The subject is a proverbial minefield and here are my ramblings on the subject.
When I first got into fandom I was more than happy not to have warnings on stories; I didn’t see the need for them. However, the fandom I was in at that time was one in which the need for warnings was virtually non-existent, as ‘dark’ stories, death stories, or anything ‘different’ were rare. Nor did it seem that people were encouraged to push the boundaries and go into these darker elements.
However, when I was doing some preliminary work for my Master’s Degree dissertation and reading in various fandoms, I discovered that this lack of darker stories was not the norm. I also discovered that some fandoms warned for just about any and every conceivable thing - sometimes the warnings/ratings/summary was longer than the actual story. Again I wasn’t particularly bothered by those fandoms that didn’t warn, because I had little, if any, emotional involvement with the partners - I was simply reading for academic reasons.
Then I got into The Professionals (which happened at a time when I was recovering from a major operation and thus was feeling pretty low). This fandom does have a fair number of darker stories - partner rape, partner beating, partner betrayal, death stories, stories without happy endings - and I soon discovered that I wanted, even needed, warnings.
Since then, with a second major operation that led to me having to take medical retirement in November 2003, my desire for warnings has continued. However, I am well aware that the kind of things I want warnings for are not necessarily the kind of thing that all people would want/need to be warned for. Indeed one of the things (stop rolling your eyes maubast and caffyolay I am going to mention it again) for which I both want and need to be warned, I’m sure is something for which no one would ever think of warning.
I invest a lot of time and emotion into the fiction I read (I do this in mainstream as well as fanfic). Therefore, I really do not want to devote hours and energy to a long story/novel, only to get to the end and find that the partners have split up or something like that. The more I care about the partnership and the more emotionally involved I am, the more I have a problem with unhappy endings.
As a result I have to confess that I now take to glancing at the end of a long story, unless it’s published by a press that I know only deals with happy endings (waves to ddp or I know and trust the writer. I honestly never believed that I would turn into this kind of person, as I could never understand people who read the end of a book before the beginning, although I do not read the end of mainstream fiction, just fanfiction. I do honestly think part of it is down to my disability and the constant pain and discomfort that I am in.
I know that I miss some wonderful stories and this is something I do regret. However, the only way that I can read a partnership-split story is if there is a sequel in which they get back together. I still haven’t read a highly recommended Man From U.N.C.L.E. story which appears in one of the We Have Each Other zines for this very reason. I have the zine, but still have not read the story in question.
I know that warnings and labels are very touchy subjects, and know that a great deal of time gets devoted to arguments/discussions on the subjects. These can be very enjoyable, if all parties respect one another’s views, or can be very upsetting when respect vanishes. I also know that it’s a case of ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’, because no matter how hard anyone tries she/he is never going to satisfy everyone.
One way that on the face of it would seem to satisfy the majority of people, is to ensure that the warnings/labels are ‘optional’.
----- For zines this would mean putting them at the back of the zine - which I know a number of editors do.
----- For list mail a ‘0 of 2’ post, whereby any warnings/labels are put in the post headed ‘0’.
----- On websites the warnings/labels could be on a separate page of hidden in some way.
Even with all these compromises, I am certain that there would still be some people who would be unhappy - maybe the writer her/himself who simply does not want, under any circumstances, to warn/label. This in itself brings up another issue: should an author be forced to warn/label?
My feelings on this are: it depends on to where the author is submitting her/his story.
----- If the author is sending the story to a press that does not allow death stories without a warning, then yes, the author should be made to put a warning on the story. If she/he doesn’t want to, then the story should be submitted elsewhere.
----- If the author is submitting a story to a particular list/website/LJ community that has its own set of rules (e.g. warnings are only necessary when a death story is posted) then again the author should indeed put a warning on a death story.
----- If the said website/community insist that all stories are labelled, must have summaries, and also warnings for whatever things the posting rules state, then once more the author should comply with these instructions.
----- If, however, the author is posting a story to her/his own website, LJ, or list that she/he runs, i.e. a place where she/he makes the rules, then no, I do not believe that the author should have to warn/label if she/he does not wish to so do.
Even if agreement is reached over ‘to warn or not to warn’, as I said above, the things for which one should warn/label will vary tremendously from person to person. Some readers will be quite happy to simply be warned for death stories, others for BDSM content, others for partner rape/beating/betrayal, etc. Some people will be quite happy to just be warned for an unhappy ending. However, even here, it isn’t as simple as one might think - my idea of an unhappy ending will probably differ from someone else’s idea.
I don’t like certain things, e.g. partner rape, partner beating, partner betrayal, non-con BDSM, mainly because (as I said in a pervious ramble) these stories rarely convince me as far as characterisation goes. However, as long as the story ultimately ends happily, i.e. the guys are together in a permanent relationship, I can live without being warned for these things.
As far as death stories go, for me they fall into two categories: the kind I ‘like’ and the kind I hate. The former are those for which I would prefer to be warned, but can cope without the warning. The latter are those for which I most definitely want to be warned.
----- The first kind of death story (those I ‘like’) are stories whereby either the partners die together, or the surviving partner ends up taking his own life/is careless and ends up getting killed. Thus by the end of the story they are both dead. Yes, I know that this doesn’t often happy in RL, but then I don’t necessarily really equate fanfic with RL. For me it’s more escapism than reality. It’s how I’d like things to be.
----- The second kind of death story (those I detest) is where the surviving partner goes on with his life quite happily/willingly, and even forms a new relationship. These make me shudder and really upset me, and as a result I want to be warned about them.
The things that I really do want to be warned about are:
----- Unhappy endings - i.e. the partners have split up. With these stories I would also like to be told whether there is a sequel that puts things right, because if I can immediately read the sequel, then I’m happy enough to read the ‘splitting up’ story’.
----- The above-mentioned kind of death story.
----- Ambiguous endings where by they are together, but doubt if it will last.
----- A story that contains a child who is living with the partners.
----- One or other of the partners being married, irrelevant as to whether they are also in a relationship with one another.
----- Stories that are purely ‘buddy-fuck’ stories, i.e. there is no emotional involvement between the partners.
----- And the one for which no one will ever warn: sex and food together.
I’m not talking about partner feeding during a romantic dinner (as long as that feeding is with cutlery or fingers if it’s finger food). I’m talking about when they are in bed and smearing food over their partner, and licking/eating it off him.
This I find abhorrent and it is just about the only thing that will actually stop me from reading a story mid-way through. I’m a bit of a completist/finisher (or nutter I guess). Once I start a story, no matter how grim it is, or how out of character, or how much I’m disliking it, I do tend to plough on to the bitter end. Food/sex will, however, stop me cold and that for me is the end of the story. And I’m exactly the same in mainstream fiction too, again I’ll keep on reading a book until I get to the bitter end. It’s very much a case of ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’, for me.
On the label front, I’m quite easily pleased (well I think I am). I just want a story to be labelled ‘slash’ ‘gen’ or ‘het’. I’m of the school that believes in the following classifications:
SLASH: Homoerotic stories when the partners of the same sex are shown to be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with each other.
GEN: Stories in which there is no romantic and/or sexual relationship between the partners or anyone else.
HET: Where there is a sexual and/or romantic relationship between one or other of the partners and a person, or persons, of the opposite sex.
I have come across stories that are labelled as being ‘suitable for everyone’, and yet have one or other of the partners married, although the focus of the story is not on the marriage. Now for me, as a slash fan, that is not what I want to read. Seeing such a classification makes me wonder if the het writer is trying to force slash fans to read het. I am possibly being unfair here, these writers probably aren’t doing this at all; she/he almost certainly genuinely does believe it’s suitable for everyone.
However, even though I’d argue the labelling in these cases, I would equally argue for the right of the writers to label the story as they wish, as long as it didn’t break any rules of a list/community/website. Equally so, it’s my right not to read any other stories by these writers that might be labelled in this way. Yes, so I might well be missing some good stories, but that’s my problem - I accept that. I have no interest in reading any story that has any degree of a permanent het relationship, even if the relationship is off-screen and doesn’t actually form part of the story. If a partner is married or living with a woman, and it doesn’t end with divorce or splitting up, then this story is not for me - hence my desire for the categories of ‘gen’ and ‘het’ to be separate ones.
All of the above is just my opinion, my feelings on the subject and I know that these will differ in varying degrees to other peoples’, and I am in no way decrying anyone else’s opinion. What I am trying to show is that the ‘to warn or not to warn’ subject really is a diverse one, and that the simple ‘oh, all stories should contain warning/labels’ or ‘no story should contain a warning/label’, is far from simple.
For all the things that I want to be warned for, I am sure that other people could add many more, or indeed take some if not all of them away. We all have different needs and requirements from our fanfic. We also all see things in different ways, which means that what one person might see as partner betrayal, another might see as perfectly normal.
Indeed, it seems that whatever we do, we really are never going to be able to please all of the people all of the time.