A few words on warnings

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Title: a few words on warnings
Creator: thingswithwings
Date(s): February 24, 2009
Medium: online
Fandom: Multifandom
External Links: a few words on warnings; archive link
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a few words on warnings is a 2009 essay by thingswithwings.

The topic: Warnings and Triggers.

Some Excerpts

I was skimming the other day through some of the newsletter wank that's been going on (poor msilverstar did not deserve that particular bizarre tempest in a teacup, if you ask me, but it does raise interesting issues). And you know, it makes me think again a thought I've thought before, which is . . . bear with me here . . . fandom is so much more polite and considerate than most of the world. I KNOW, OKAY, STOP LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY. But I do this side job where I sometimes make film clips for professors to use in teaching classes (I get to use my vid skills for money!) and the other day a prof handed me Blue Velvet, asked if I'd ever seen it before (I hadn't), and then he sort of shrugged and said, oh, well, anyway, I need the scene with the guy with the oxygen mask and Isabella Rosselini and the man watching from the closet. So I fast-forwarded to find that scene, and then got smacked in the face with a really horrible scene of sexual assault that completely freaked me out. So I asked him . . . will the students have seen this film before they come into class and you play them this scene? And he said no, the students weren't assigned Blue Velvet, they're only assigned Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive for Lynch. So his intention was to play this scene of assault, with no warning, in the public space of a classroom.
One thing that I really like about fandom is that we're different from the publishing world, from the academic world, from the world of boyfans even, in that we try really hard to take into consideration the needs and squicks and concerns of the reader. The fact that we have debates over how specific warnings should be already puts us ahead of professional fiction, where it's perfectly possible to be surprised by a rape scene, or even just to read something that isn't what's advertised by the cover, the author's rep, the backmatter, or the genre that the publisher claims for the book. Professional publishing is about getting people to buy books, and professional publishing is about the rights of the author - so, in the first place, we're often lied to about what a novel will contain, and even when we're not, we're not warned, because the rights of the author to surprise the reader - the rights of his inviolable artistic vision - are more important than the rights of the reader to tailor her reading to her own desires. The author knows more about how we ought to read, what we want to read, than we do, and will control the reading process. Our only option if we don't like it is to throw the book down halfway through - which, as we've learned recently, apparently deprives us of the right to say we didn't like it.
This is a thing I like about fandom. I think it's a combination of a lot of factors - a society of mostly women and genderqueer folk, a form of writing that is chiefly about desire, a form of writing that exists outside of the money economy (because if we turn a reader away, it's not like we don't get paid). I know that not everyone warns accurately, and I know that fandom writers do lie in order to get readers, but broadly speaking, what I see for the most part is a community that cares about giving a reader the right to control her own reading experience, even when we disagree about the best way to go about that. I hope this thing about fandom, where we're careful and cognizant of our readers' needs, doesn't change. We do not need to be more like professional fiction in this respect.

Some Comments at the Post

[sapote3]: This is one thing that I dislike about a lot of hipsterish expression, starting honestly with some aspects of Beat culture (and I'm sure before then, that's just as far back as I've read and been annoyed by it). It tends to ride an edge of offensiveness that at heart is really just about asserting the rights of dudely egos over their surroundings. It's solipsistic egoism acting itself out on female bodies, and reveals an unwillingness to actually examine one's own cultural surroundings in ways that aren't self-aggrandizing. Basically. I hope that made sense. Basically I felt liberated once I realized that I could scoff at people who claimed that their hipster gritty edginess was necessarily in some way transformative or progressive unless they could actually back that claim up.
[thingswithwings]:yes, definitely, dudely egos and their right to conquer everything do seem to be the things at stake, over and over again. I've often been against gritty edginess in less extreme forms - I don't like The Wire for this reason, for example - because the way in which gritty edginess plays out seems to often fall into rather boring and expected patterns of violence against women/queers/POC. Good for you for scoffing! I will join you.
[xparrot]: I asked my brother about random, unexpected violence towards women (in comics, in this case; he'd lent me Watchmen to read before the movie comes out) and in his opinion, it was one of the fastest shortcuts to establish a guy as Evil. A man brutalizing another man might be justified, but a man brutalizing a woman inspires contempt/hatred/dislike; it triggers base protective instincts. In my brother's words, it makes him (and, he told me, all decent men) "automatically want to punch the guy in the face."

So in works with anti-heroes, some of the (male) creators might be using the violence towards women as a way to polarize/disrupt the (male) audience's emotions toward the character committing the violence. (In Watchmen, the violence towards women was mostly to establish the supposed heroes as disturbed, unlikable men.)

I don't think that's what always is going on (there's all that stuff like the eroticized violence in horror, like SPN, which is something else entirely) not to mention it's highly problematic to use female characters as nothing but tools to set moral rules - but it was an interesting insight.
[thingswithwings]: I definitely struggle with [warnings in fanfic] as well, the issue of the ambiguous story that demands an unambiguous warning . . . it's a difficult issue to deal with. [livejournal.com profile] eruthros made a good point the other day that warnings and other header information, when provided by the author, can in fact be a way of shutting down readerly interpretation ("this story is consent play, but not dubcon" or "this story is pre-slash, not friendship fic"). I think the best compromise is to provide a warning in a place where people can read it before the story if they want to, or can skip it if that's what they prefer . . . but even then your warning has to say something, doesn't it. :)
[thingswithwings]: Oh, that's very true, I've seen a lot of [trigger warnings] on feminist blogs as well. Your comment makes me think about the roaring case of PTSD that we all deal with as a default - as even women who haven't been raped have almost inevitably been groped in public against their will, yelled at in the street, etc. I know I have. I have trouble with the term "trigger," because sometimes in the way it's used in fandom it seems to imply that the fault is with the person who's triggered - like a war veteran who's triggered into a flashback by the innocent sound of a car backfiring; it also implies actual PTSD, which is a psychological condition, and while god knows plenty of women who've been assaulted have that condition, the medicalized terminology again makes it sound like there's something wrong with the person who's being triggered, and that the trigger itself is innocent. (I'm just thinking out loud, I don't actually have any objection to your use of the term here or anything).
[sapote3]: Hm. I like the term honestly because it reflects what happens in my brain - something small touches off a cascade of reactions that have to do with what has already happened, the culture we live in, bleh bleh bleh. I like the mechanicalness of it better than "this is upsetting" - I would rather have something trigger a bad association maelstrom then be one of those women who is easily upset, you know? But that's not just the patriarchy; I prefer thinking of brains as mechanisms more than I like thinking about people having feelings :D Your fear of pathologizing womens' experience of life further is I think a valid concern, though as part of the generation where everyone claims to have ADD I am pretty comfortable with slapping pop-culture diagnoses on everything. I have been thinking a lot lately about how the great privilege of being male is that you have to have been particularly unlucky in life to have any understanding of sexual fear. Blech, sometimes these conversations can be so sad. At least I seem to live in a generation of feminist thought that has a name to put to the problem?
[isagel]: Just, yes. Blue Velvet as a whole is a potentially very disturbing movie, and should not be thrust on people without some explanation of what they're about to see. (On a personal note, I saw it as a teenager, and still have internal conflicts over my reaction of combined desire and revulsion at the scene where the Isabella Rosselini character asks the Kyle MacLachlan character to strike her during sex. At this point in my life, I can articulate the whole range of my response and place it within a social context, but it's perhaps not the best movie to watch when you're too young to have the tools to do that, you know?)

I find that fandom, being a predominantly female space, has immense respect for issues that bother women but which men for the most part don't think twice about, and when you spend a lot of time here, the difference compared to the "real world" is often startling. The same, I think, goes for issues of race and sexuality and many other things. Fandom is an unusually aware space.

ETA: As far as warnings go, I like to be surprised by a story, and I like stories to be ambiguous, so I tend to prefer vague warnings ("dark, potentially disturbing content" or whatever) or warnings placed so that you can choose whether or not to read them. Realistically described rape is perhaps the only thing that I would want to be specifically warned about. For me, whether or not something is truly disturbing is usually a matter of tone and not content (it's in the attitude of the author/narrator to towards the subject matter) so I won't know if I'll be disturbed until I've read at least some of the story, anyway.
[anatsuno]: wow, I got momentary fear that perhaps I had sucked about not including warning in my podfics (and perhaps I have!) but no, I've never read graphic underage incestuous noncon out loud (yet). And suddenly I'm very, very happy that I tend to record ALL the headers of a fic, including silly author's notes only found on the LJ post of the first posting and removed in subsequent archived copies, because I hope it protects me from being dangerously inconsiderate. *feels like having dodged a bullet*
[sadiane]: Oh, it's definitely nothing in SGA fandom - if anything, SGA fandom seems a bit overly enthusiastic with the warnings! It may be that it's a fandom full of slightly older and more experienced writers/ readers/ fangirls who have seen these discussions played out across the internet. (The only thing I can even think of off the top of my head that could be iffy is the referenced noncon in "Term of Service", and hey, you warned for that! I checked, just in case)

This was a fic in Supernatural, which, okay, I did know about the incest when I downloaded it, and the canon itself should marked with big flashing CONTAINS COMPLICATED CONSENT ISSUES: enter at your own risk, what with it's fascination with possession and compulsion and using the body of a loved one to inflict various physical and psychological tortures (which the show is JUST NOW, in it's fourth season, starting to attempt to think about - it's been interesting)

But there's a BIG difference in my mind between consensual, adult incest and graphic underaged noncon incest. And still, my reaction was less "Oh NOES!" and more "hmm...this sort of stuff normally contains a warning." And, to be fair, the warning on the fic is hidden in front of the relevant chapter of a much larger fic. And I likely would have listened anyway.

I've also seen a fic (here in CW RPS, so I'm already FAR into the special hell!) that started out as PG fic and then developed into a clear NC-17 later, and, when recorded, got posted with the PG rating of the first chapter.
[livrelibre]: And I also like that we've evolved online ways to warn for stuff that we know our friends really don't want to see. On delicious I've seen things tagged as sisabetsafe; I don't know sisabet at all or what's safe about the links but I like that hir friends have figured out a way to metatag around the lack of cuttags in delicious.
[jacquez]: I've always been of a couple minds on warnings, and one way in which I've been glad of the shift towards lj (and lj-like) fandom is that it makes it easier to avoid warnings (people often have them in "highlight to read" fashion).

Because one of the things is that a lack of warnings does not *necessarily* privilege the author; that depends on both how the author uses them (someone mentioned removing readerly interpretation) and on the preferences of the reader.

*As a reader*, I strongly dislike warnings; I like that lj-based fandom has made them easier for me to avoid. They are still not entirely possible for me to avoid, and as a result there's a lot of stuff I haven't read because I feel I've been spoiled for it. For example, I have a *massive* rape trigger, and *being warned for rape* is actually more upsetting to me than coming across it in context, unwarned.

Is this feeling about warnings true of everyone? No, clearly not. Is it true of some people, who therefore find warnings *less* considerate of their readerly needs?

Well, it's true of at least ONE person, that's for sure.
[lydiabell]: Thank you. I frequently see this question framed as one of the reader whose preferences/needs for warnings should be respected vs. the special snowflake author with delusions of artistry who thinks she's above warning. Warnings can be spoilers and can diminish the impact of the story for some readers. It's perfectly reasonable for some writers not to like the idea of spoiling their own stories or narrowing the range of possible interpretations. It doesn't make them pretentious or entitled. (Granted that they should probably do it anyway, in some way that allows readers who *don't* want the warnings to avoid them.)
[kyuuketsukirui]: Yes, yes, to both of you. It is not about authors vs readers. It's about two different types of people. And since the pro-warning ones are usually the most vocal, somehow it gets framed as them-as-readers vs the horrible non-warning writers. Bzzzt. Wrong. Many readers also do not want to be spoiled. One thing I like about Archive of Our Own is the "do not warn" warning. I've slapped that on all my stories whether they have anything to warn for or not. If a reader clicks despite that and finds something they don't like, they have no place to complain. Meanwhile, I don't have to ruin things for readers like me, who don't want to be warned. Because let's face it, if the choice comes down to privileging people who read like I do, or people who read a different way, and I can only choose one, obviously I'm going to side with readers like myself, just as the pro-warning folks are not siding with readers in general, as they like to claim, but with readers like themselves.
[thingswithwings]: hey, I'm sorry if I was framing this in terms of entitled authors/awesome readers - as you can tell from the post, I was mostly trying to think about the difference between warnings in fandom (where we have conversations about warnings that we take seriously, and we even warn for warnings, or for the lack of warnings, as you point out) and in academia, and in pro publishing, where I do think that readers are often misled and marginalized in damaging ways. The larger point I wanted to make was simply that I like fandom for taking the potential problems of not-warning into account. I am actually one of those readers who doesn't like to be spoiled, so I love the click-to-read/highlight-to-read option of warnings, so that I can choose whether to be warned (usually I choose not to be, but I'm always glad that the author gives the choice). So this does privilege readers in general, because each reader, whether they like warnings or not, can choose whether to be warned. But anyway, I'm not sure that it's a two-kinds-of-people situation (I am pro-warnings, but don't read them myself), and I do think that there are options, like I said, where both pro-warning and anti-warning people can come out happy.
[kyuuketsukirui]: Well, there was a lot about authors trying to control the reading process and artistic vision and such, which did seem to be coming at it from the "authors who don't want to warn are just doing it because they think they're special snowflakes" place (including mocking yourself for feeling like a special snowflake).

I don't believe that not putting warnings prevents a reader from reading how they want to. People who are very sensitive have been reading the end of the book first long before there was the internet, that sort of thing.

I think the warning culture leads to a lot of feelings of entitlement, with people demanding to be warned for every little thing, and a mindset where readers abdicate all responsibility in favor of the writers protecting them from such horrors as a pairing not their OTP or an unhappy ending. I mean, I shouldn't have to say "I won't warn". It should be implicit in their not being a warning. But people take lack of warning to mean it's all safe, whatever individual "safe" means to them. Meh.
[the rck]:I tend to prefer warnings and to give them on my fics. I do see it as a preference, though, and I am one of those people who will read the ends of books fairly early on*. I tend to view the warnings/lack of warnings thing as one of those splits in fandom that can't be reconciled and therefore treat it, at least in my head, as more of a genre division than anything else.

I suspect that my attitude on warnings comes from my lack of understanding about why people care about being unspoiled. I have a detached, intellectual understanding of it and accept that it's true, but it's rather like how I accept that some people like olives or peppers. It's not something I'm ever likely to understand on a visceral level because that's not how I interact with stories.

I suspect, too, that some of my lack of strong emotion on the subject of warnings, fic descriptions, pairing notices and such comes from the fact that I flit from fandom to fandom. I've never had an OTP and don't care who gets paired with whom as long as the author can convince me. If I see a fic header or listing that doesn't give me enough information, I just pass it by. If I were monofannish, passing things by might be a hardship, especially in a small fandom. Were I actually in any danger of running out of things to read, I'd probably have an emotional stake in the issue.

*I usually read forward until I can't deal with the anxiety any more and then start reading backward, one chapter at a time. If all goes well, I work my way toward the middle gradually from both ends. If it doesn't, at least I have a feel for what probably happened in the parts I can't read. I don't tend to do that with fics because I have trouble navigating webpages as accurately as I can a paper artifact-- I keep getting lost. If I take the trouble to read the end of a fic without reading what goes before, nine times out of ten I've already decided that I won't be reading the middle. I'm just checking to see if there's something there that will change my mind.
[lydiabell]:I actually don't like the way AOOO does it. I'd rather have a "click here for any applicable warnings" button, leading to a separate page or a field at the end of the story where the author could put in whatever warnings s/he wanted. The button would be on every story, so its presence wouldn't be spoilery.

That way, you don't have to choose which set of readers to cater to -- either set can read the way they want.

Alternatively, a reader could set her options for the warnings she wanted to see, and the authors could set the warnings in the metadata of the story, and everybody (well, everybody with an account) could just surf happily. I for one do not want to be warned for character death but would really rather be warned for things like watersports or scat.
[panisdead]: I mean that this is a new-to-me spin on the very old warnings debate--I have typically seen it broken up as "authors who have a right to have their story work as intended" vs. "entitled readers who don't want to take responsibility for controlling their own reading experience." I've seen "common courtesy/we are a community/you take care of your community" vs. "what do you mean, 'community,'/my art is not and should not be bound by community strictures." I don't think I've seen "the right of the reader to tailor her own reading" vs. "inviolable artistic vision." It's an interesting and, to me, novel switch. I'm pro-warnings. I also like to leave reader interpretation as open as possible, so if I want to warn I aim for general statements (violent content, issues of consent, angst) rather than prescriptive (this story might be considered dubcon, but it's not rape).
[djin7]: All good points, and we really are spoiled in fandom. I've long been of the mind that we shouldn't really have to warn, aside from extreme content, and even then, it should be author's choice. That being said, I've adopted the 'invisible warning' (highlight to see them) system for all my communities, et al - that way a reader can choose to heed or ignore the warnings/spoilers.

However, I don't believe that, as you say, ...fandom is so much more polite and considerate than most of the world. I feel it's evolved from the author's prerogative of rating for content into a preventative measure to avoid being wanked by the not-so-polite side of fandom, which is so much louder and aggressive than anything the RL professional entertainment business seems to have to deal with. In RL where there are real jobs and real money being made, time is money, so for the book publishers, TV and movie producers out there, spoilers in the form of warnings (aside from the legalities of content rating) are simply not done.

Complaints about lack of warnings in RL entertainment are rarely heard, I can only think of a few that were covered and exploited in the press along the same lines as wank - the unexpected shaky filming of the "Blair Witch Project", the extremely aggressive, violent and long opening scene to "Saving Private Ryan", the tragic endings of "Pay It Forward" and "My Girl". In popular books of recent memory, there was the very unexpected side of Clarice in "Hannibal" and some would say that JKR's treatment of certain beloved characters in Book 5, 6 and 7 of the Harry Potter series should have been warned for, and there were complaints heard in the press. Though I'm sure the HP online fandom was much, much more vocal about them. *g*
[burning bryht]: I completely agree with this. My first thought was 'this is nothing about consideration... it's about trying to avoid wank'. In fact, I think most of fandom is driven by the writer's desire to do everything possible to avoid wank. The Law of Conservation Of Wank. ;) Wank is never created or destroyed, it is merely redirected, and we, as writers, put warnings on our fics as a means of redirecting wank away from us.
[elspethdixon]: I feel it's evolved from the author's prerogative of rating for content into a preventative measure to avoid being wanked by the not-so-polite side of fandom

I'm sure there are some readers who only warn out of fear of wank, but personally, as someone with a few reasonably serious triggers and squicks of my own, I do warn out of consideration for readers. Not that I write all that much graphic stuff, and I won't write anything with an unhappy ending, but when I have violence or consent issues or cancer or anything that I know is likely to squick someone out there (or that sqiucks me, re the cancer thing), I try to warn for it. I figure that if my fic is lessened by the reader knowing certain things about the plot, than I didn't do a good enough job of writing it. Fiction is supposed to be as much about the journey as the destination, after all. Good fiction is enjoyable for the prose, the dialogue, the character interaction, and all kinds of other things in addition to the plot. Only the Dan Browns of the world have nothing to their writing but plot and plot alone.

And to be brutally honest, discounting things like Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, where the entire point of the story is to be an intellectual "whodunit" puzzle, I can count on the fingers of one hand the movies out there that actually have plot twists clever enough that having the ending given away would *really* ruin them. The Sting, Fight Club, and The Sixth Sense are pretty much the only three I can think of where the twist/suprise is truly clever enough and integral enough to the plot that knowledge of the ending substantially alters the experience of watching the movie. It's one thing if the author is trying to pull a "Murder of Roger Ackroid"-style trick on the reader (Sarah Waters' Fingersmith does this brilliantly - halfway through the book, the pov switches and you find out that half the characters had totally different motivations than you thought), but most of the time, things that authors want to have be "a surprise" are just there for shock value, and shock value is the last refuge of a cheap hack.

Laying out a mystery for the reader to solve, or pulling off the fictional equivalent of a long con, are one thing. Those kind of plots are hard, intellectual work to build, and I can completely understand a writer wanting to let their carefully constructed mystery plot unfold one clue at a time. But as a reader, I really resent being emotionally manipulated. And as a writer, I don't want to be That Person who slapped a survivor of sexual assault in the face with an un-warned for rape scene, or who ruined a reader's day by springing unwarned-for character death on them a week after their grandparents died, or whatever. I want people to enjoy my writing, not be upset by it.

edit: "I really resent being emotionally manipulated" -- Just as I posted this, I realized that it's not completely true. I can very much enjoy being manipulated into certain kinds of emotional catharsis by a writer (I love emo-porn, for one, and adore melodrama, for another). What I don't like is being emotionally manipulated without my informed consent. It's like what someone very clever said back during the meta about non-con that made the rounds a while ago: Non-con fic that has labels and warnings is consensual, in a way, because the reader is going into the story knowing exactly what she's in for - by seeing the warning and making the informed choice to read the fic in the knowledge that X thing happens in it, she's essentially giving her consent to the experience. Not that reading fic is anything at all like sex, either consensual or not - the metaphor kind of breaks down there - but *flails* Hopefully you know what I mean.
[starry diadem]: This struck a chord with me, as mid-last year I set off a range war in a tiny little western fandom - off-LJ, still in Yahoo Groups where you don't have the option of linking to an off-page warning or hiding it with whited-out text. I wrote an almost equally tiny little fic that depended for its emotional punch on the off stage, referenced death of one of the main characters. I agonised over the warning, but really even to say "Referenced death of main character" would have yanked the emotion out of the fic with both hands, and instead of the reader being firmly in the protagonist's head learning what she learns when she learns it, they would instead be emotionally distanced by knowing more than she does. Point of the story then? None. It would have been a writing exercise. We can argue from here until kingdom come about authorial intent and reader interpretations and whether what I was trying to achieve in the minds of my readers should even matter, but it was a very real issue for me with that tiny little ficlet.

Did that make me a speshul snowflake writer? Dunno. But I went with what I felt the story needed - so no warning. Minor range war followed, with as many people on my side of the divide, arguing that they didn't want to be spoiled thank you very much, as against. It died down, as such kerfuffles always do, and I came to one conclusion.

You can't please, or cater for, everyone and you'll go mad trying. That's not about entitlement or speshulness. That just is.
[boosette]: To me, warnings are ultimately spoilers, and I refuse to spoil my stories for my readers. If someone feels uncomfortable reading an unwarned fic (something I very much like about Archive of Our Own - the no warnings warning), nothing requires for them to read my writing.

Neither is the mental health of my readers my responsibility.

This is, of course, mostly moot considering that I don't write triggery fic.
[katsaris]: What if my readerly desires are to not be warned about plot-points in advance?

I can understand a PG/PG-13/NC-17 sort of system that would protect the very innocent. I can even understand vague mentions of *type* of content, e.g. "sexual" "violent".

Those would have sufficed to protect you from the scenes your professor showed you.

But seriously, what's the point of people adding warnings of every single plot-point of their story before it occurs - "Warning -- this story will be a psychological descent into madness in which the protagonist will phantasize incestuously about his grandmother, and will end with his death"

Sometimes it seems as if some ficwriters are writing half their story in their warnings.
[yahtzee63]: This is more or less how I feel about it -- for every reader who wants extremely explicit warnings, there is another (like me) who doesn't want to be spoiled. I tend to give very general warnings (spoilers, dark and/or explicit content), but that's it, mostly because I'm judging by my own sensibilities. (I know my sensibilities are not like everyone else's, but then, neither are any other individual's.) I will specify the main 'ship if it's a primarily shippy fic. But that's about it.
[frantic mice]: I think that in FANDOM it's different in a sense because it's *** about having a conversation. Liek. I've read some of your stuff --wibbling and biting mah nails-- but I sort of KNOE what type of conversation I'm gonna have. I click on your SN and I already com with a context and som protection and whatevs. I think Warnings protect both teh reader AND teh author then, in a sense. I'd rather not be dub-coned into a fic or nonconed into watching somfin graphic :DDDDDDD I want to be able to give mah full consent by knowing what I'm getting into befoarhands. I think that's wut the OP is talking 'bout here.