Fetish reading and genre reading

When I first started reading romanceland discussion boards one of the most confusing debates I encountered was the one over forced seduction v. rape. I didn’t see what the distinction was, but I respected the people making it and I slowly realized that it was a “this is fiction not real life” argument. Because a reader has access to the thought processes of a character, it’s possible to make the argument that she can see and accept that a character is finding a way to allow something to happen that the character cannot openly consent to, for whatever reason. I still am not comfortable with the distinction but I understand it better intellectually.

For me, generally speaking in fictional scenarios and in real life, consent must exist and must be freely given or coercion has occurred. In the case of rape, that means forced seduction isn’t really a possibility for me. I don’t mean that an author can’t write it or a reader can’t interpret a scene that way, I just mean that I am going to have a hard time doing that. When I was younger I read a lot of the standard erotica (classic and contemporary), but don’t anymore, and today, especially when I read stories that are written and marketed as romance, I have trouble giving consent in the sense that Robin has described in her posts on this topic.

My general rule is that women have enough stigmas attached to the expression of their fantasies and desires. Insisting that romance novels cannot feature what is clearly a fairly common fantasy reinforces such stigmas, and I prefer to err on the side of letting in too much problematic material rather than too little. I’m not at all sure I’m right about this, but it is something I’ve thought about for a long time, so if I’m wrong, it’s not for lack of cognitive effort.

All this navel-gazing is a preamble to a discussion about a couple of incidents and subsequent conversations that came across the transom this week. First, there was an author blog post railing against content warnings for problematic material in erotic and BDSM romance. One of the author’s books had received low-starred reviews because readers felt blindsided by the amount of rape in the storyline. There was some spirited discussion in the comments section, and these weren’t newbies to the genre or the press, so we’re not talking about stereotypical pearl clutchers here.

The press provides some warnings for books at their site, but Amazon’s policies make it difficult to put informative keywords in tags. The author was insistent that such warnings would never ever ever be included in a book (over her dead body, or something equivalent). Apparently there is a huge difference between having the warnings in the book and having the warnings somewhere the reader has to make an effort to find; as a mere reader I am clearly not knowledgeable enough to understand the ethical difference that is so important to this author.

Anyway. The author said many disdainful and condescending things about a reader who would want such warnings and blamed fan fiction for creating a climate in which such expectations would be seen as acceptable. This is, at best, ironic, since not only has said author has written fan fiction for many years, she has has ported one of the more problematic tropes of fanfic into her published, sold-for-profit original fiction.

This trope is dubious consent to sex, i.e., dubcon. The author insists that the way she uses rape in her story conforms with the “rules” of dubcon, which are rules that come directly from fanfic. The specific dubcon trope here is “fuck or die,” which apparently counts as something slightly less awful than nonconsensual sex, i.e., noncon. Noncon is the fanfic way of describing rape in fiction. Noncon is indistinguishable from real-life rape, but it occurs in a fictional story. I think everyone pretty much agrees that noncon in fiction is what the rest of us, in the rest of our lives, call rape. Fiction is not reality, so the distinction is not completely unmerited, but there is plenty of disagreement in fandom about noncon, dubcon, the line between them, and the desirability of content warnings.

There was also a lot of verbiage in the post about warnings being amateur and not appropriate in professionally published books (as opposed to their role in fan fiction). I don’t take my cues on professionalism from someone who writes original fiction that maps directly onto to fan fiction tropes, markets it to the romance genre readership, and then yells at readers for having expectations based on fanfic rules, so I’ll just leave that discussion to authors who have a stake in it.

Let’s be clear about this. Dubcon is the forced seduction trope of BDSM. If you’re writing “erotic romance” with dubcon, you’re writing a version of forced seduction. In most worldviews, “fuck or die” is just rape, which is not romantic, let alone romance.The way the forced seduction-dubcon-rape scenario works in romance is as a way for women to reclaim events and fantasies that are stigmatized. And if that’s how they’re reading it, then the whole “fragile flower” criticism of women who want warnings falls on its face, because content warnings become a way to find material, not just a way to avoid it.

Which brings me to another, related conversation that arose almost simultaneously. A colleague at DA reviewed a romance in which the hero is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The book was well received by both the reviewer and by some commenters who had also read it. But a perusal of the author’s website revealed that the author and the press she founded specialize in “disability devotee” romances, i.e., romances that focus on disabled men and the women who are attracted to them.

I found the website and its explanation of the focus of their stories deeply disturbing. But then I asked myself, why is it OK to read books that focus on rape in romance but not books that focus on a woman’s attraction to disability? They both involve fetishization. They’re both romanticizing a relationship that would be problematic in the real world. Aren’t they more or less the same?

I eventually concluded they aren’t, for the following reason. In centering the role of rape in a romantic relationship, a story can provide a way for a woman to exert control in a way she cannot in the real world. It’s not comfortable to think about but it’s understandable, given the myriad ways in which women can be dominated. Rape is an act of violence, but it has a sexual valence in society.

A woman who fetishizes disability, on the other hand, isn’t reclaiming a dominance she’s otherwise denied, because she’s the able and privileged one in the relationship. And if she is interpreting the relationship primarily or solely as reclaiming dominance, then she’s both ignoring the privilege she possesses and reinforcing gendered stereotypes (the caregiver, the mother, etc.). It’s possible for this relationship to be empowering for her, but that empowerment comes through assertions of the privilege she carries.

That said, there are plenty of people who read rape in romance (m/f and m/m) because they enjoy it. It’s a fetish in the same way that being a “disability devotee” is a fetish. Fan fiction is a place readers and writers are able to read and write about not only their love of characters but also their love of particular sexual fetishes. Fan fiction operates according to a previously determined set of rules, rules that include being non-judgmental about fetishes. You play the game, you accept the rules.

For-profit publishing in the romance genre is not fan fiction. The rules are different. Romance genre rules do not include accepting that a long list of fetish interests are part of the genre. If you are publishing a book under genre labels, you owe it to me, the genre-romance buying reader, to respect my rules. And my rules include knowing that what I’m buying falls within the existing parameters. Maybe it’s about avoiding certain scenarios, maybe it’s about seeking them out. This isn’t fandom, where we all know that “warning” is short for “trigger warning.” Romance publishers signal the internal content of books in a variety of ways, including covers, titles, and blurb language. If you and your publisher don’t want to play by those rules, that’s your prerogative. I just won’t accept your assertion that you publish romance.

There’s obviously a readership that is interested in purchasing fetish fiction, and it probably has an overlap with the romance genre readership. But they’re not equivalent, and I don’t see how it serves readers to act as if they are.

56 thoughts on “Fetish reading and genre reading

  1. Jeez, Sunita, what the hell? Did you take some “I wanna have good, deep, crunchy discussion this week” pill? ~laughing~

    I am going to neatly sidestep the whole “should this be written about” discussion because I have strong opinions on consensual behavior that I won’t belabor here. I’d say they’re obvious, but they’re apparently not since folks are still having the discussion, and that makes me tired, which incidentally is one of the many reasons Rachel and I decided to write a BDSM series to begin with.

    What I will talk about is your points about warning labels and genre definitions and such. To me, both as a reader and as an author, it seems dishonest of a … hmm, let’s call them a “service provider” … it seems dishonest of a service provider to say, in essence, “You must buy my product before I tell you what’s in it or how it operates.” To say to the reading public that I, as an author, should not have to say what is in my book in broad strokes is, in a word, ridiculous. Stephen King will tell you it’s horror. I know if I read a King book, I’m not going to find the buttsecks, but I will find scary descriptions of seen and unseen things that might haunt my dreams. If I read a Cherry Adair novel, she is aggressively funny about the “crazy monkey sex” (direct quote from not one but several conference appearances, so I don’t think I’m being apocryphal, and I have tremendous respect for her as an author and as a human being). For me as an author to leave out that Chicagoland Shifters has M/M romance, menage, BDSM, and Wiccan elements would be totally inappropriate. I’ve been to RWA chapter meetings where other members have said, that stuff isn’t their cup of tea. I respect that and owe it to them as fellow human beings to say, “hey, this might not be your cup of tea so be aware.”

    I mean, this makes basic business sense. If I lie to you as a consumer, but you buy my product, I might think I’m making money. But you damn sure aren’t going to buy my next product, AND you’re highly likely to talk, loudly, about what a liar I am. So why on earth would anyone get on their high horse about their material and, in essence, say to readers “You must non-consensually read my book about non-consensual sex?” What the hell? Reader rape?

    I have a ton of swearwords I want to say right now but I don’t want to foul your comment box, so I’m going to go have another cup of coffee. :)

    • The author seems to be backtracking on a number of issues, but the words in the post speak for themselves.

      I’m absolutely fed up with fetish reading, id reading, and everything else in that area being called a “genre.” It’s not. It’s a preference for a certain type of content, not a form. I realize that fan fiction and its conventions, tropes, and readers are thoroughly integrated into the romance genre now. But I’d like to see some recognition that there *are* differences and these differences are to be acknowledged.

      Stephen King as a point of reference, give me a fucking break. And yes, I think it’s time for me to go get some coffee as well.

  2. Heh this was unexpected – the topic of your post I mean, but yes agree with everything you said. Full disclosure because not everybody will be clicking on your links – I participated in one of those discussions you linked to and the post about warnings left me very annoyed . A friend actually sent me today a link to the post which was basically a great response to it. Let me go find it.

    • Thanks, Sirius, that’s a good post describing the issue from the author’s viewpoint, and it complements the reader angle in mine (or vice versa, since it was posted before mine).

      I confess I absolutely do not understand the difference between carrying a warning label in a book and having the information at a separate place. Except that it creates an additional burden for the reader.

      • Neither do I – at all. You just want the reader to do the extra work? That makes it a okay? Don’t know. Shouldn’t the fact that I bought your book be enough ?

      • So had a thought – maybe all of that is caused not by the ethical issues – because again for the life of me I don’t get why is it so much more ethical to put the same warnings on the website but not on the book. Maybe it is simply caused by the making money issues? It was said that amazon may remove a book if they notice a warning of objectionable content whatever that means for them right? So maybe all this unwillingness is just caused by worry that if she warns the readers in the book amazon may remove it and she can’t sell it on amazon? This was in the post, right? I don’t see that my speculation is completely off base because of that – it is just she screamed at readers about supposed ethics so maybe the real issue was there, but not as loud? I can even be sympathetic to that, if amazon is the real villain, but you know, I as a reader still want to find warnings about violence easily and it is not my fault amazon behaves that way and I do not care to be talked to in the condescending manner. I mean, sell through your publisher only, sell through other sites, find other solution which does not make my reading life more complicated. I don’t know.

        • Given the various comments on Twitter and blogs, it does seem to be as much about the ability to sell the work as about principled opposition to censoring. The censoring examples number three across two years, none of which involved actual, successful shutting down of the offending works. It’s all “do you want to live in a world where this can succeed?” when we don’t actually live in that world in the erotica/erotic-romance genre, empirically speaking.

          And while I know Amazon removed books because of the attached tags, it doesn’t explain why LooseId and every other publisher with internal content notes manages to sell their books there.

  3. Her post comes across as classic protest-too-much and gave me the distinct feeling that even she knows, deep down, that she’s in the wrong. It’s an awfully self-centered and really selfish view. I suspect she will Live and Learn.

    • I agree. The post doesn’t display any understanding that the Content Police are not a separate, non-overlapping category from Readers. Readers are the ones who were crying foul, and when people who WANT to read your work are saying there’s a problem, it’s a good idea to listen. Or at least to refrain from calling them names.

  4. “I think everyone pretty much agrees that noncon in fiction is what the rest of us, in the rest of our lives, call rape.”

    Yes, although I think that one useful thing about the labels noncon (and dubcon) is that they can refer to any kind of sexual activity. So if someone wants to insist that rape involves PIV sex, they might not label a story involving say, forced blowjobs, as rape. I like the labels because they focus rightly, I think, on the issue of consent, rather than the specifics of the activity being consented to or not.

    But as for the rest of it, that author’s rant was spectacularly incoherent. And I think the distinction between genre romance and fetish fiction is a good and important one. I don’t read a lot of erotic romance, so I’m not very clear on the expectations of that specific subgenre, but it still has to work as romance, right? With all that entails in terms of content AND packaging.

    • Rape does cover penetration of all orifices now, at least in much of the US and all of the UK. The rest (non-penetrative coercive sexual activity) is covered by sexual assault laws. But I agree that consent is the issue here, and it’s why you can even think about having a category in fiction that doesn’t exist in the real world.

      The author claims the work falls within erotic romance and the publisher specifies that the problematic content is dubcon. But the author herself says it is on the edge of dubcon/noncon. So it’s not surprising that different readers categorize it in different ways.

      I have not read much erotic romance, but I can certainly see dubious consent and even flat-out rape as being possible to include in a genre frame in the hands of the right author. But as a standard content category? That I think is pretty unlikely. It’s just too likely to go pear-shaped.

  5. Gah, freaking wordpress lost my comment. Again.

    I was just thinking about this issue, because I recently wrote about enjoying reading about fetishes, but was perturbed by the HH comments. My conclusion was that there’s a big difference between fetishing an object or situation and fetishizing an actual person. I was tempted to write, I also wouldn’t want to write YA written by a pedophile, but didn’t want to unfairly equate the two.

    I do think it’s important to remember that a true fetish is random and uncurable. I can’t blame or condemn anyone for whatever their fetish happens to be. But what you do about them matters.

    • I’m sorry about that! It’s what Blogger does to me. I wish WordPress and Blogger would reach a detente.

      Talking to Ridley about this really helped me clarify where I draw my lines. For me, if the fetish is exercised by someone with relevant privilege, then it’s problematic. By that metric, fetishizing a place or an era can be fraught.

      I agree that fetishes per se are nobody’s business. And it has nothing to do with me if someone chooses to create social relationships and/or market relationships around them, as long as I have the information necessary to be able to make an equally valid choice to refrain from participating.

      The origins of warnings in fanfic has really muddied the waters of this issue. Buyer beware only makes sense if the buyer can actually get the necessary information, and there is no reason the cost has to be entirely on the buyer.

      • “as long as I have the information necessary to be able to make an equally valid choice to refrain from participating. ”
        YES. That devotee press even lies on their website about what the name means. That is so underhanded.

        • And also — that is another big difference between the fetish book I read and the “devotee” book I read. In the first, it was right out there. I mean, I have no idea if the author shares that fetish or not, and I’d just as soon not know, but the fact that the main character has a mild fetish is made very clear. In the devotee book, I had no idea that it was the author’s kink, and I do feel like an unwitting participant for reading the book.

        • The incorporation of fanfic norms into genre creates a messy blurring of boundaries. Until very recently, fanfic readers and writers were part of a community, which individuals entered consciously and whose internal rules they accepted. Content warnings, definitions of various tropes and storylines, and so on were argued over but within the framework of the community. Now you have both readers of fanfic who don’t follow the norms and fanfic readers of genre who bring those norms and behaviors into a reading experience that evolved quite differently. It’s bound to create friction.

  6. I have so many feelings about this I cannot even express them very clearly. Generally, I don’t understand why it’s a *bad* thing to have content information—whether one wants to call it a trigger warning or whatever—on books that are labeled as romance.

    If you label a book erotica, I have certain expectations about what’s in there. In my youth, I read classic erotica and even then I found it highly problematic. I no longer have any interest in reading it, but I don’t have anything against anyone else who wants to read it. I am not sure whether a book labeled erotica needs more in “warnings” than a fairly explicit piece of cover copy about the type of story it is.

    On the other hand, if you label a book “romance,” I don’t want to see rape. Not only do I not want to see rape the way it was in those 80s romances between the hero and heroine, I don’t want to read a graphic description of the heroine getting raped by someone other than the hero. I have a real problem with that and it’s happened in more than one book without any acknowledgement in the cover copy that it was going to happen. Yes, in both instances the books were romantic suspense, but that is irrelevant.

    I don’t read a lot of popular books because I’ve been in an abusive relationship and I take one look at the heroes and go “nope, you can’t redeem that guy IMHO.” The cover copy alone is enough of a trigger warning without a specific “label.” That’s really all I need…very specific cover copy, regardless of what you want to call it.

    • I have never thought of myself as having triggers, but I find myself increasingly averse to reading about certain kinds of objectification in romance. So I do seek out information to the extent I can, and covers and blurb copy help a lot.

      I’ve been trying to thing of an equivalent fetishization in other genres, and I think woman-in-jeopardy descriptions are about as close as we get. There are way too many mystery/thriller books now that linger lovingly on scenes of torture and humiliation. And of course the grimdark Fantasy genre loves its rape scenarios. TheHusband burned out on a couple of series because he refused to keep reading those storylines.

      Unfortunately, aversion to explicit violence in books and films is seen as a gendered problem and therefore not serious, and within our woman-dominant genre it often gets treated as squeamishness or aversion to “dark, edgy, boundary-pushing” work. What utter bullshit.

      • Torture porn is one of my LEAST favorite things in thrillers. It’s a fine line to walk, I find. You want to show enough that you can adequately express the danger/pain, but not one step further. For me, thriller authors take it too far when they feel the need to show me a victim dying (or coming close) when she’s not the main character.

        If your main character is in danger/being tortured/whatever, that *has* to be shown. Not in its entirety, but I think it would be very difficult not to show at least *some* of it. On the other hand, if it’s just some dead body that’s going to show up later in the story, I’d prefer not to see how she got that way. And yes, it’s *always* a “she.” I can infer the evil of the villain just fine from discussions with the medical examiner once the body is discovered, or whatever.

        • My no-go zone is torture porn that is combined with sex. Slavery and systematic or multiple rapes (whether by the main or subsidiary characters) fall into this category, and we’re seeing more of it published by commercial fiction presses. In romance it winds up having a different character, in my opinion, than it does in suspense or thrillers (where I find it difficult to take but manageable in more circumstances).

          • Yes, too both your comment Sunita and yours Laura. I’m the same way and have stopped reading books halfway through book of the amount of abuse in some of the books.

            And further to your comment, Laura, I still don’t understand why depictions of abuse are considered “dark, edgy, boundary-pushing”. All an author who does that shoes me is that they seriously lack empathy and have very little regard for their characters. So why should I invest in their back (emotionally as well as financially).

    • Thank you! It was definitely something that took me a while to make sense of (as the length of this post demonstrates).

  7. I agree with your overall point about content notices, and Amelia Gormley’s post is incoherent and ranty enough that I can’t even make my way through it because of what it does to my blood pressure. But I don’t think the way you approach the fanfic or fetish angle here is helpful or accurate. (Also, where is your authority for the statement that she started out in fanfic, and what does that have to do with anything? Knowledge of fanfic conventions is not proof that she wrote fanfic.)

    Without actually coming out and saying so, your post describes them both pejoratively while writing as though you’re authority on them. The fact that your response to comments walks that back with regard to the term “fetish” (though not with respect to “fetishization”) is not enough, just as Ms. Gormley’s walkback of her post in comments is not enough.

    Heidi/Heloise Belleau has a useful post about noncon, dubcon, rape, fanfic, and erotica here. Dubcon is where the situation, as opposed to the other participant, is what’s driving the sex act, thus making the consent dubious. In addition to mating rituals/omegaverse/sex pollen/fuck or die/aliens made me do it, it covers situations where one or both characters is under the influence of alcohol or other substances where it’s not clear whether the ability to consent is impaired. It can be written to show enthusiastic consent on the part of the person whose consent might otherwise be dubious.

    As for me, I’m not politically opposed to noncon/dubcon in erotica but I am in romance. That doesn’t mean I want it censored wherever it’s found; it means that I understand its purpose in erotica (though that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to read it there, either) but not in romance because I don’t find noncon/dubcon in romance appealing, sexy, or healthy.

    On the other hand, “sex pollen,” “fuck or die,” or “aliens made me do it,” all of which are inherently dubious consent, are A-OK with me. BTW, Ponfarr from Star Trek is dubcon, as are a lot of shifter scenarios. All of this is material that is present in pro fic and has existed well before the popularization of fanfic, so attributing the tropes to fanfic is erroneous as well as ignorant.

    I could go on about how fanfic is capable of dealing with issues of gender identity and sexuality in ways that pro fic rarely does and in some cases can’t. but I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve read fanfic that features romance between sexual and asexual people, genderflips, genderswaps, kinks (including vanilla sex as a kink) and trans characters in ways that I don’t see in pro fic, especially romance, which outside of LGBT titles (and sometimes even within them) is usually profoundly socially conservative and (from my standpoint) regressive. I am tired of fanfic shaming and kink shaming, and imo your post does both.

    • I will only address one of your comments because I am not Sunita – I have read Amelia Gormley state herself on her blog that she wrote fanfiction for years. At least I think it was on her blog because I cannot find it right now, but I absolutely read this comment.

    • where is your authority for the statement that she started out in fanfic, and what does that have to do with anything?

      She discusses it in her Goodreads post clarifying aspects of the book under discussion: “Honestly, if you followed my Dragon Age fanwritings back in the day…” It is relevant because she is calling readers (the Content Police readers) “amateurs” for bringing fanfic conventions into commercially published work at the same time that she is bringing fanfic tropes and motifs into commercially published work, without justifying or explaining why one is impermissible and the other is not.

      The fact that your response to comments walks that back with regard to the term “fetish” (though not with respect to “fetishization”) is not enough

      I have no intention of walking back anything in my post. I didn’t come out and talk about them pejoratively because that’s not how I think about them. It’s not the presence of the fetish that’s the issue for me at all.

      Heidi/Heloise Belleau has a useful post about noncon, dubcon, rape, fanfic, and erotica

      I agree Heidi has written several powerful and helpful posts on the topic. I linked to a different one, but thank you for adding this link. I also linked to the dubcon, noncon, and “fuck or die” pages in the fanlore wiki so that readers could see the fan fiction definitions of them.

      I am tired of fanfic shaming and kink shaming, and imo your post does both

      Dissenting and critical opinions are always welcome here. I stand by the week on fanfiction I coordinated at DA (some observers agree with your criticisms of my work there, BTW) and the posts I’ve written here at VM over the last couple of years. Those criticisms have not been about the content of fanfic or the desire of writers and readers to write and share them. I have quite different concerns.

      And I see that Sirius has made some of the same points I did; our comments crossed.

      • Thanks for the link. Imo, that link belonged in the original post to document the basis for your statement.

        I get that you have concerns about fanfiction, and I realize this may not be the ideal place to air them, but you used terms and phrasing in your post that are pejorative or have pejorative connotations when you could have written more neutrally or explained yourself better. Your OP isn’t anywhere near as ranty or as poorly thought through as Ms. Gormley’s, but I expect more neutrality than this from someone with an academic background.

        Let’s lay our cards on the table: I’ve read and written fanfiction, but I am not in the market to sell either converted fanfic or original stories, some examples of which are closer to each other than people outside the fanfic world think. I am nearly 100% certain you haven’t written fanfiction, and the likelihood is you haven’t read it at all, or if you have that you haven’t read it very extensively or immersively. You might think I’m too close to the topic to be objective about it; imo, you’re too far away from the topic to write about it without qualifying or conditioning your statements, which you do not do.

        As for DA, I remember Jane’s position on fanfiction, not yours (though I’ve read whatever you might have said about it in the threads on fanfiction). My understanding of the site’s position on fanfiction is a reflexive anti-pull to publish stance combined with an expectation of notice that a work that has fanfiction origins. To my mind, those are inherently in conflict (“we look down on p2p, but we want you to tell us when you’ve done it”). They’re also not the same as what you’re discussing here, for which the term “id fic” might be more helpful than a reference to fetish or equating that with fanfic. Not all fanfic is about kinks. I’m not even sure most fanfic is about kinks, but that would depend on what archive you look at and how you characterize kinks, among other things.

        Finally, as many other people have said, Ms. Gormley’s distinction between warnings in fanfiction and in pro fic are specious and solipsistic. She also ignores the fact that there is still controversy in the fanfiction world, and probably always will be, over warnings, mostly because of the spoiler issue, and that one solution used is a warning that no warnings are or will be given — in other words, “reader beware.”

        • but I expect more neutrality than this from someone with an academic background.

          Normally I wouldn’t respond to a comment like this, because you’re addressing Sunita directly, but since I think she’s way too humble, I’m going to clarify that Sunita does not have “an academic background” — Sunita IS an academic in the truest sense of the term. She’s a tenured faculty member in political science at one of the most prestigious private research universities in the US. She’s a multi-published scholar and researcher whose work is highly respected, teaches at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and obtained her own doctoral degree at, again, one of the most prestigious and highly ranked research universities (in one of the most prestigious and highly ranked programs), not just in the country, but the world.

          Scholarship is not about neutrality – it’s about presenting an informed opinion and argument, and supporting that argument logically and coherently, which is what this post does. One of Sunita’s strengths, IMO, is the ability to relay complex ideas in relatively straightforward language, but that doesn’t mean her opinions are uninformed, unsubtle, or un-researched. In fact, I have run across few others who do the kind of research she does simply to blog, where the standards of research and argumentation are obviously and necessarily much lower than for that of an R1 university. What they are not, and what IMO they should never be, is “neutral,” because that completely contradicts the purpose of scholarship and blogging, which is to offer an informed opinion that invites consideration and discussion.

          You might think I’m too close to the topic to be objective about it; imo, you’re too far away from the topic to write about it without qualifying or conditioning your statements, which you do not do.

          I have to tell you that your first comment in this thread baffled me, because I think you’re projecting a lot of judgments on to Sunita and her argument here that aren’t even implicated in her post. Since I’ve written extensively on my concerns about sex, sexuality, and shaming, and Sunita linked to one of my posts on that topic, I won’t repeat all that here, except to say that I absolutely agree with you that shaming is a concern. In fact, Sunita and I have a number of disagreements around what is and isn’t “romantic” and ideal in Romance, so I’m not coming from a place of endorsing all of her opinions here. I just think you’re dead wrong in imputing all of these “pejorative” judgments to Sunita and wish you could get past the defensiveness, because I suspect you two probably have much more in common in terms of your perspectives on fan fiction and Romance than you seem to think.

          My understanding of the site’s position on fanfiction is a reflexive anti-pull to publish stance combined with an expectation of notice that a work that has fanfiction origins. To my mind, those are inherently in conflict (“we look down on p2p, but we want you to tell us when you’ve done it”).

          DA is not a hive mind; we all have different opinions. Some of us who are concerned about P2P fan fiction are concerned about it not because we “look down” on it, or because of “quality” issues, but out of concern for fan fiction community ethics, which can be premised on a) a collaborative, almost collective participation in the writing and evolution of a fan fiction text, and b) a mutual agreement that these works will remain within the fan fiction oeuvre. Which means that there are ethical concerns with P2P that relate to the integrity of the fan fiction community from which the work comes. Consequently,*disclosure* of P2P status is even more essential and logical, because people need to be able to make an informed decision about how a work originated, especially if it originated within a community where the community ethics do not favor commercial publication.

          One of *my* biggest concerns with P2P is that authors and publishers who are already over-zealous about what they perceive to be their own intellectual property may start to go after fan fiction more aggressively, because they believe (however erroneously) that all works of fan fiction violate copyright and/or trademark. I’m incredibly concerned that Amazon’s Kindle Worlds takes advantage of fan fiction writers and communities. So, yeah, I want to know if a book is P2P for the exact same reason I want to know if it’s republished from an earlier edition — because that’s information that readers deserve to have so that they can make informed purchasing and recommending decisions. IMO lack of disclosure only feeds the idea that there’s something to hide, which is all kinds of problematic.

          Finally, as many other people have said, Ms. Gormley’s distinction between warnings in fanfiction and in pro fic are specious and solipsistic.
          And Sunita is included among those “many,” as she critiqued Gormley’s false distinction in her post and in her comments. Another reason I don’t really understand why you’re going after her post in this way. In fact, I’m pretty sure *I* disagree more with Sunita, especially around what should and shouldn’t be present in Romance, than *you* do, based, at least, on what you both say here.

        • Thanks for the link. Imo, that link belonged in the original post to document the basis for your statement.

          I don’t “document” factual statements when I blog. I provide links where I think they are useful and where blog etiquette says they are appropriate. Gormley’s fanfiction background is not secret and the link is in one of the GR reviews I’ve linked to. Most people who read my blog know that I don’t often make factual statements without having done some background checking.

          you used terms and phrasing in your post that are pejorative or have pejorative connotations when you could have written more neutrally or explained yourself better.

          I’m not interested in writing neutrally here. My blog is where I work out ideas. I certainly try to make myself clear, but my primary interest here is seeing how what’s in my head looks when it’s written out, and seeing what my smart and engaged commenters have to say about it. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they show me where I’m wrong, sometimes they take the conversation in important directions I hadn’t thought of.

          It would help if you would state precisely what the pejorative terms are that I am using. You seem to dislike my use of “fetish.” If that’s one of the terms, then we’re going to disagree. Fetish is a word with plenty of social-science descriptive meaning and that’s how I’m using it here. If there are other words, I’m happy to discuss them.

          Let’s lay our cards on the table: I’ve read and written fanfiction, but I am not in the market to sell either converted fanfic or original stories, some examples of which are closer to each other than people outside the fanfic world think. I am nearly 100% certain you haven’t written fanfiction, and the likelihood is you haven’t read it at all, or if you have that you haven’t read it very extensively or immersively. You might think I’m too close to the topic to be objective about it; imo, you’re too far away from the topic to write about it without qualifying or conditioning your statements, which you do not do.

          I don’t think we’re playing the same game here, so cards on the table are beside the point. You write fanfiction and presumably enjoy doing so. Great. That doesn’t have anything to do with me. No, of course I don’t write fan fiction; I don’t write ANY fiction, which I have said numerous times in numerous venues. I have neither the ability nor the inclination. As for the likelihood that I haven’t read it at all, we don’t have to speculate: I have read fanfiction. Immersively? No, because I don’t have the inclination or interest to read further about fictional characters, so most of my conscious reading of fan fiction has been for research and informational purposes rather than for emotional pleasure. My unconscious reading has been mostly accidental, i.e., I didn’t know if was former fanfic when I bought the book. That’s not a judgement on people who do read and like it, that’s a description of my tastes. Extensively? Probably not by your standards. But I did read fan fiction, blog posts by ff writers about fan fiction, and academic articles about fan fiction for at least a year before I ever wrote anything about it.

          I’m going to write on my blog in the way that works best for me. If people enjoy reading that, I’m thrilled. If they don’t, that’s entirely understandable. But I’m not going to second-guess myself into “qualifying and conditioning” when the whole point for me is to engage in intellectual and/or analytical exploration. Sometimes that turns into a rant, but most of the time it’s because I care about the subject and there’s more going on. That is certainly the case here, in terms of what I’m trying to work out.

          As for DA, I remember Jane’s position on fanfiction, not yours (though I’ve read whatever you might have said about it in the threads on fanfiction). My understanding of the site’s position on fanfiction is a reflexive anti-pull to publish stance combined with an expectation of notice that a work that has fanfiction origins.

          If you’re not even going to bother to look up what I’ve written in posts, either here or at DA, before you decide how I feel about a topic on which I’ve written thousands of words, but instead make judgments on the basis of what I “might have said about it in the threads,” I’m not sure why I’m supposed to take your criticisms seriously. As Robin said, DA doesn’t have a “site position.” Jane’s position, which is not quite what you’ve depicted, is different from mine; we’ve differed for years on this. I can tell you neither of our positions have anything to do with “looking down on P2P” and I have no idea where that comes from.

          I’m really not sure where most of your criticisms are coming from. You attribute attitudes and intentions to me that are not only not in the post, they are contradicted by what I have written on fanfiction, here and elsewhere.

  8. Sorry one more thing – just to be clear. I adore fanfiction , read it for more than ten years while I was discussing HP ( now just no time for it). It is the claim that warnings are so unprofessional because they come from fanfiction while author brings fanfiction tropes in her writing is got to me amongst many other things.

  9. Well, I commented over at Ms. Gormley’s post, so you already know what I think about this.

    Great post Sunita. Also, I completely agree with you re your distinction between rape/dubcon/forced seduction, etc. and disability fetish (that is, the difference about being privilege).

    • Thanks! I thought your comments were terrific. And to the extent my distinction is persuasive, it’s all credit to the Twitter discussion with Ridley, who pushed me to think hard about where I was drawing my boundaries and why.

  10. I entirely disagree with the statement in the original post you linked to about warning labels not being professional. I work for a library that provides reading material to blind and reading disabled people throughout my state in cooperation with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which is part of the Library of Congress. The NLS’s books often came with short descriptions that would include warnings for strong language, violence and explicit sex. So yeah. If an offshoot of the Library of Congress provides content warnings, how unprofessional can they actually be? In fact, this has actually become something of a problem for those of us who work in NLS libraries because NLS is distributing commercially-produced books without those warning labels. But our patrons still need that information. So often library staff has to use our best judgment as to whether we imagine a book will have strong language, violence or sex. (“Hmm. James Patterson’s 197th book. It’s about terrorists. What are the odds there’s violence?”)

    I used to be resentful of those warnings, especially back in the days before ebooks and Audible, when those NLS books were literally all I could read. Now that I have more choice, I get why they’re necessary, and even more so now that I work at an NLS cooperating library. I mean, if one of my 94-year-old patrons gets a bunch of books mailed to her–which is how those libraries work–why should she have to weed through a bunch of books with salty language or sex scenes? She wouldn’t have picked them out for herself, and we’re doing her no favors by forcing them on her.
    As for me, I loved dark and edgy in my twenties. Well, maybe not loved exactly, but I certainly felt more pressure to read books on the grimmer side. Maybe I wanted to prove that I could handle them. I don’t know. But now, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how awesome a writer is, there are certain things I never want to read. The comments about thrillers above are a perfect example. I’ve pretty much quit even trying to read mysteries because the number of women in refrigerators/women in peril I could stomach kept going down with each book. See also: grim dark fantasy. And because we have so many choices as readers, a warning saying, “This book has torture, nonconsensual sex, and someone being forced to drink Drain-o”* means that yes, in the immediate moment that author may have lost one sale, but there are plenty of other readers who aren’t me who would gobble that stuff up with a spoon. There are still millions of non-Drain-o-drinking books for me to read, and I’ll be a lot happier mentally if I don’t have to be surprised by something like that.
    *Yes. That happened. I’m still traumatized and will never read that author again.

    • I saw a movie of the week where your * happened and it still freakin’ haunts me.

      I absolutely noticed when graphic violence in romance started ramping up – Karen Robards and Tami Hoag in particular put out books that made me stop reading them (and in Robards’ case, I’d been a longtime fan). For me, some of it is aging/maturation, I think. I’m not saying that if you like that stuff you’re immature, not at all. But when you stop feeling immortal, some of that graphic violence stops being entertaining and has a different impact. For me, it’s a bit sickening and anxious-making. In my case, having kids drastically reduced my threshold for that kind of material. I also stopped watching shows like ER and NYPD Blue … so perhaps you can infer when my kids were born. :)

      Anyway, sort of a ramble. I’m not sure I need explicit warnings; I can usually tell by the blurb if it’s going in a direction I don’t like, but I certainly don’t have a *problem* with the warnings. Philosophically, I suppose I can agree that if it leads to suppression, censorship, or “content policing,” that’s a bad thing. But I did not see that argument made in any convincing way.

      • Part of it is definitely age and life circumstance change, and part of it is just the fact that what is new and fresh at one time is neither new nor fresh when you’ve read widely in the story type. I don’t have children but I just find that my tolerance for certain types of stories has plummeted, unless the book is incredibly well crafted (and even then I might be unwilling to keep reading). Also, social reading, i.e., talking with other readers about books, has made me so much more aware of issues that I didn’t used to notice or that I glossed over that I can’t read them with the same relatively ignorant view.

        • Yes. I don’t have children, either, but the social reading aspect does come up a lot. I sometimes miss the days when I could read western romances without noticing how problematic the very idea is, but on the other hand, having a name for things I don’t like has been helpful. (E.G.: women in refrigerators.)

    • Shannon! Thanks so much for weighing in. Yes, I’m going to agree that if the Library of Congress puts content labels on books and DVDs, then it by definition qualifies as professional. ;) I really think this is the collision of one set of norms about a practice with another, and perhaps when the rationale and history behind each position are clearer it will be easier to find a workable solution.

      For anyone who doesn’t read Shannon’s blog, you really really should. She has great reviews and posts and if Blogger didn’t hate me I’d comment there all the time. The blog is flightintofantasy.com, or click on her name in her comment to go there.

      • Thanks, Sunita! Your kind words have made my morning, though for the record, my blog does run WordPress, so apparently your commenting issues are another thing entirely.
        I’ve been thinking about the differences in the fanfic vs. the professional fiction community. I think for me the struggle is that ultimately the two groups have a lot in common, which is why these disagreements feel so fraught. But there are different expectations. When I read fanfic, I might look for something that’s a little more out there than I might want to read in a full-fledged novel, especially if the fanfic is short. Reading smutty fix has introduced me to kinks I didn’t know I had–kinks I’m not sure I’d have been willing to pay even $0.99 to explore. And I think that’s ultimately the crux of the issue. As a reader, once I pay you my 99 cents, it’s not a simple matter of clicking my browser’s Back button once the stuff I’m not OK with starts. Now I’ve invested actual money in an author. I expect at least a little return on that investment in the form of something I will be happy with reading.

          • Thank you for the out! I have a sad feeling that I just screwed up something when I tried to comment on Shannon’s blog a couple of times (her review of Bone Rider is THE BEST) and I like being able to blame everything on Blogger. ;)

  11. I don’t know a single self-respecting author who wants to sell their books to readers who don’t like that kind of book, however you define that. Every author I have talked/tweeted to about this has said that they’d rather have readers warned away than get 1-star reviews and (in some cases) angry e-mail from readers who hate something that’s fundamental to the author’s work. I can’t believe a few sales (to subsequently unhappy customers) make the negative response worthwhile.

    I don’t think content labels or tags necessarily violate the basic “your kink is not my kink” philosophy. I don’t care how it’s accomplished, really; I just want to not accidentally read a book that contains things that I find personally distasteful. I think the nature of the romance genre heightens that — romance is THE happy ending genre, so any aspect of the book that makes “happy” impossible for the reader is going to result in a negative response. And I find that erotic romance (and erotica generally) are areas where individual preference gets hugely magnified. I may not like certain character types or plot devices, and that will probably reduce my enjoyment of a book. But things that I don’t find at all sexy are going to make an erotic story almost impossible for me to enjoy on the very level that such books are meant to BE enjoyed. If that makes sense.

    Is it “shaming” to say I want to be informed? I don’t think so, although if someone has a history of having been shamed, they might take it that way.

    • This is so completely on target. I was trying to say something to this effect in my post but couldn’t get it right. The HEA focus of the genre and the type of emotional satisfaction that romance provides (and the analogous emotional/sexual satisfaction of erotica) makes it difficult to enjoy a book *in the way that it’s intended to be enjoyed* if that emotional connection isn’t there. And conversely, if the book is outside the reader’s range of emotional demands or interests, it’s going to fail in a way quite different than a book in another genre. So I think knowing what you’re getting in terms of specific details is important in romance and erotic romance in a way that is probably unique in reading experiences.

  12. I thought of a couple of things. How does this leave the publisher legally? It’s complicated, because it also speaks to brand. If you buy a Stephen King book, you kind of know what you’re getting because, hey, Stephen King. That’s his brand. But on the other hand, if you read a book that features a rape and you weren’t led, by the blurb or the warning to know that, is the publisher legally liable for the ensuing trauma?
    I have an upcoming book about a rape victim (six months later) and her recovery from it, If my publisher didn’t at least allude to it on the cover, then I wouldn’t be using that publisher for this book. These people aren’t “precious” or “fragile,” they’ve suffered a life-changing event and they deserve respect when they look for reading matter. What I write is supposed to entertain, primarily, however you want to interpret that. Actually, respect for the reader matters a lot to me. I’m asking them to invest time, money, hopefully both, in what I write.
    I also write vanilla erotic books with specific kinks; tight-lacing, exhibitionism, voyeurism, menages. If that wasn’t referred to, how would a reader who wants to read about those kinks find the books?

    • I don’t know if the publisher can be held liable, it seems far-fetched but then the law can get weird in different jurisdictions.

      I can see a fairly general content note with a link to more specific descriptions. That would give the majority of readers a heads-up but allow readers with more fine-grained questions (and/or triggers) to follow up.

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  14. So many issues conflated so many ways. And all of them interesting!

    I’ll just say this: in the M/M genre in particular, fan fiction tropes and customs are prominent. This is because the genre was largely invented there, and fanfic is most of what people had to read for many years. The authors are often former (or current) fanfic writers, and the readers are often fanfic readers. So Amelia Gormley – an M/M writer and a former fanfic writer – is, in my view, going out of her way to insult the genre, its writers, and its readers.

    I do think her distaste for warnings deep down is because she is afraid that Amazon will delist her books if she is truthful in her content warnings, and that she is dressing that up in excuses about professionalism. The Stephen King comment is particularly disingenuous. King doesn’t need warning labels because he writes horror. People expect what they are going to get. When I watch Supernatural, I expect blood and guts and people being possessed and forced to do horrible things, and, yeah, people being forced to drink Drano. That doesn’t mean I expect those things in my romance reading.

    Recently a book about twincest was delisted from Amazon, even though other twincest books are still there. I think it is because the author was a little too cute in not warning (in order to not be delisted) and this resulted in people who were mad that they were fooled into buying and reading twincest. These people complained, and the book was delisted.

    Amazon’s policies are annoying to me. It would be so simple for them to allow people to choose whether to show explicit stuff in their searches, and then authors wouldn’t have to do the cover/content warning/blurb dance. But that doesn’t make readers who want to know what they are getting into unduly fragile or delicate. It is an Amazon problem, not a reader problem.

    • I totally agree that Amazon’s policies are annoying, not least because they are inconsistent but mostly for me because they are so hypocritical.

      The problem is not that the norms in fanfic and the romance genre are different but that in the areas in which they conflict, we haven’t worked out a good way to reconcile them or compromise. And demonizing one or the other (or both) is really not helping.

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  17. So yeah, Wendy catching up on her comment-leaving this evening :)

    I do think authors/publishers can go overboard with content labels, but given the incredible boom of the current erotic romance sub genre, I say bring ’em on. I don’t have that many triggers, but can certainly understand readers who want to avoid rape, torture-porn or certain fetishes. Hey, we all got our baggage – and sometimes we don’t want to necessarily find that baggage in our leisure reading. To each her own I say.

    I do think there can be a fine line on what bothers one reader and not others though. I’m always fascinated by what offends people and what doesn’t. Little old ladies who read suspense who are fine with sadistic villains torturing the heroine – but OMG, he better not kill her beloved dog Fido! Threesomes, foursomes, orgies – but two guys gettin’-it-on? No gay stuff allowed!

    In the realm of my romance reviewing, I will call out rape – because that’s just an obvious one for people. I read a really great historical last year where the heroine was raped (by a villain) and mentioned it in the review. I also mentioned that the rape wasn’t described in graphic detail and took place prior to the start of the book. That may be OK for some readers – might not be OK for others. I have a harder time with erotic romance and erotica. I mean, I figure if you’re reading those genres you should be prepared. Or at least be willing to experiment a bit and find a nice core of “autoread” authors. I’m not sure I’m at the point where I want to start keeping a laundry list of sex-acts for the review writing purposes. Think of the post-it notes that my coworkers might find!

    • I saw that review! Incredibly violent and nasty “In Death” book, chock full of murder, but one reviewer wanted to assure us that it’s okay, the dog lived!

    • It’s so interesting how the different genres have different no-go zones. Swearing in cozies, for example, or even in not-exactly-cozy mysteries like Colin Cotterill’s. When I attended Bouchercon a few years ago this came up, and I was stunned.

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