The Sliding Scale of Story Information
by Lucy Gillam
Ask anyone what the most overdone topics in fandom are, and I bet "story warnings" will come in near the top of the list. Personally, I'm as sick of the argument over whether to warn in general as anyone else.
So why am I adding to it? Well, really, I'm not.
In the most recent round of story warning debates on FCA-L, it occurred to me that one of the reasons the debates are so frustrating (besides the fact that we keep having them when a dozen compromises exist) is that the terminology is imprecise. The first problem is the preponderance of the term "warning" to cover any and all story information. The very term implies that this information will be used to help people avoid the stories. However, the reality is that certain labels that are commonly identified as "warnings" are just as often used to help readers seek out stories. In a number of these conversations, the term "marketing" has come up, and I think it's a good one, and one reason why the term "warning" is unsatisfying.
Also, both "label" and "warning" are slippery terms. What does it mean to label a story? When do labels that no reasonable person would object to slide into warnings that are the subject of debate, and when do those move into minute spoilers that few reasonable people would expect? Without a mutual understanding of what kind of information we're talking about, the discussion becomes frustrating. I might find myself being seen as arguing "pro-label" when what I mean is "I want a little more information than title and author," or I find myself being seen as arguing "anti-label" when what I mean is "for heaven's sake, you don't have to warn me that the story includes the death of a character who died in canon."
All of this falls under the generic category of "story information," and it strikes me that such information exists on a sliding scale from what is reasonably expected for a reader to choose among the thousands of stories available to what is just downright silly.
Of course, everyone's scale is going to be a little different. What I propose here is based largely on my own experience, which is informed by a number of things. First, I'm a multi-fandom fan: that is, I read in quite a few fandoms. Second, I tend to be a slash fan as well. I don't read slash exclusively, but I do lean toward it, and there are fandoms in which it's pretty much all I read. When I first posted a draft of this essay on my live journal, the ways in which those factors influence this scale became very clear. Since there is no one scale which can represent every fan's experience, I'm going to go with the scale I originally proposed and present variations as I go along.
And so, I present:
The Sliding Scale of Story Information
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that in 99 cases out of 100, no one would consider informing the reader what fandom a story is in unreasonable. There might be the rare exception in which the fandom needs to be secret (or perhaps a crossover in which the "guest" character is meant to be a surprise), but overall, fandom is pretty basic information. In some cases, there may be additional information included, such as which media incarnation of a fandom is the primary reference – movie or book, comic or cartoon, etc.
Now, oftentimes that information is provided by context. A vast majority of fan fiction venues are in some way fandom-specific - either devoted exclusively to one fandom or divided according to fandom. I've only seen a few multi-fandom zines, but those zines and ads for others I've seen tend to include information on what fandoms are included in the zine.
This to me is the one piece of information I consider absolutely required. I'm by no means monofannish, but there are fandoms I won't really follow anyone (author or story pimp) into, and there a certainly fandoms that are way, way, way down on my priority list.
The next two are in no particular order, or rather vary in order depending on a variety of circumstances. However, I gotta do one first, so:
…for lack of a better term. By this I mean the eternal trinity of slash-het-gen. Of course, it's not so eternal: some fandoms tend to divide only by slash and gen, or "adult" and gen. And of course, the terms aren't always so neat and clean, and stories can fit into multiple categories, etc, etc. However, as general information, this one's pretty basic.
Again, this information is often provided by context. If you're on a slash list or at a slash archive, there's a better-than-average chance that the story you're going to be reading is slash. Fanfiction.net aside, a fairly good majority of fan fiction venues are at least divided along slash and "not-slash" lines.
This one is a little less absolute for me than fandom, although how necessary it is depends on the fandom. For most, I consider it pretty vital in selecting stories. However, when I first posted this essay, several people challenged the placement of this information as "uber," saying that it was far less important to them than other information, including what I've labeled as sub-genre information (in particular, whether a story was AU). It has seemed that the more mono-fannish a person was, the less it might matter to her/him whether a story was slash, gen, or het. Even from my own experience, I can say that the more deeply I'm into a fandom, the more I'm willing to move out my slashy leanings. Again, this is a generalization that will certainly not hold true for everyone.
Also, there seem to be fandoms where the traditional slash/het/gen divides are crossed more frequently; Smallville, for example, seems to have far less of a divide than other fandoms I've been in. And as several people pointed out, this can make categorizing a story difficult. There's also a (fairly recent) questioning of the tradition that automatically labels a story slash if it has any same-sex content in it, even if that content is incidental to the plot, or, for that matter, canonical.
Having said all that, I don't see the labeling of stories along at least slash/not-slash lines going away any time soon.
3. Character Information
This one's a little hard to explain. The most common interpretation of this information is "pairing." However, I think there's a larger category of information that simply involves what characters are in the story, or what characters the story focuses on.
For some readers, pairing is the important information. Whether they're completely OTP or just have a strong preference, pairing is certainly a piece of information a good many readers use to select which stories to read (or, in fairness, not to read). I've seen it argued that giving the pairing is a spoiler. However, I'm not entirely convinced it is except in the very broadest sense that any information about a story is a spoiler. Labeling a story "Clark/Lex" doesn't tell me much beyond that the story involves on Clark and Lex in a relationship has at least undercurrents of something beyond friendship. It doesn't tell me how they start out, where they end up, or how they get there. It doesn't even tell me if the story focuses on that relationship, or if it's incidental to a completely separate plot. Again, I can see circumstances under which this is not the case, in which revealing pairing really would spoil something vital, but those strike me as few and far between.
Sometimes, pairing isn't the issue. "Character information" could simply mean, "what characters does the story focus on?" Obviously, if a story is gen, there's no pairing to be had. Even in slash, you get odd ducks like me who are less One True Pairing than One True Character - and in truth, I suspect that even readers who don't have a favorite character have characters they're more interested in than others. This is not to say that I won't read a story if my OTC isn't in it, just that a story with that character (or characters - sometimes I'm Two True Characters) will go up the priority list. Generally, information like this comes in the form of a summary/teaser/blurb.
These three (fandom, uber-genre, and character information) are what I would consider fairly basic story information, and information that is often apparent from context. From here we move into a gray area between "labels" and "warnings," between what some people consider reasonable information and others consider spoilers.
Ah, yes, the old MPAA movie ratings. Ever-so-common, and for the most part, ever-so-useless.
Ratings tend only to be applied to "adult" stories - in other words, stories with sexual content (refraining here from a rant about the old sex-and-violence dichotomy). In most cases, these seem to fall into expected story information, even required in many venues. The ratings are difficult in that they're fairly subjective, especially in the lower regions of PG and PG-13 (and I won't even get started on writers who seem to think that any slash story is NC-17). It's true that the spoil factor does increase a bit, particularly when the rating is combined with a pairing: a story labeled Jim/Blair that is also labeled NC-17 does reveal quite a bit more information than you'd expect from four letters and a dash. However, I'd wager it's information that not too many writers mind giving.
I would argue, however, that for the most part, it's useless information. Or, rather, anything except "NC-17" is useless. That particular label can be useful in finding or avoiding stories, but I'd be curious to know how many people have ever chosen to read or not read a story because it was R instead of PG-13, or vice versa.
There's also the larger objection that the ratings are U.S.-centric, which is a valid point.
Here's where we get into tricky territory.
Within the larger category of fanfiction are smaller genres: alternate universe, crossover, missing scene, first time, hurt/comfort, the old PWP. Specific fandoms may also have their own sub-genres that start out as informal categories and become codified into genres.
The difficulty is that a fine line exists between "genre" and "warning," and an equally fine line exists between "genre" and "spoiler." "First time" is certainly a story so common that it has become its own category. It's also a type of story that people might like to search for, or information that people might use to prioritize stories. At the same time, it's a whopping amount of information, especially when accompanied with a pairing label. Now, in perspective, I'm not sure it's all that much more information than you'd get from your average book blurb, but we're still veering into spoiler territory, here.
On the other side of the genre/warning/spoiler spectrum are categories like "death story" and "rape story." In the recent label discussion on FCA-L, one person did argue that some fans consider "death story" and similar labels to be genres. I'm conflicted on this one, because I actually do think that such a thing as a "death story" or "rape story" (or BDSM) genre might exist. However, I also think that not every story that contains a death or a rape is would fit into those genres. I've certainly seen stories that had warnings for either in which the death or rape was nearly incidental, even as said warning had me expecting the event to be pivotal.
Also, while I'm the first person to say that death and rape are two labels I like to have (one for avoidance, the other to find the stories), it can't be denied that it reveals a fair amount more information than just putting a book in the "Mystery" section. Yes, you can say that we don't know who dies or how it happens, but if that death is a pivotal plot point, it would certainly seem odd to tell people that it's coming. And I say this as a person who reads ahead to the endings of books.
6. "Disturbing Content"
Here is where we get into what have been properly called warnings. Although readers certainly use them to find certain types of stories, the general conception seems to be to allow people to avoid things that would disturb them. Death and rape are perhaps the two that spring to mind most immediately, along with BDSM, incest, and underage characters in sexual situations. "No happy ending" pops up in some fandoms. "Angst" is another that I’ve seen. Slash stories will sometimes warn for heterosexual content.
It is within this category that about 90% of the controversy over labeling stories arises. I'm sure you've all seen the arguments, and I have no desire to rehash them here. However, once you get beyond the "readers might be traumatized"/"writers shouldn't have to coddle them" arguments, there's still that gray area between #5 and #6. Is "hurt/comfort" a genre or a warning? Lately, the archives I run into seem to eschew "warnings" in favor of "categories," but within those categories are items like "non-consensual" or "BDSM."
Of course, there's also the problem that "disturbing content" often involves some really weird, and frankly silly, stuff. Anyone who's been in TS fandom will recall the infamous "short hair" warning. I've also seen suggestions that writers warn for deaths that actually occurred in the source itself. Clearly "disturbing content" is in and of itself a floating signifier.
Conclusions? Well, none really, except that I wish we had more precise terminology for story information. I would, for example, consider myself "pro-label," but what I really mean by that is #'s 1-3, and maybe 4 and only a bit of 5. Pretty much any other information I'm willing (and often prefer) to ferret out myself. However, in when the discussion arises (and it always does), I'm never entirely sure I understand what people mean when they say, "Why should I have to label my story?" With very rare exceptions, I'm pretty sure that what they mean is "Why should I have to provide #'s 4-6?" (although the issue of labeling a story slash/gen/het is taking on a new immediacy), but the question seems to get lost fairly rapidly.