Categorization (1999 essay by torch)

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Title: Categorization
Creator: torch
Date(s): June 12, 1999
Medium: online
Fandom: mentions The X-Files, Highlander, The Sentinel
External Links: Rant table of contents; Categorization
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Categorization is a 1999 essay by torch.

Some Topics Discussed

  • labels and warnings and headers
  • taking risks as a reader
  • too many warnings and hints as a narrow way of reading

Excerpts from the Essay

[code talker]

Fan fiction, whether slash or not, is littered with various codes and code words, designed to let the reader know what she's in for. Show, rating, pairing, story type... do you want XF M/K NC-17 PWP or ST:Voy C/P R h/c? Or maybe a Sen/HL XO J/J PG-13? (Yes, Joe/Jim. Think about it. -- Okay, so *don't* think about it.) In some places, whether archives or mailing lists or newsgroups, writers are also requested or required to provide additional information and warnings -- spoiler warnings, warnings for character deaths or other potentially upsetting topics, codes for what type of story it is.

All this information is useful, for obvious reasons. The reader can go look for stories that appeal to her and avoid things that don't suit her. The practically minded slash fan may not want to wade through two hundred pages of generic adventure to find that Skinner ends up with Scully; the dedicated Jim/Blair fan doesn't want to know what a certain anthropologist gets up to with Simon Banks; the European reader who hasn't yet seen the latest episode doesn't want a detailed description of what really happened.

Still, when you know that what you're getting is XF A, V, NC-17, M/K slash, n/c, CD (15K), do you really need to read the story? Do you *want* to?


Codes and warnings do on occasion amount to spoilers for practically everything in a story. As a writer, I dislike telling people in advance what is going to happen, and as a reader, I dislike being told in advance what is going to happen, just as I don't want to know the ending of a movie before I've even seen it. I want to see the narrative unfold at its own pace, instead of waiting for something that I know is coming, whether it's a certain type of sex scene or a character death.

Even a romance code can be a spoiler, if the story deals with one character's conflicting emotions for two others. And putting a romance code on a story labels it in more than one way; it says that the romance in question is the central thing about the story, and a lot of people will assume that a romance code means that there is romance and not much else, i e, no plot. Unless there are other codes on the story that indicate otherwise...

Of course, all the codes and warnings in the world will not tell the reader anything about *how* the story deals with its topics. It may thoroughly describe and explore the death of a character or just touch on it in passing, it may treat the rape it warns of as a serious trauma or as a plot device, it may show the love between character A and B unfolding slowly into the delicate flower of a tender sexual relationship or it may just show them boffing like bunnies in between quarreling and beating each other up. The only way to find out exactly what goes on in a story is to read the story.

So does that mean codes are stupid and might as well be done away with? No. Codes are, as I said, useful, for both reader and writer. The reader can find what she wants and avoid what she doesn't want; the writer can make sure her story reaches the right audience. While codes cannot be exact, cannot perfectly define a story's contents, they give both reader and writer a better chance of matching subject to interest, audience to topic.

So does that mean codes are great and everyone should use them, always?

[safety first]

I guess it all depends on how you see slash, and fan fiction in general. Classifications and warnings help turn it into an easily surveyed smorgasbord, where you can tell the honey glazed ham from the potato salad and be warned about the extra spicy salsa. It's not a foolproof system--tastes vary, and perhaps the spicy salsa is really rather mild--but it seems to work relatively well.

I understand the desire to have fan fiction as a comfort zone. I don't think there's anything wrong with not wanting to read certain types of stories, whether we're talking about death stories, rape stories, curtain-shopping stories or what have you. I also understand the desire to have fan fiction as a free creative zone. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to write stories that feature death, rape and/or curtain-shopping and refusing to label them as such, whether out of a reluctance to give away something crucial or because you don't want to categorize your work as falling into a narrow subcategory. Professionally published material, not to mention real life, doesn't come with warnings. Labeling is a courtesy, not an obligation.

People who say that they want labels in order to avoid such-and-such are generally told: "But think of all the great stuff you're missing!" And I say, presumably they *have* thought about it, and decided that they can live with missing those stories. People who refuse to use labels are frequently told that they are inconsiderate, but no one is forced to read an unlabeled story.

It's a question of weighing pros and cons, and in the end it has to be a voluntary choice. A writer has to decide for herself how much she wants to give away about her story--and then accept the fact that some archives or lists may not accept the story without those codes or warnings, and that some readers will pass it over. A reader has to decide for herself whether or not to read a story that lacks codes and warnings--and then accept the fact that it may contain elements she dislikes or finds upsetting.

[writing to spec]

But there are more codes and genres than the ones I've mentioned here--things that may not make it into the header info, but will nevertheless be the terminology used by both readers and writers in talking about the stories. Curtainfic, genderswitch stories, first times, rape stories, babyfic, discipline, vampire stories... most people are familiar with some, if not all, of these categories and could probably add more to the list. More or less narrow subcategories have turned into genres in their own right, getting web sites and zines dedicated to them. There are lists and archives devoted to specific kinds, specific pairings, specific characters, specific things done to specific guys.

While I can see the appeal of all this, at least to the genre-fixated, I'm also starting to question the degree of categorization and (over-)specialization going on. It seems as though stories are defined by subgenre rather than looked at on their own merits. People will ask "what kind of story is it?" rather than "what is it about?" or "is it good?" and will refuse to read schmoop, or spanking, or crossovers, as if all stories that can be described by those words are virtually identical and can be judged as a group.

And many writers seem to be trying to fit their writing into these established categories, too. "I thought I'd try my hand at a rape story," or, "Everyone else is doing threesomes," or sex toys, or whatever. Hence, many stories are written around gimmicks, fads, 'neat ideas'. It's my belief that idea stories, built around a 'wouldn't it be cool if', can never measure up to character-based stories, exploring the nature of the guys (and girls) we love. That's not to say that stories that fall into a specific subcategory are necessarily bad, but if they're more focused on the concept than on the characters, there *will* be something missing.