Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 14:26 on 04-10-2014, Andy G
@Arthur/Chris A: What I had in mind with respect to children's books wasn't so much generically disturbing content as notices about more specific issues such as racist language/depictions in old children's classics.
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at 19:48 on 03-10-2014, Fin
Holding websites to the mercy of advertisers is of course the best way to combat censorship.

I saw this chilling article earlier today. Wonder when GG will turn their attent... okay, I can't even finish that sentence, they won't.
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at 18:07 on 03-10-2014, Bjoern
Back to what started the brouhaha: The GamerGate crowd have so massively swamped Intel with mails, twitter spam, etc. that Intel decided to pull it's ads from Gamasutra. Similar things seem to have happened to RPS and Kotaku.

So, the straight, white men that form the Gaters, who complain about their toys being taken away, now manage to deprieve websites that dare to offer POC, women, gay or disabled gamers a place to voice their opinions of necessary funding. This being a rather underhanded form of censorship...
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at 15:18 on 03-10-2014, Shimmin
Another complication is, as far as I understand, music rating is almost entirely about whether the lyrics contain whatever the current generation of ajudicators considers profanity ("zounds" doesn't make it in, I understand). I don't think they consider the overall message of the song, and certainly they don't get graded on whether they are making an actively positive contribution to society.

Film rating systems generally pay a lot of attention to specifics (swearwords, instances of violence, nudity, actual sex), some attention to scenes as a whole (is the scene disturbing at the 5-minute level even if not at the 10-second level) and again, very little to themes or messages - although Tolerance of [latest point of social contention] is usually a factor. Games seem to be pretty similar, mostly dealing with the level and realism of violence.

When books come into play, suddenly everyone cares about messages and themes and ideas. Book categorisation/censorship is usually discussed in those terms, and almost never in terms of how many times the word "fuck" appears or how many people are graphically killed by the protagonist. You can read as much Tom Clancy as you want, none of this club seems interested in stopping you. I strongly suspect the same people would push rather disturbing books onto school reading lists because they Address Issues, object to the exact same content in films, and complain about Twilight or Fifty Shades because of the sexual content rather than any more pertinent issues about the positions they promote.

But, I speak largely from a position of ignorance. My schools were just glad to see you bothering to read at all.
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at 14:06 on 03-10-2014, Arthur B
My understanding is that those stickers substantially boosted sales of the albums in question.
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at 12:59 on 03-10-2014, James D
I think it's also just that we're used to rating systems for movies and vidya games but not for books. People sure fought hard against ratings for music, but now those parental advisory warning stickers are hardly noticed.
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at 11:01 on 03-10-2014, Arthur B
Suggestion on why rating systems for books feel more intrusive than those for vidgams or movies - books can be experienced silently, with a visual component generated primarily by your imagination, so restricting books feels more like a restriction on the mind itself.

Though I think this is probably irrational and based on a snobbish assumption that visual and audio arts can't affect us the same way prose does.

I think it is just as legitimate to protest books being withdrawn from libraries censoriously as it is to protest films or games being suppressed on a similar basis. Most librarians probably won't let kids take out Cannibal Holocaust, of course. But whichever amazing work that opened your eyes and unlocked your soul and showed you that you weren't alone in the world and which is opposed by narrow-minded parents was - and I think most of us can name one - it probably wasn't whatever the prose equivalent of Cannibal Holocaust is.

Plus kids can get around parental bans trivially. Those who have access will get pirate stuff through IT means, those who don't will probably have friends who can. Hell, watching movies we had no business watching was a standard playground rite of passage for my generation, and that was well before downloading a movie was a practical possibility.
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at 05:21 on 03-10-2014, Chris A
It may well be a cultural issue. We're fairly backward here in the US, and challenges to books are not uncommon.

I’ve never really seen those as an “aid to parental monitoring of their kids’ reading choices”, but as a way to help people choose media suitable for them – for children, this might involve parents, just like every single other part of their life.

Yes, I totally agree that content warnings are of benefit when they help people make informed decisions about their own reading choices. I was responding to the suggestion that content warnings are especially appropriate when they help parents decide what books are appropriate for their kids.

I confess that I have no rationally persuasive argument as to why parental supervision of children's choices in this area is uniquely unsettling, however, so I suppose I'll have to let go of the issue.

Now, surely what we can all agree on is draconian laws demanding that book blurbs accurately reflect what the book is actually about. “In Winter’s Heart, people ride across the country for several hundred pages. Nothing interesting happens.”

"The best-written pastiche of '80s and '90s Tolkien imitations I've read in the past decade!" - Famous Author
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at 03:18 on 03-10-2014, Shimmin
I don’t know if this is a cultural thing? I’m not aware of challenges to school libraries or reading lists being a common issue in the UK, despite being a UK librarian. My primary school teachers did discourage us, at age 7ish, from borrowing Point Horror books on our trips to the village library, but that’s as far as it went.

Speaking personally, I have always very much appreciated the existence of content warnings on stuff. I’ve turned down plenty of films based on content because I, a grown adult, don’t want that. Book blurbs sometimes, but not often enough, give the same help – I’ve had some nasty surprises. So I for one would very much argue that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should have a note if it contains rape and child abuse, so that people can chuck it aside with great force. I’ve never really seen those as an “aid to parental monitoring of their kids’ reading choices”, but as a way to help people choose media suitable for them – for children, this might involve parents, just like every single other part of their life.

I’m just not convinced that limiting what children read is qualitatively different from limiting what they watch, play, wear or eat.

Now, surely what we can all agree on is draconian laws demanding that book blurbs accurately reflect what the book is actually about. “In Winter’s Heart, people ride across the country for several hundred pages. Nothing interesting happens.”
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at 01:28 on 03-10-2014, Chris A
For sure, in a world where school/library selections are always challenged and subsequently ruled on by people who have actually read them, that's true. Perhaps it's cynical of me to suspect we don't live in that world.

Outside of the school/library institutional context, my distaste for the idea of a rating system as an aide to parental monitoring of their kids' reading choices isn't really tied to any notion of redeeming social value, though. I just don't like the idea of limiting what kids read, at all. Your parents should be oblivious to your awful reading choices.

I confess that my strongly felt position here is irrational, maybe unethical. I have no problem with rating systems for films and video games, which means this is probably coming from nostalgia and personal experience, possibly inflected by some weird and sentimental "Books Are Good" prejudice.
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at 23:26 on 02-10-2014, Arthur B
I have a lot of sympathy for that position, reading books that weren't really intended for me being my very mild version of youthful rebellion back in my pre-drinking days, but at the same time I don't think glossing over the fact that particular books contain disturbing stuff is an effective way to counter challenges - you base your argument on the fact that it's disturbing stuff that needs to be aired and read by an audience (even if some audience members may find it simply too much for them).
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at 23:14 on 02-10-2014, Chris A
there are clearly contexts where it is: for instance, books or videos aimed at children (so parents can make an informed decision)
It may be a little perverse, but I actually love that the lack of a rating system for books makes it difficult for parents to control what their children are exposed to when they read, and would see this as a negative side effect of mandating content warnings.

On a related note, I have never heard of a book challenge in a library or school that I thought was justified (though I'm sure it's happened), and I'm not sure I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings needs a note on its cover about rape and child and abuse to help fuel this kind of thing.
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at 16:41 on 02-10-2014, Sonia Mitchell
I think there's also an added burden of responsibility (morally rather than legally) when you're actually selling the content, as opposed to making it available as a historical resource. If you're engaging commercially with problematic material then it's good ethics to examine that content carefully.

(And it's good business to try not to alienate customers)
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at 09:48 on 02-10-2014, Andy G
I think that, regardless of whether it's always appropriate to post content notices (for instance, in academic contexts), there are clearly contexts where it is: for instance, books or videos aimed at children (so parents can make an informed decision) or online content (where a single click can suddenly flick you from a safe environment to an extremely graphic or distressing one).
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at 00:15 on 02-10-2014, James D
Oh yes, the old censorship bugaboo. Nobody who brings it up ever seems to have any idea what real censorship actually is. Since when is labeling content censorship in any way, shape, or form? Since when does that prevent people from reading or discussing it?

Also, these days it seems that almost all of what passes for "edgy" is actually reactionary and conservative, rather than progressive or boundary-pushing. Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. isn't cutting edge at all, it's shit that was commonplace in decades past and is still pretty common today.
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at 19:58 on 01-10-2014, Fin
"A tolerant society needs to discuss disturbing art, but only in ways I personally approve of."
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at 13:40 on 01-10-2014, Arthur B
Look what just got topical.

"A tolerant society needs to discuss disturbing art," claims a reactionary who doesn't like the trigger warning and regards it as censorship. Wouldn't censorship be not showing the cartoon in the first place?
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at 17:51 on 29-09-2014, Bjoern
Uh, you're mistaken, it most definitely does.

Ugh, you're right. Could have avoided that one if I'd just gone and grabbed a DVD from my shelf instead of relying on memory. Sorry.
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at 17:48 on 29-09-2014, Arthur B
@Arthur B: I agree that "content advisory" warnings will reframe the experience, but I wonder why those warnings should have to be placed there. The BBFC does not place its content warnings on the posters or the DVD cover either, if I'm not mistaken.

Uh, you're mistaken, it most definitely does.

This is not the "hence: we cannot have any of that", I'm just wondering which triggers should be included, which triggers we consider "meritous" enough to be included. Because I think the assessment "some content might be more predictably triggering than others" is not wrong, but ignores that even not completely predictably triggering content could be quite hurtful to people.

I think it's the predictability that is the key. More or less all the examples you've given can be triggering for reasons which should hopefully be obvious to someone who gives the subject due consideration.

Equally, someone might find a particular shade of denim triggering due to strongly associating it with some PTSD-inspiring event, and that isn't predictable by other people - it's sad when people are triggered by that stuff and if they ask us to take that into account we should do so, but at the same time a creator can't reasonably be expected to assume that a particular picture of someone wearing that colour of denim is going to be triggering for someone. (Also, the more predictable stuff like abuse is going to tend to be triggering for a large portion of the audience, whereas the unpredictable stuff is going to be triggering for a small portion of the audience - not to say that there's some sort of democracy of harm involved here, but if there's a good chance that a range of people might be adversely affected there's obviously more cause for action than if there is a remote chance that perhaps one or two people might be triggered.)

A page at the back you can flip to if it is more important to you to get trigger warnings than to avoid spoilers sounds like an elegant solution.
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at 17:08 on 29-09-2014, Bjoern
@Arthur B: I agree that "content advisory" warnings will reframe the experience, but I wonder why those warnings should have to be placed there. The BBFC does not place its content warnings on the posters or the DVD cover either, if I'm not mistaken. And of course we have to consider that a content warning is not the same as a trigger warning.

Also, now I'm using the slippery slope: Which kind of trigger warnings do you want to employ, because - as we all know - there are quite a lot of things that can trigger people and many of those are just as relevant to the people as "rape" or "sexual abuse". Emotional abuse, physical abuse, discriminating language, body shaming, descriptions of physical and mental illnesses, description of colonialist behaviour and attitude, etc. can just as much trigger people quite badly.

This is not the "hence: we cannot have any of that", I'm just wondering which triggers should be included, which triggers we consider "meritous" enough to be included. Because I think the assessment "some content might be more predictably triggering than others" is not wrong, but ignores that even not completely predictably triggering content could be quite hurtful to people.

And then there is, again, the question: Do they have to be prominently featured?

I agree with Chris: If we have them, why not place them inside the book. Maybe on the last page, even after the advertisments in the paperback edition. So if I want to see which triggering elements might be in there, I could look it up. Alternatively: Book companies might offer websites for this that might be edited Wikipedia style (with strong moderation, obviously), so that even triggers you might have missed originally can quickly be added by readers.

I'm just wondering, because I remember reading (was it here?) that having an incestuous scene in your novel might be quite triggering and should be something that you warn your readers about in advance, ideally even on the book. But then again, what's with a book like "Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes where the incest is part of the mystery that's being unravelled within the book? I could understand if Barnes as an author tried to avoid placing a trigger warning prominently on the cover of his book, seeing as here it would double as a spoiler.
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at 14:12 on 29-09-2014, Arthur B
@Chris A: I think the reframing thing is the key sticking issue. It's true that a cover blurb, or a content advisory box next to the barcode, or whatever will reframe the experience of the book. On the other hand so will any trigger warning of any sort. I guess the big question is whether the downside of people being surprised by unexpected triggering content outweighs the downsides of that reframing. I think for a long time people took the position "of course it doesn't, caveat emptor", but equally I think people are much more aware of what triggering is and why some content might be more predictably triggering than others and that might change your assessment of where the balance lies.
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at 13:26 on 29-09-2014, Bjoern
I wasn't able to answer but I read the discussion so far with great interest. The earnestness and politeness framing this discussion reminds me why this is a great place on the web.

I hope that I can weigh in tonight, but so far: Thank you for all your input.
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at 13:15 on 29-09-2014, Chris A
Ultimately, the only reason to present a back cover blurb which doesn't accurately represent a book's contents is if you think an accurate summary of the book's contents won't sell as well. [...] Why not commission someone to write a book to fit the blurb they think will sell, rather than spending the money to print the book they think won't sell?)

While I do wonder whether it hasn't occasionally happened that someone has said "let's make her skin an ambiguous tan on the cover" or "let's not mention his other love interest is male in the blurb," I wouldn't attribute deliberate inaccuracy to most poorly representative cover copy. Rather, I'd say that it can be hard to reduce a novel to a few sentences in a way that is simultaneously appealing and descriptive.

As for the question, why not just commission novels with an eye to what will make perfect jacket copy, well, sometimes a publisher will, especially for a franchise. Otherwise, I think, agents and editors select manuscripts to represent and acquire from among those that are sent to them, guided by some composite idea of what they think will sell and what they're excited about working on.

But equally I don't think including a brief sentence at the base of the blurb along the lines of "Contains scenes of graphic rape and sexual abuse" (for example) necessarily thwarts the advertiser's mission.

Well, it probably doesn't help it, either.

Not that it should, by any means. We require all sorts of things on product labels that advertisers might prefer not to emphasize, and marketers' convenience is not the point.

Still, the publishers aren't the only people with a stake in the question of whether books that depict rape should be labeled as "rape books." I'm sympathetic to the argument that trigger warnings are an unalloyed good in all contexts if they spare people pain. I certainly wouldn't want someone who is triggered by depictions of rape to be caught off guard by the contents of The Doctrine of Labyrinths, which I had to put down myself.

At the same time, I think it would be naive to imagine that the impact of a rape warning doesn't go considerably beyond its intended function. Warnings are signposts, but they're also judgments. A blurb that includes "caution: depicts rape" is going to reframe a book, and alter our experience of it. I can imagine an author not wanting her book framed that way. As a reader, I can think of a number of books I'd hesitate to frame that way myself.
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at 10:25 on 29-09-2014, Arthur B
I think Arthur is right to acknowledge that the function of cover copy is advertising: if fanfic summary aims to help the reader decide whether this is the kind of story she likes, while "profic" summary aims persuade the reader that, yes, this definitely is the kind of thing she likes, the latter almost has to be more calculated in what it reveals and conceals.

On the other hand, only a particularly clueless advertiser believes that their job really is to try to sell their product to everyone; the idea that different products have different audiences is not novel.

Of course, almost all the advertiser's energy is directed towards pushing a product towards its intended audience, rather than warning away audiences who won't enjoy or want the product. But equally I don't think including a brief sentence at the base of the blurb along the lines of "Contains scenes of graphic rape and sexual abuse" (for example) necessarily thwarts the advertiser's mission.

Ultimately, the only reason to present a back cover blurb which doesn't accurately represent a book's contents is if you think an accurate summary of the book's contents won't sell as well. Which I guess speaks really badly for the publisher's confidence in the books Chris A mentions. (It also raises the question of why they published the books in the first place. Why not commission someone to write a book to fit the blurb they think will sell, rather than spending the money to print the book they think won't sell?)
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