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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?