absolutely horrific for the individual. I’ve seen people spin out emotionally for days, weeks and months after being triggered by things that are as simple as the smell of perfume or aftershave (which reminds them of their abuser) or by very explicit things like depictions of rape/abuse in movies/tv/books.

    And then there are people who have totally different, opposite reactions to trauma, who probably would not need or want such warnings. Trauma is such a weird beast — very few people act in exactly the same manner. For those people who have been traumatized in their lives and are sensitive to being triggered by violence and sexual assault, what is the harm in a warning? I’m not really convinced by the counter arguments.

  57. Heidi Belleau
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 14:16:17

    @Sirius:

    Personally, I take those reviews as a compliment. If a reader can’t tell my book is about a gay relationship from the cover, blurb, and tags, I will savour their “ew queer cooties” squirming all the way to the bank

  58. Jenna
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 16:41:24

    As a victim of sexual assault I appreciate warning labels. It’s not that I won’t read the book, it’s just that I’ll do it with certain walls up so I can enjoy it.

  59. Sirius
    Apr 18, 2014 @ 19:53:52

    @Heidi Belleau: I applaud your attitude, but I still find such reviews infuriating. I mean, it often happens when the book is free – people do not read blurbs, download the book and then we get “eww two men having sex”. If the book is not clear – one thing, but I do not know how much more clear the blurb in your “Mark of the gladiator” could have been about one man being attracted to another man at least being part of the plot. And we still get “gay porn” – it is really not, but that’s my thing – maybe such warnings as Loose Id issues, annoying and insulting as they are, if it helps reduce the number of such reviews maybe it serves some role?

  60. Heidi Belleau
    Apr 19, 2014 @ 18:09:44

    @Sirius:

    The reviews we got in the wake of Mark of the Gladiator being an Amazon freebie were pretty awkward, yeah. And yet lol.

  61. Melisse Aires
    Apr 20, 2014 @ 10:09:24

    I want content warnings. I’m a middle aged woman fully capable of buying books I want to read– I don’t need some condescending author trying to widen my reading or ‘life’ experiences with their inevitable dark subject matter.

    What makes dark so superior anyway? Spend a few years with chronic illness that will never heal, or clinical depression in your life or in the life of ones you love, then come talk to me about how great dark is, how superior pain and tragedy and death are.

    I don’t want to buy a book that contains scenes etc I don’t care to read or subject matter that is distasteful to me for whatever reason. It’s my dollar, books are a product I purchase. I read reviews, get samples, read labels. I prefer upfront information, not tricks, especially no tricks for my own good.

    The content labels are one of the things I most enjoy at fanfic sites. They give me the power to choose.

    ~Grouch Melisse

  62. Sirius
    Apr 20, 2014 @ 11:51:56

    @Heidi Belleau: I have an off topic for this thread question but I am going to ask it anyway since you are one of the authors of “Flesh cartel” which already came up here even if for a different reason and if the rumor I just heard is correct I need to know. Is it true that Abigal Roux loaned you Ty and Zane to appear in the last episodes of your story? Thanks in advance for the answer.

  63. Sirius
    Apr 20, 2014 @ 18:12:43

    @Sirius: Oh never mind, apparently Ty and Zane already star in “Flesh cartel” – I have read reviews on Good reads and this scary rumor is a correct one and I am hopelessly out of loop. So sad.

  64. Heidi Belleau
    Apr 21, 2014 @ 16:50:48

    @Sirius:

    They don’t star, but they do have a small cameo–an easter egg more than anything. My co-author is the editor on the series at Riptide and she arranged it with Abigail Roux.

  65. Sirius
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 14:21:05

    @Heidi Belleau: Thanks. Oh and I really was not trying to imply that you took the characters without Abigail Roux’s permission, I am sure she gave it to you . I am sad mostly because such idea entered somebody’s (saying somebody because I do not know whose idea it was) head in the first place. I will be just as sad if say Josh Lanyon decides that Adrien English and Jake should come and star in somebody else’s stories, not necessarily yours. Or if JCP will lend Vic and Jacob to go play in another story. But my further ranting will move this thread even further off topic. Anyway, thanks again for answering my question, I appreciate it.

  66. Shiloh Walker
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 15:36:52

    In regard to Gormley’s assertion that reading can be most rewarding when it’s challenging, I feel the same way. But I also know that’s my philosophy of reading, and it’s not fair to impose it on those readers who don’t want books to push their limits or challenge their emotional triggers.

    Sure, it can be rewarding when challenging. That doesn’t mean a woman who has been raped needs to be triggered when she picks up a book where the heroine actually has rape fantasies and acts them out.

    I think this is the sort of thing where those warnings are very useful.

    Me? There are a lot of books that just don’t play to my personal preferences and when those warnings help me weed through the ones that don’t appeal, they are very, very useful.

  67. hapax
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 16:18:00

    @Melisse Aires:

    What makes dark so superior anyway? Spend a few years with chronic illness that will never heal, or clinical depression in your life or in the life of ones you love, then come talk to me about how great dark is, how superior pain and tragedy and death are.

    Preach on, sister!

    I’ve ranted on this a time or two in the past, but I’ll gladly share my soapbox with you.

    (And you might enjoy Katherine Addison’s comments about THE GOBLIN EMPEROR over at the Book Smugglers today!)

  68. CaroleDee
    Apr 28, 2014 @ 01:38:05

    From my experience it would be insane NOT to put a content warning on your books. I can only imagine the terrible ratings on something that has ‘extreme’ subjects that weren’t disclosed before-hand. Heck, books that DO have warnings are still routinely bashed by ‘reviewers’ for the very thing they were warned about.
    I still can’t believe the amount of bad reviews BDSM books get because the reader was ‘offended’ by something that is routine in the BDSM world. It makes no sense to me. It’s like going to an Italian restaurant and then blasting the food because (they think) Italian food is gross :/

  69. Kate Pavelle
    May 09, 2014 @ 21:19:41

    Okay, I get that all those “trigger warnings” have gotten out of hand lately. However, as a former victim of sexual violence, I do disclose the presence of such events (or hint at other trauma) in my blurbs. I have returned a book to the publisher because it had “in your face” torture in it. I don’t want my readers to do the same, because they feel betrayed that they were going to buy “Genre A” and they buy “Genre G”. Betraying reader expectations is generally frowned upon.

    Of course, if you are a bloody awesome writer and think you can pull off just about anything, well, do whatever you want. But the sort of “skimming” over the mind of antagonist psychopaths you see in James Patterson thrillers? The reason most writers stay away from first person present tense fiction? It’s because the reader is uncomfortable being that close to those negative emotions. So, writer beware.

    I don’t want to infantilize anything. We are too protective of our children, building injury-fee playgrounds and using PC language that doesn’t mean anything anymore – and don’t get me started on the psychobabble of academia. However, having been there, I can sympathize. I WILL read a rape fic, as long as rape is a relevant plot element, and not glamorized. But, please, give me a heads-up so I can steel myself for what is likely to be a strong experience.

  70. Helen
    Jun 04, 2014 @ 07:54:11

    Ugh. I typed a rather long comment and the internet quietly went out, so when I hit “post” it was lost in the aether. A summarized version:

    1) Fandom has been having the debate for years, running apparently on the same lines: spoilers/hand-holding vs. triggers. It’s never come to a satisfactory conclusion and may never.

    2) Both sides (in and out of fandom) use something of a straw man, which is unhelpful. The anti-warnings crew’s insistence on it hurting their artistic integrity is aggravating and really begs the question of whether or not their work is art, but the focus on triggers is also bad. It pushes people to expand the definition of “trigger”, because if the only argument for warnings is “they trigger people”, if you want warnings to avoid what you dislike you must then claim to have a trigger.

    2a) Semantics have been helpful in fandom: “contains X, Y, and Z” makes it easy to find or avoid certain things while also avoiding judgment.

    3) It was mentioned upthread that it was important to distinguish between non-con and dub-con, but that’s half the problem – who makes the decision? The distinction is too fuzzy. Better to be up front with the specific arena – sex slavery, aliens made them do it, etc. – and let people decide if they can risk it. Alternatively, people could stop policing the “dub-con” label, allow it to be used for all situations which are not outright forcible rape, and take more care when browsing in it.

    4) Amazon’s policy on objectionable content is entirely unclear – there’s nothing to it beyond “offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts”, no guidelines or examples. (“What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.” Great.) And there’s no appeal process. As was shown upthread, a popular author can get support for their books to be returned, but for the most part you’re SOL. They would not explain to me how I could fix my own ebooks to comply with their standards, and I’ve read ebooks there that were just as non-conny as mine. Based on my experience, it seems highly likely that giving a warning for non-consensual situations is essentially asking them to not publish it; “dubious consent” is okay, potentially even if the consent is actually non. The debate about giving warnings will ALWAYS be impossible to resolve as long as Amazon punishes authors for giving appropriate ones.

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