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 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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at 09:07 on 29-09-2014, Chris A
I've certainly seen cover copy that has distorted a book's subject matter in ways that are hard to put down to avoiding spoilers. And books with LGBT protagonists whose blurbs have concealed a romance (often thereby hiding that the protagonist is LGBT at all) that would almost certainly have been signaled ("Now Millicent must retrieve her cactus, save the city from amphibious sharks, and decide whether to trust the incorrigible young man trying to kill her - all before the men in white coats arrive to take her away") were the protagonist straight.

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, much of the work that good cover copy should do - capture the reader's attention, describe a world, establish a voice - isn't an issue for fanfic. I'm not sure the kind of warnings you find on fanfic would be all that easy to crowbar in. Though there's no reason such warnings couldn't be included along with the rest of the paratext between the title page and start of the book. Sticking them with the publishing information, or in a foreword, might also mollify some people who'd object to more prominent flags on content.

Though people will still come up with all sorts of objections on artistic and ideological grounds, just as with film advisory rating systems, or trigger warnings on college syllabi. And I do think there are legitimate questions there, sometimes...
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at 05:55 on 29-09-2014, Melanie
Of course, it is used mostly to advertise and draw people in


Yeah, and it's not necessarily even accurate. I've noticed that fanfiction summaries (plus tags) actually seem to be way better about honestly telling you what's in what you're about to read (probably since it's usually going to be the author themselves writing the summary). I mean, you get plenty of people saying things like "I suck at summaries", but even so....
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at 01:05 on 29-09-2014, Arthur B
In principle, books already have a voluntary scheme to give readers an idea of the content - namely, the cover blurb. Of course, it is used mostly to advertise and draw people in, but at least a passing mention that graphic rape is involved in a text is surely not too hard to crowbar in. And "your advertising copy made me expect a different, less rapey book than the one I got" is a legitimate complaint.
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at 00:48 on 29-09-2014, Cheriola
True, even just voluntary labels would probably be way to complicated to implement. Though from several conversations I've had with women and genderqueer people about fantasy literature (and because the last episode of Outlander just put it in the front of my mind), I think a lot of people would appreciate at least a very basic trigger warning for graphic rape scenes or attempted rapes of major characters in the story. I know that would result in endless discussions about what constitutes rape, because rape culture. (I just saw someone claim in an Outlander forum that marital rape and violence wouldn't be abuse in a time period when it was still considered legal... *facepalm*) But at least for something undisputed like the detailed, violent scene in the first chapter of Mèlusine, a lot of people would like a warning either in the text (earlier threats, world-building details, rumors about the perpetrator, etc.), or if that's not possible, outside of it in the flyleaf or something.

I mean, really, would that be so hard? The etiquette of every fanfic archive I know requires at least a "non-con" warning if that's what the author wants to write about. But about a quarter of the authors/publishers I have on my fantasy shelf right now (not counting the numerous Discworld novels) apparently think they can spring that sort of thing on their reader without much or any warning. And no, most of those books are not particularly sexual in focus.
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at 18:05 on 28-09-2014, Alula
Why limit this to nerd culture? Western culture in general is built on homophobic, transphobic, sexist and racist foundations, and when you poke at them the reaction you get is just as virulent as GamerGate, if not more so.

This was the bit that leapt out at me. It may be that I'm not as involved in "nerd" culture--I don't game, I tend to only read sf or fantasy when it attracts my attention through an interesting review, etc. I found ferretbrain because of Dan's reviews of Harry Potter 7 and stayed because y'all are funny and interesting, even if/when I have no idea what you're talking about. I'd be kind of curious about what the underpinnings of the discussion that led to that proposal would be, because it does seem to be a bit--misguided? elitist? to suggest that this is endemic to nerd culture in a way that is so deeply separate from culture in general.

It also strikes me as exceedingly impractical to try to apply that kind of definitive classification to most creative works, let alone by committee. And that's without broadening the parameters to stuff like Ender's Game.

I definitely don't have an answer, but it does seem to me that in general those kinds of changes have to be bottom up, not top down.
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at 15:44 on 27-09-2014, Arthur B
It's worth noting that, what with next year being the 70th anniversary of Hitler's death, Mein Kampf is entering the public domain. The Bavarian government has decided that the best thing to do is to put out a version with commentary by historians and others to contextualise and criticise what Hitler says (presumably the academic equivalent of putting "citation needed" next to every sentence), because after investigating all the options they decided that there was no way to stop it being disseminated, so they may as well put out a scholarly version for those who want to get it for research in order to deny sales to far-right groups who will doubtless be keen to put out their own editions.

If Germany, with its stringent anti-Nazi laws, can't put a lid on Mein Kampf, I think it would be hard for any country in Europe to start banning books without a very fundamental shift in the legal landscape. (For starters, based on what Jamie's pointed out they'd probably have to drop out of the Charter on Human Rights, which I would hope most people working to condemn hate speech would regard as an own goal.)
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at 12:40 on 27-09-2014, Jamie Johnston
They report back with findings on any problematic context and the publishers have a chance to rectify their texts. If they refuse to do so, the body files a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights, framing this as "hate speech" and lets the courts take care of this. (A Indiegogo campaign could fund the first few lawsuits.)

Sorry to jump in a bit late but it's worth adding that this stage of the Big Plan also needs a lot of work. The first thing is you can't just bring a case directly to the European Court of Human Rights: you have to have tried the domestic courts of the relevant country and reached a dead end first. Though in theory that shouldn't matter because the domestic courts of any contracting state should in principle be applying the same law as the European Court on issues covered by the Convention.

The bigger problem is that 'hate speech' is not in itself contrary to the Convention. These groups would have to say that the publishers they're targeting were breaching one of the specified rights, which are (in very brief summary) life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, freedom from imprisonment, fair trial, freedom from arbitrary punishment, respect for private and family life, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to marry. Some of those have proved quite stretchy concepts but I can't think how any of them could be stretched to include a right to stop publishers publishing material that contains oppressive ideas. In fact in the past it's been quite difficult to persuade the Court that the Convention permits, let alone requires, contracting states to ban books.

I suspect in most countries the 'use the courts' idea wouldn't have much success because for courts to take action there has to be some relevant law for them to apply. There would need to be a prior step of persuading governments to legislate.
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at 00:39 on 27-09-2014, Chris A
There's also the problem that while one can usefully label a film that depicts incidents of graphic violence a "violent film," the same can't be said of a work that depicts incidents of sexism.
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at 00:20 on 27-09-2014, Arthur B
Yeah, doing it for books is probably too much of a burden. Doing it for AAA games isn't, though, particularly since they already have content rating systems for those.

Then again, adding homophobia/sexism/racism to current content rating systems falls well short of what Bjoern's friend was proposing.
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at 23:28 on 26-09-2014, James D
To be fair, it's the same sort of work that the BBFC and similar bodies are expected to do when ascribing age certificates to films - I regularly see labels on Blu-Rays which go beyond just saying "contains violence" to "contains fantasy violence" or "contains strong violence" or "contains strong gory violence".


Sure, that's done in the US already with TVs, movies, and video games - but doing that with books too would add a gigantic amount of work. To compare, approximately 800 films were rated in the US in 2011, while nearly 50,000 fiction books were published, counting only new titles and editions. That's not even factoring in that watching a movie requires much less time and effort than reading a novel, especially if you start introducing numerous ratings based on a variety of content like sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, whatever.
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at 21:32 on 26-09-2014, Arthur B
@Cheriola:
And if I, as left-wing as they come, cringe and have alarm bells ringing "slippery slope" in my head, you can bet that people on the right will immediately claim it as evidence for some kind of masterplan for 'PC dictatorship' and retrench to become even more ferocious in their battle.

Exactly - and they'd have a point.

@James:
The next logical step might be to include some sort of severity rating, maybe A through D or something, but at that point you start increasing the amount of work required to a ridiculous degree.

To be fair, it's the same sort of work that the BBFC and similar bodies are expected to do when ascribing age certificates to films - I regularly see labels on Blu-Rays which go beyond just saying "contains violence" to "contains fantasy violence" or "contains strong violence" or "contains strong gory violence".

Qualifiers like that are probably more intuitive and easily understood than "Sexism-A" or "Sexism-D"; just say something like "Contains sexist incidents" if it's the occasional isolated thing or "Contains strong, overt misogyny" if you're talking something like latter-period Cerebus.
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