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genre critique

Dear Author

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?

The not-so-fine lines between critiquing and policing

The not-so-fine lines between critiquing and policing


There was much discussion this past week about critiquing and policing in online communities. Robin’s post last week kicked off a lively discussion in the comments and on Twitter, and I started to see examples of the tension she highlighted in post throughout the week, here at Dear Author and elsewhere. A particular back-and forth in the comments thread to her post stayed with me, that of the difference between critiquing something, whether it’s a book, an argument, a trope, or even a genre, and policing individuals and groups within the community.

Maybe it’s because I’m mired in prep for a class on collection of data and methods of analysis, but for me the line between both critique and policing isn’t difficult to see at all. I consider them both to be forms of persuasion. They are both designed to convince the intended audience to accept a particular point of view (and in the case of policing, to affect behavior as a result). But they are different types of persuasion.

In my world, critique requires logical argument, evidence, and in the best-case scenario, something original. Policing, on the other hand, is the regulation of existing behavior. It draws its legitimacy from a previously articulated argument rather than making a new or more detailed case for it, and it doesn’t usually bring anything new to the table. It’s a reiteration of an already existing position. The writing of the regulation is where the original work occurs (often accompanied by or following a period of debate and critique), and the policing is the unoriginal, order-restoring part. And it’s not about being PC or not PC in either case (this came up in various ways in several conversations I followed). There is no innate connection between political correctness (which is a term usually invoked to caricature an ideology or world view), and critiques and policing, which are methods of articulating and implementing theories and opinions.

Critiques abound in romance land, and while Dear Author and other blogs often write opinion pieces that incorporate critique, the most commonly found type is that of a substantive review. Obviously, some (many?) reviews are primarily reflections of the writer’s emotional response to a book, a short or long explanation that falls somewhere on the spectrum from “I loved it” to  “I hated it.” But other reviewers take a more analytical approach, whether the analysis is implicit or explicit, and it can be about the literary and technical aspects, the ideological assumptions, the choice of setting and character, or some combination of these.

Critique is an indirect form of persuasion: Here is my argument and my evidence for it, with which I hope to convince you of something. I say indirect because critiques aren’t aimed at changing reader behavior but at providing information and analysis that can help the reader make informed decisions about the text and whether it will appeal to her. Even when critiques are written at a more meta level, as in opinion pieces, the writer frequently provides examples to support the claims being made. Critiques most often seek to persuade through argument and example.

Policing, by contrast, is a direct form of persuasion. Examples of policing as persuasion in romland are probably as easy to find as critical reviews. They include instances when someone argues that a book shouldn’t be read at all, or should be read but not reviewed, or should be reviewed but not recommended, or should be recommended but with caveats at the recommendation stage(s).  As with non-romland forms of policing, our policing invokes authority rather than direct evidence. Sometimes it draws on moral suasion (e.g., a review site of this type/calibre shouldn’t be publicizing this book), sometimes it invokes superior authenticity and legitimacy (e.g., a POC commenter labels a book racist), and sometimes it appeals to community norms about societal conditions and effects (e.g. women are disproportionally harmed by rape and books that romanticize rape reinforce this process, so books that romanticize rape are bad for women).

None of these examples involve critique, i.e., making an argument at the moment of policing about the specific example under discussion. Policing is more frequently accompanied by generalities. If you agree that the generality invoked applies to the specific case, you’re more likely to be persuaded. Policing is not always bad, not by any means. It’s a way of keeping order, which all communities find necessary, and of reminding individuals of shared norms, which hold communities together.

That acceptance of the need for some order is probably why we see very few truly unmoderated sites and blogs, especially in romanceland.  People disagree all the time about what level of moderation should be used (partly because we don’t all share the same norms about what constitutes the ideal level of order), but we don’t disagree with the principle of moderation. And we recognize that some people have more policing power than others in certain circumstances, thus the common phrase “your blog, your rules,” whether we agree with those rules or not.

I’m not opposed to policing; as I said, it’s necessary and useful in communities. But is usually more fraught, because participants don’t necessarily agree on the assumptions, or they don’t value the appeal to authority in the same way, or they just don’t like being told what to do. It’s hard for policing to sound anything but prescriptive, while the prescriptive aspects of critique are embedded within a larger descriptive and analytic context. A critique will take the form, “this book is not worth reading because of A, B, and C,” where A, B, and C are examples from the text under discussion. An attempt to police will be phrased as “this book is bad because it perpetuates (or romanticizes, or gives legitimacy to) X, Y, and Z,” where X, Y, and Z are social problems, without providing any concrete evidence of the relationship.

Critiquing and policing aren’t limited to blog posts, of course, or to blog owners and contributors. Comment threads are full of examples of readers doing both. Commenters will support or rebut an argument in the review or opinion piece with examples, providing a mini-critique by doing so, and then other commenters might signal their agreement or disagreement, and by the end of the thread, in my favorite outcome, the combination of post and discussion provide the ultimate rebuttal to that usually excellent advice about the internet: “Don’t read the comments.”

Commenters also practice policing on blogs, and you can see certain power relationships in play there too. More established commenters will police newer ones, and after a while regular commenters will be accorded authority status on certain issues. Tensions are more likely, though, when commenters police rather than critique each other. For example, if a commenter supports a criticism of a book as homophobic with examples from the text, or a link to a review, that contribution is more likely to be accepted as legitimate than a criticism of, say, a commenter’s agreement with a positive review on the grounds that the book is homophobic, or a criticism that such a book shouldn’t have been reviewed because it is so homophobic. That sounds like a tone complaint, but it’s not: it’s an evidence complaint, or put another way, commenters rebuff the criticism because the critic hasn’t provided evidence to back up the critical statement.

And, I imagine, the resistance stems from loyalty to the reviewer, the blog more generally, and/or to the members of the community who also liked the purportedly homophobic book. Because it’s worth remembering that all of these one-on-one interactions take place in the context of the larger community. Even when the exchange is between two individuals, a conflict can be about issues in which many members of the community consider themselves to be stakeholders, and given the embedding of the romance community in social media, individual blog posts and exchanges between a couple of commenters don’t take long to be shared by a larger audience, many of whom are invested in the debate.

Communities, like all institutions, are created by individuals but exist apart from the individuals who are in them at any given time. As long as there is churn (enough people entering in as others exit to maintain a critical mass), the community will continue, often keeping the same name and some of the same norms, even if it undergoes quite a bit of change overall. Think of romanceland twenty years ago v. romanceland now. Many authors from the 90s aren’t writing romance anymore, trad regencies are gone, YA has become a big part of the romance genre, and the contemporary and historical romance genres have ebbed and flowed more than once.

A romance blog has an owner, and moderators, and a structure. But the larger community I’m calling romanceland doesn’t. Everyone is pretty much an equal, especially when we are speaking in our identity as readers, and policing of equals by equals is not always going to be well received. Policing when people have stipulated power, like blog ownership, is dicey enough. But policing from a position of asserted authority that’s not consensually accepted is more likely to work when the policing serves as a reminder of a shared norm, and less likely when it is asserting or imposing a new or contested one. Even when authority is asserted, very few of us can stand in for an entire ethnic, racial, or cultural group. That’s why argument supported by evidence is critical; rather than asserting your authority to police a fellow reader’s choices, evidence allows her to make her own decision.

If you want to make lasting changes to aspects of the genre, the most effective way is to engage in collective action to bring about enough individual participation to achieve your goals. Of course, that’s incredibly difficult and more effort than most of us (me included) are willing to take on. An alternative: be the change you wish to see. If you ask someone to refrain from reading or writing something that contributes to social injustice, something that they enjoy, start by telling them about a sacrifice you’ve made along analogous lines (for example, I’ve given up on Western romances). At least then you look like you’re taking a punch, not just delivering one.