The other day on the Middle Earth Fanfiction Awards mailing list, there was a rather frustrated reply to an administration post about labeling reviews that contain spoilers. The writer put forth the usual arguments: A degree of “spoilage” is common when reading book reviews, so why would readers of MEFA reviews assume any differently? It’s an issue that I’ve seen come up before and that, indeed, I’ve dealt with in other contexts through my work with the SWG. It got me thinking, as it has before, how different the experience of writing and reading in fandom is from the rest of the literary world.
I have heard the criticism made against fandom before that it is too easy on writers. Even the worst stories tend to find one or two people willing to say something nice about them. Comments on stories are almost all praise, even on sites–like the SWG–where concrit is not only allowed but encouraged. We are, by and large, a community that anguishes over how to write good feedback and the ethics of when, where, and whether constructive criticism is appropriate. A common defense by flamers is that they are toughening up fan writers and forcing an honest consideration of their writing because most of their peers will not. It is true that the process of sharing fannish writings is largely different from sharing original writings, at least in my experience, and, in my opinion, largely because of the pressure to publish that comes with original but not fan writing.
But in the midst of the debate about how we do and should treat authors, the experience of reading as a fan and in the so-called “real world” of writing is often overlooked. And I think that it deserves some consideration, at least equal to that which we give to authors and perhaps more, since there are far more readers than writers in fandom. Just as many fandom participants feel that authors are coddled by the culture that has developed around fan writing, I feel that readers are likewise coddled by a culture that is hypersensitive and caters to their “needs” in a way that the broader world of creative writing does not.
The complaint on the MEFA list reflects this. Fan readers are, at times, obsessed with the idea of “spoilers.” It is an unwritten rule that story reviews that contain significant revelations about the story’s plot should indicate this loud and center at the top of the review. Software like LiveJournal lets spoilers be hidden “behind the cut” and away from the eyes of readers who don’t want to see them, and it is understood that LJ users will make good use of this tool. The MEFA’s implementation this year of the spoiler flag writes as a rule this unspoken agreement between author, reviewer, and reader.
But the MEFAs are not alone in their official consideration of spoilers. As my comoderators and I developed the rating/warning system for the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, finding a method that would not spoil a story was a frequent point of discussion and was treated as a priority. Even our ratings policy assures readers: “We are willing to work with authors when warnings may spoil the plots of their stories.”
This is unique to fandom. In the “real” world, if you choose to read a review, or if you insist on a rating system for an artistic medium, then you should expect some degree of spoilage.
Right alongside spoilers as a frequent point of discussion are ratings and warnings. I don’t think that the SWG entertains questions and dissatisfaction about any single point more than it does ratings and warnings. We have received emails in the past from authors asking for guidance on whether we think a story is best as Adults or Teens, as though the gradation is as clear as deciding between red, yellow, and blue. The graduated system of warning for sex and violence–mild, moderate, and graphic–earns its own handwringing as authors debate what degree of explicitness nudges a story from one to the other. Yet a discussion on our Yahoo! list showed me that readers are pretty clear on where they stand on ratings and warnings: They like them, they want them, and they won’t read on an archive that doesn’t make an attempt at providing them. I think it’s illustrative that the fiction archive software, eFiction–which is largely aimed toward creating fan fiction archives–makes nearly every detail optional through the control panel, but “[r]atings are a required element for story submission.” In other words, archive owners must have the PHP/MySQL knowledge to alter the software directly to get rid of ratings altogether or else find a creative way of recasting the required rating field as something else entirely. Or, when LiveJournal developed its own rating system for journal entries, the discussion of whether this was ethical to start was as loud as the discussion of another concern: that ratings in the story body would be hidden behind LJ cuts and readers actually had to click on the story to find them.
Literature outside of fandom is so far untouched by the ratings bug that has made a color-coded alphabet soup out of movies and television in many countries in the world. Perhaps it is assumed that if you are mature enough to pick up a novel for entertainment, then you are mature enough to handle the fact that it might represent real life in some degree of explicitness, including sex and violence. Or perhaps rating literature inches too close to censorship in a culture that still feels the heat of past book burnings (a phenomenon that we haven’t entirely thwarted in this century either). Or maybe it is assumed that you really can judge enough about a book by its cover (and the blurb on the back) to discover whether its content will be to your taste or not. Or maybe fan writings are really that much more explicit overall than original writings, making meticulous ratings and warnings a far greater imperative.
There is a movement among fan writers to shuck the system of ratings and warnings. I am among them: My homepage The Midhavens does not include a single story rating and uses warnings only when I think that a story contains something that might work as a “trigger” to victims, such as those affected by rape or suicide. But we are in the minority, and, even among us, it is understood that scrapping ratings on public archives is an impossible dream. In reconsidering the warning system used by the SWG, a member wrote to me to say she thought it’d be best to get rid of it altogether … but that she understood that readers would never go for it. Yet, briefly, we entertained the thought of an experience where the reader would judge a story on its merits and not which warnings it could be shelved under.
But what is the point of all of this? Surely, pleasing readers and site visitors is not a bad thing.
And I agree that it’s not, just as I agree that the more delicate and tolerant treatment of authors in fandom is not a bad thing either. But gripes about how things are handled in fandom compared to the “real writing world” tend to focus almost exclusively on the kid-glove treatment that the author receives. Very few fandom readers–when making a loud show about spoilers and ratings and the other luxuries they enjoy here but not elsewhere–seem cognizant of the differences between fannish and original literary communities and the burden that creating an absolutely flawless reading experience puts on archive owners and, more importantly, authors. I have heard complaints about the sorts of reviews attached to barely coherent stories that invoke such bland, vague praise as “great grammar!” or “you really use your canon!” just so the reviewer has something nice to say. Yet this requires no more verbal gymnastics than does the sort of warning I remember from my early days on fanfiction.net: “warning for slash (well, maybe, Maedhros and Fingon do hug each other in one scene, but they’re cousins, so you could see this as slash or not, depending on how you want to look at it, but I thought it safer to warn anyway).”
Or when a MEFA reviewer writes, “Aragorn and Arwen are my favorite canon couple!” without using the spoiler tag, and a reader huffs and puffs that now the story is ruined because the writer could not possibly carry the story on skill alone now that the story’s pairing is revealed!
Fandom is ridiculous at times. Anyone who has been around it for more than a week generally knows that. But, as an author and an archive owner, I find myself caught between wanting to please everyone who supports my writing and my site and tossing their more ridiculous requests in the bin where my own judgment says they belong and start treating my writing and that of my peers more like literature and less like that despised label evocative of squealing, irrational children: fan fiction.