YOU CAN'T JUDGE A FIC BY ITS COVER: a gentle defense of headers and warnings.
written by Gileswench



You can't judge a book by its cover.

You've heard it all your life, and you've said it, yourself. You may have been serious or in a facetious mood, but it's a common statement. There's some merit to the notion, but it's also so oversimplified that it's very wrong, too.

What is clear, however, is that you can't judge a fic by its cover. The reason is simple: it doesn't have a cover.

Again and again I've seen it argued that fics shouldn't have warnings attached because 'you don't get warnings in bookstores'. Here's where the difference between posted fic and published books comes in: you do get the warnings in bookstores.

No, the books don't come with labels that say 'WARNING: Character death, rape, gut-squirting monsters, violent torture', or 'Scarlett/Rhett shipping, infidelity, Civil War-foo'. That would, indeed, be as silly as the anti-warnings faction imply they would be.

On the other hand, there are more subtle warnings and clues everywhere. You can tell a lot simply by where the book is shelved in the store. If it's in Romance, you can virtually guarantee a handsome, masterful man, a spitfire, independent young beauty, and a happy ending. If you go to the Mystery section, you're sure to find all the gory character death you can shake a stick at.

There are lists that do the same service for you to some extent. You can join lists dedicated to specific characters, ships, and types of fic (slash, romance, darkfic). But here the similarity ends.

Most lists, like most bookstores, don't specialize, or else choose a specialty that allows for a wide interpretation. For instance, my own list, GilesRulesBaby, is devoted to Gilesfic. Any Gilesfic. Het, slash, gen, romance, dark, AU, past or future fic, it's all accepted and encouraged. So long as it features Giles in a major role or as the primary focus, it's all welcome. In a way, it's like the General Fiction section of a bookstore. You can't tell simply from where it's shelved what the story is.

But in a bookstore, there would still be clues. The color of the jacket, the typeface chosen, the cover art, the text inside the cover and on the back. It all tells you whether to prepare for something light and diverting or dark and intense, something based on history or a fantasy that only fails to be shelved in the Sci-Fi section because it's too grounded in the workaday world, or something that combines elements of several different genres.

That's why we need the warnings on fanfic posted online. It isn't done to punish authors or convince less people to read their works, as has been implied by some. It isn't meant to take all the surprises out of the work, as others have baldly stated. After all, seeing a robot on the cover of a novel only tells you there will be robots. It may or may not, by visual clues, tell you what they're going to do or how you should feel about them.

By the same token, informing your readers that there's going to be character death doesn't necessarily tell them who's going to die or how you should feel about it. I've read - and written - stories where death is meant to cause tears, righteous joy, relief, or even outright laughter.

You can also argue that anyone familiar with the major authors in their fandom already knows what their work is like, and doesn't need to be warned. There are two flaws to this theory. The first one is that there are new readers coming to even such venerable fandoms as Star Trek and Star Wars. Not every reader in Buffy fic has been watching the lists for years. Also, new writers crop up every day. Nobody can be expected to know what their work is like before they've posted anything.

The other flaw to this theory is the fact that writers can choose at any time to vary their output. They may have their imaginations piqued by the possibilities a fiftieth re-watching of a particular scene raises for a couple they'd never considered before. Or they may be bitten by a plotbunny that's much lighter or darker than their usual style.

Anyone familiar with my writings can tell you what I'm best known for: B/G romance, happy endings, graphic sex, and some very quirky humor. Most of the time, this is a fair assessment of my work.

But there are times when I break away from that. There have been times when I've written slash, gen, strong violence, unhappy endings, and desperately bad sex, not to mention other ships for both Buffy and Giles, and ones that include neither character.

So, no, my name isn't enough to tell people what I write. Not all the time.

Fic cannot be judged on the visual clues books can be judged on, because they aren't there. Fic cannot be judged on the name and reputation of the author, because the author can decide to break with her usual genre, and because not everyone is familiar with every author.

Warnings are like the cover art and blurbs on physical books. They tell us enough information to allow us to make informed choices in our fic reading. Use them wisely, and the readers who are going to enjoy your works will find them quickly and enjoy them. What's wrong with that? Give your audience an intriguing cover to look at, and they may just choose to spend their fic time reading your stories.

And that leads to the question of how to write a good header, and a helpful warning.

Some lists have a specific form they want you to follow in posting fic, but most merely ask that certain information be covered in the header. There will be slight variations in what's required and how the listmommy prefers it to be presented, but most lists won't quibble so long as you have roughly the following information:

Title: (of the fic)
Name: (or handle of the author)
Contact Information: (the email where you'd like to receive feedback)
Pairing: (or note that the story is genfic)
Rating: (based on the American film rating system)
Summary: (a line or two - no more - to pique the reader's interest)
Disclaimer: (a note indicating you don't own the rights to the base material)
Warnings: (Where required. Most lists want warnings for such elements as: character death, slash, extreme graphic violence, severe angst, drug use, character bashing, BDSM, violence directed at children, and other potentially disturbing subjects.)

If there is any other information you'd like to include, such as: date posted, point within canon, notes to explain a challenge you're answering, a dedication to a friend or listsib, thanks to your beta, etc., that's almost invariably fine, too. When it doubt, read the list rules. The information you need is usually there. If it isn't, contact your listmommy. She'll be able to answer your questions.

The listrules will also generally give you a good idea of when to use warnings. The list I gave above is a general indication of what most lists want warnings about, but there are lists that don't ask for warnings for slash, for instance. That would, frankly, be ridiculous if the subject of the list in question was Giles/Ethan shipping.

I've seen it argued over and over again that warnings and pairings, in particular, shouldn't be included in headers because it will ruin the surprises. And I have read a (very) few fics over the years that I think might be a little stronger for leaving the surprise completely unheralded. If you have written such a fic, talk to your listmommy. You may find her willing to bend the rules or allow you to use a pairing line like: Giles/?, or a warning line that isn't very specific about what disturbing thing may happen such as: warning: darkfic.

But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of talking to your listmommy before dispensing with normally required information in your header. Most of the listmommies I know will be sympathetic and fairly accommodating to authors who approach them for help in finding a compromise, but fierce with those who knowingly break basic, standard rules and then insist they did nothing wrong because they didn't want anyone to be looking for the thing they were required to warn readers about.

There are a lot of readers out there who will race to read anything identified as darkfic, slash, or BDSM. There are also an awful lot of readers who would be extremely disturbed by reading these subjects. Everyone has pairings they will read any story for, and ones that make their heads explode with repulsion. With the use of proper headers and warnings, both sets of readers can quickly decide whether your story is one they want to read or not.

Ultimately, the thing you want for your story is an audience that's going to enjoy reading it. The use of proper warnings will allow readers to choose for themselves whether yours is a story they want to read.





back to Essays