Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rape in fanfiction, warnings, one-shots, and the author-reader dialogue

While playing with Google Reader today, I came across an interesting post from fanficrants, a community on livejournal that I've followed from time to time (I think, of course, I was introduced to it by tvtropes, but I can't be sure now). I actually read it a lot less now than I used to, but maybe this Google Reader thing will let me keep with stuff more easily. We'll have to see. I like fanficrants, though; it gives you a good idea of what really turns off chronic readers of fanfiction, from bad formatting to just bad writing. It's not the end-all be-all of what a writer should or shouldn't do, but it gives a pretty amusing perspective.

Anyway, the post I'm talking about comes from a writer who has survived a sexual assault, a writer who plans, in the future, to deal with a rape of one of the characters in their story. And readers, being readers, had correctly guessed from vague hints and warnings that this might be the case. Some of this author's readers tried, through various means, to dissuade the author from pursuing this plot point.

The topic of rape and trauma in fiction is one that fascinates me. So often, we as authors want our characters to grow, and trauma--whether physical or emotional--is a valid means to instigate that growth. In fanfiction, this is frequently underdeveloped however: bad writers, I think, try to make this growth happen too quickly, without fully exploring consequences, without (as tvtropes would say) doing the research. Even a writer who does try to do research may end up coming off totally flat because, well, these issues are woefully complex.

How fast one can approach this topic also depends on the story one's writing. One-shots have to do things in a small amount of space. In truth, I think one-shots are a very different animal from all other kinds of fanfiction: they're like prepackaged morsels to be tasted and digested until one moves on to the next box. That's not to say they're not worth doing or unsatisfying, but because they're so very standalone, so very standardized, the way people look at one-shots is in almost assembly-line manner. Every one-shot must come appropriately labeled with pairings, warnings, ratings, etc, like the nutrition label on a pack of crackers. Anything a reader doesn't like on the label prompts them to move on and leave the package unopened.

Longer works of fanfiction are very different. While some, like one-shots, depend almost entirely on a single, simple premise and can still be easily categorized, others are not. I myself have struggled viciously with simple things like genre categorization, with labeling Identity as being a Ranma/Akane story ( is) when the number of characters with room for growth and significant POV time is much much broader than that. And that's a weakness of my story--people want things to fit in categories they understand.

But in general, I think there's a subset of fanfiction readers right now who are very discriminating in what they spend their time reading--and with good reason, for most fanfiction is crappy, after all. And after seeing rape be used as a cheap plot device without the seriousness and attention it deserves, readers are rightly wary, I think, when an author starts giving signals in a longer work that that's coming. Nobody wants to see a story ruined because a plot device was critically mishandled, as rapes often are.

That said, I think the author of that ffrants post had a significant point: not all survivors handle their trauma the same way. And for my part, I say this: a story you've enjoyed for years gives the author the leeway, I think, to do something dramatic, to do something drastic. And while the reader has reason to be concerned, I don't approve of readers actually trying to dissuade an author from pursuing their plot as they see it. Discussion is one thing, but I'm certain there are stories where rape (and any other serious traumatic event you can think of) has been well-handled, in a way that's appropriate to the tone of the story and to the personalities of the characters involved. Give the author a chance to do it well. Complain after the fact if you want, if you feel it was poorly done, but to preemptively do so? Unless the author already has extended an ear to your opinions, unless you're a beta or someone else trusted to give sound, critical opinion, I think readers should sit back and let the story be. Stories are not meant to be mutable to a reader's will (well, choose your adventure aside). They're meant to be cohesive and express an author's vision, however much one may agree or disagree with it.

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