Have You Noticed? It's Fandom, Not Wal-mart
by K.S. Langley
A recent LJ discussion prompted me to dust off an old LoC that has done duty for me on a couple of lists in recent years and tweak it for presentation in this forum.
The modern reader of fan fiction seems to regard it as they do any other product or consumable available today—as if they are shopping at the Fan Fiction Supermarket. Go in with an exact list of what they're looking for, zip up and down the archives aisles, where everything is laid out in precise order, every item neatly categorized and subcategorized and labeled. A detailed list of ingredients is included in the label, so they can check it against their allergies. Get exactly what they're looking for, looking neither to the left nor right, no surprises (good or bad), and no time wasted.
But fandom isn't a store, created to meet customer needs. It doesn't exist for the needs and expectations of only the people who consume the product. It's there for the participation and enjoyment of the people who supply the product, as well. Getting you in and out of the FF Supermarket as quickly as possible, or managing your emotional allergies, is not why a writer writes.
Warnings? I don't expect authors to draw me a diagram of their stories—giving away plot points (major or minor), emotional highs and lows, etc. Why bother writing it in the first place? It is not the responsibility of an author to try to second guess every possible element in her story that somebody could be "squicked" by and warn for it—in effect, expecting the author to spoil her own story for the convenience of some readers.
Any form of entertainment—fan fiction, books, movies, whatever—carries a risk. You can check out reviews, listen to word of mouth, get the opinions of friends who have already read/viewed it. You can thumb through the book (or scroll down the computer page) and check out a few paragraphs here and there (or even read the end, if you're really anxious). But there still aren't any guarantees. (Not even story warnings are a guarantee of "safety." The writer might warn for 12 different things and still miss the things that upset or offend you. Or the author's perception of "squicky" might be 180 degrees from yours.)
The bookstore analogy (that inevitably comes up in discussion of this topic) doesn't work for me. Books don't warn of "rape/nc, h/c, partner betrayal, death, incest, underage fic," or any of the other multitude of requirements on various fannish archives. And bookstores categorize only in general terms, also unlike fan fiction. I have, for example, checked out the "Gay and Lesbian Interest" section at a local Barnes & Noble, only to discover academic texts on homosexuality side by side with the raunchiest of gay porno books (and nicely illustrated they were, too). I can go to the Science Fiction section and find, without warning, a book that features incestuous gay sex. I cannot go to the bookstore and pinpoint the "Christians for BDSM and Water Sports" section, so that I can be sure to avoid it.
Fan fiction need be no more complicated than the local bookstore. What fandom is it? Is it, say, drama, humor, action-adventure, alternate universe? Adult or general audience?
In fact, what I'd really like to see is writers rediscovering the lost art of the Story Description. I guess that, with all those archive category and warning boxes to check off (and I've seen some stories with lists that are longer than the stories they are identifying), most writers don't think it necessary to summarize their story in an enticing or intriguing way. Like the back cover or inside jacket flap of a book. Like a fanzine flyer of yore. (And sorry I am to see story warnings popping up in fanzines—the last refuge for readers and writers who don't need them or want them.)
Oh, that reminds me. As for those "Part 0" posts often lauded as a way for people who don't like warnings to avoid them—this assumes that everyone is getting their fiction from a subscription fiction list. Make a story request at an archive and what comes up is a page listing stories—with any spoiler information front and center. Such information often is included right at the beginning of the actual archived story, as well. And any bit of story summary a reader might wish to find in an archive listing or "Post 0" post is lumped right in with all the labels and warnings—they are omnipresent and inescapable. (And, of course, "Part 0" posts in no way address the needs of the writers.)
Some folks seem to think that people who don't like warnings are proclaiming some type of superiority over those who do. But the attitude that disturbs me is found in an increasing number of fans who display a strong sense of entitlement regarding, among other issues, labels and warnings. They consider them a right of fandom and get quite outraged when they don't get them. Many proponents of the Early Warning System, subtly or otherwise, like to brandish the Courtesy Club. To wit: It's only courteous. I appreciate the courtesy of the people who give warnings. It's the polite thing to do. Well, it's nice if people include warnings. Etc. Which is to say . . . what? That authors who don't like to write spoilers for their own stories are rude, uncaring, and not nice? However, the Courtesy Club swings both ways. It might be just as easy to conclude that such readers are arrogant and insensitive to the needs of the writers.
Authors do not exist for the convenience of the readers (any more than the reverse). I have read thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of fanzines and Internet-published stories without it ever occurring to me that someone should have run ahead before me and smoothed my path. (Or indeed, as many fans seem to think, that there is an actual obligation for someone to do so.)
No, I don't want to run into the stuff that bothers me any more than the next person does. But that's my responsibility. And, yes, I do expect to get stung occasionally. That's life. That's fandom.
The onus for my emotional well-being or busy schedule is not on the shoulders of the writers.
And if I did want warnings, I would like the "No Concept of Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation" Warning, the "Wouldn't Know Research if It Came Up and Bit Me on the Ass" Warning, the "Editing? What's That?" Warning, and the "You Mean I Should Watch the Show Before I write Stories About It?" Warning.