For the Strange Horizons 2020 Fund Drive, a conversation between Accessibility Editor Clark Seanor and Senior Reviews Editor Maureen Kincaid Speller. They discuss the philosophy of content warnings, reviews, and spoilers.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I am very curious to know more about the process of creating content warnings, and also to talk more about the philosophy of content warnings. These are something that are fairly recent in my experience (and not a thing I’ve encountered in my academic work), so I have, I admit, had to think my way into them as a concept.
Clark Seanor: I think something I should say first is that I didn’t come up with Strange Horizons’ approach to content warnings—I was brought on as a person who would specifically deal with them, and the system was more or less in place by that point in time. So my role initially had a lot to do with learning the existing rules and how to consistently apply them to works. This process involved—and actually still involves, as the way we use warnings sometimes needs to be adapted to the material we have on the site—a lot of discussion with other members of the editorial team about the nature of content warnings and the ideas behind why we use them, as well as finer details such as how to phrase a warning that we’ve already decided to use.
The way in which we have decided to use content warnings at Strange Horizons is based on the idea that we want to give readers more choice over what they read. If reading about certain subjects is personally difficult for you and you’d rather avoid reading works that contain them, then being able to check a list of warnings allows you to make an informed decision about whether or not you want to read that work. Without content warnings, an issue can be—will I read something today and risk reading about something I’d really rather avoid, or will I read nothing at all?
MKS: I think your point about making an informed decision about what you are going to read is really important in understanding their function, and something I didn’t fully grasp when I first encountered them. Which is privilege showing, though also perhaps, it not having occurred to me that it was OK to be forewarned about encountering certain things. And content warnings had somehow become entangled with spoiler warnings in my mind, which wasn’t helpful as those are an entirely different species of thing.
CS: They do serve very different functions, and I have noticed that the Reviews department doesn’t seem to use spoiler warnings—at least, not commonly, and I am wondering what is behind that choice?
Some people do consider viewing content warnings to be spoilers, and that’s effectively why we make it a choice to view them or not. If you find them useful, they’re there so you can use them, and if you don’t, they’re hidden by default.
MKS: It’s true that Reviews doesn’t have an active policy about spoiler warnings. We’re happy if reviewers want to write a spoiler warning into the text as they go but we tend as a team to lean towards John Clute’s belief that if you can’t talk about the ending should you need or want to you’re doing a disservice to the work under discussion.
CS: I mean, I find the idea that the ending of a work is the thing you must not hear about before engaging with a work kind of arbitrary. I may be personally biased toward this concept because of how by the time I got around to seeing Fight Club and Star Wars (two things that are commonly used as examples of times where you Must Not See A Spoiler Ever Or It’s Ruined), I had already known about their major twists, but I take umbrage at the idea that being surprised by the ending is the only way you can really appreciate a story!
MKS: Me, too. Admittedly, I speak as someone who is entirely happy to skip to the end of a novel if things are getting tense, to reassure myself that X survives. There is more than one kind of review, I think. A lot of reviews are read on the understanding that they exist simply to let the reader know enough of the plot for them to decide if they want to actually read the book. And those are fine. I have written plenty of those in my time, and they are entirely valid as a thing.
But I really like to read reviews that explore a book in some detail—it’s possible I may have already read the book, and want to compare/contrast my thoughts with those of the reviewer, for example. It’s a deeper, more critical engagement, rather than something that’s simply synoptic. But those kinds of reviews aren’t as easily come by within the SFF community, outside of the academic journals. Which is one of the things I’ve always liked about Strange Horizons, that it provides a platform for reviewers and critics to take the time to write a detailed commentary, explore themes and ideas. And on that basis, we want reviewers to have the freedom to talk about the whole of the book.
CS: I suppose I tend to read reviews in two circumstances: if I’ve already read the work and want to read commentary, or if I’m on the fence about reading it and want to get an idea about what’s in it before I start. For both of those scenarios, surface-level reviews don’t necessarily help. However, this gives me another question: when you are working with a reviewer who takes a very different stance on a work than you do, is there anything you keep in mind as an editor?
MKS: That’s a great question. First of all, the review is their review and not mine, so as an editor usually I’m not going to ask them to rewrite simply because they love or hate a book while I have an opposing view. That would be simply inappropriate on my part, and I don’t doubt Dan and Aisha would agree with me. That’s never at issue. I might on occasion be encouraging writers to express themselves more clearly or more fully, and testing the strength of what they are saying, but I’d be doing the same if someone had written something deeply appreciative of a book I adored.
But what we do tend to be looking out for, as editors, are those moments when reviewers head into “if only the writer had done this” territory, lamenting the opportunities the writer missed because they stubbornly wrote the book they wanted to write, and not the book the reviewer wanted. Or they say something, and I look at it and think “really?” Mostly, it's quite unintentional—a poor choice of words, or a phrasing that is open to misinterpretation—and that's part of what an editor is for: to save people from embarrassing situations (and I speak as a writer who wishes her younger self had been saved from such situations). But I've had sample reviews that expressed opinions that really do not fit with the Strange Horizons ethos, almost as though they’d never actually looked at Strange Horizons before sending us something, and that's when I have have to say “Thank you, but no thank you.”
And after that there is the usual copyediting, checking that they meant to use that word like that, or asking if a character really did say this. The nitpicky stuff rather than the big developmental thinking. After which, the proofreading team in turn saves us from embarrassing situations. We are notorious for being rubbish at adding serial commas. (Shoutout to the proofers, who are among the best I've ever worked with.)
So, thinking about the relationship between editor and reviewer, when the reviewer loves something the editor hates, or vice versa, how does it work for you in generating appropriate content warnings for a story if you continually bounce off it? Or if you love it to pieces?
CS: I guess a good place to start is that it’s probably more difficult for me to become attached to (or begin to despise) a work than other editors, because the point where I write content warnings is the first time that I’ve ever seen it. I’m not involved in the development process—this is by design, and one of the reasons why the Fiction and Poetry departments pass their works to the Accessibility department to have content warnings added pre-publication rather than writing them in themselves.
As well—for me, personally (Becca Evans is also involved with content warnings, but I can only speak for my own mental process)—I’m a fairly pattern-oriented person and I don’t read stories and poems that I’m writing warnings for in the same way as I read stories for pleasure or other sorts of analysis. It’s very much more about the individual elements of language used and the imagery, events, and metaphors that occur in the work than their collective whole.
This doesn’t mean I’m totally detached from what I’m reading—content warnings by a human being are, by nature, going to involve a certain level of subjectivity. If I feel unsure about applying a warning to a work then I will ask other staff for a second opinion. This is sometimes because I’ve found a work particularly emotive, but it mainly comes up if I think a warning should apply but the part of the text that I think evidences its use isn’t particularly overt.
Where subjectivity definitely comes into play is when warnings need to be added that I have difficulty spotting because I don’t have the personal or cultural context to tell 100% of the time whether they are actually applicable. A key example is the casteism warning, which I will always ask for a second opinion before using (Thanks, Vajra Chandrasekera and Aisha Subramanian for weighing in on this particular topic when it comes up, and for giving me guidance on how to tell when to ask!)
In the end, the content warning system will never be perfect—its application will never be perfect, and it will never have perfect coverage in terms of the set of warnings it actually contains. But I would really like it to be good. That’s why the way that we implement it attempts to contain the effects of subjectivity rather than pretend to totally eliminate them.
MKS: It’s genuinely interesting to learn how collaborative the business of creating content warnings is. Similarly, we often consult one another on reviews if we’re struggling with the editing process, as another pair of eyes can often provide a much-needed fresh perspective when you’ve been reading the same paragraph over and over, unable to parse the whole.
But in describing how you personally write content warnings I’m struck by that ability to … detach oneself? … from the prose as a thing with which you directly engage in order to see it in a different way. This is a familiar experience to me as an editor, professionally and working for Strange Horizons, but I had struggled to articulate it as such. Which takes me back, then, to your earlier question about how I engage with reviews when the reviewer and I have different responses. I take the personal out of it and engage with the artefact rather than the person, if that makes sense.
Having said that, the toughest moment comes when I have to send back editorial notes. Nothing looks worse than a manuscript with splashes of red all over it and comments all down the right-hand side, so my emails almost invariably begin “It’s not as bad as it looks.” Luckily, Strange Horizons is very fortunate in its reviewers, as they seem to (mostly) enjoy the editorial process. It can be a pretty intense kind of scrutiny, but it does produce good results. Certainly, it’s what I would want for my own writing (and I’ve been edited by Dan and Aisha in the past, so I know how it feels).
But thinking about collaboration, I see reviewing too as a very complex dialogic process, that starts when the reviewer reads the book, then writes the review, and we embark on the editing process, after which we publish the review, and people read it. The writer Robert Minto talked in his newsletter recently, about “readers who turn to criticism after they've read a book, who want to think with someone else about a shared experience, to contextualize their reading in a larger arc of history, ideas, and aesthetic forms.” I’d like to think that’s what we’re trying to do with the reviews we publish in Strange Horizons.
CS: That is something I appreciate reviews for: I often come to books without full understanding of the conventions of the genre or subgenre they take place in or their general context. I think that the capacity of reviews to show new ways of understanding stories I have already experienced and perhaps interpreted only through my own context is pretty incredible. It’s for that reason that I don’t usually feel qualified to write them, to be honest: whether a relatively context-free interpretation of a story is worth reading about is a question I haven’t managed to answer for myself.
MKS: It depends on what you mean by “context-free,” I think. Unless you are planning to write an entirely synoptic review, the moment you start engaging with a book, you’re putting it in a context, the context of you responding to it. If, by context, and I’m just hazarding a guess here, you mean having a deep, intimate knowledge of all the science fiction and/or fantasy ever written, then there is no one alive who can do this, and nor should they try. No one has to know the entire history of SFF to write about it, and I really hate it when people suggest that you should. This is bullshit, and makes me very angry. There is a lot of SFF that can quite happily be left nowadays to those who are interested in SF history (nothing wrong with SF history, but you don’t need to read Asimov in order to review SF of the last five years, unless it’s explicitly referencing the Laws of Robotics or some such. And possibly not even then.) Right now, I’m much more interested in reading commentary from people who are familiar with contemporary currents in SFF, and who are able to set it in the contexts of the real world and lived experience.
CS: I suppose that hits on part of what I was talking about—I actually think I’ve had a better experience with classics I’ve read after I’ve read more contemporary books that were influenced by them, because I feel like I can see: this is where that comes from, this is where people will take it in the future. Sometimes it feels somewhat detrimental because I feel like the more contemporary books did a better job with the ideas, but generally speaking it’s a more positive experience to me to see the root of something knowing that it leads up into something more.
Funnily enough, I think roughly the same thing goes for programming languages as well. There are a certain set of people who like to promote C as the first programming language you should learn, because writing in C forces you to think about why concepts in higher-level programming languages work. The thing is, you can also learn it after you have that context. Without that, you’re more or less relying on someone telling you “trust me, this is important” while never being granted access to the wider context of why. Part of it is that I think—people who grew up with C being the best thing around and saw other things grow around it want to emulate that experience for the younger generation, because it got them where they were. But I think there are multiple directions to take.
The other part is more—as an example, I rarely read military science fiction. It’s not the direction my interests tend to lead me in. However, I’ve been absolutely floored by Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, which I read in terms of other time-travel novels I’ve read. When I eventually went to seek out reviews, they often spoke about how it connected to military science fiction as a tradition, with the time-travel aspect as more of a footnote. My view on it—though perhaps its difference might make it interesting—is without that context that explains why that book contains what it does and reminds me somewhat of what happens when people who don’t read mystery novels think that quite normal aspects of the genre are very fresh and clever and everyone who reads mysteries goes “NO! The person who was clearly written as the villain turning out to be the villain was utterly predictable!” So it’s a bit intimidating when you don’t know what you don’t know.
MKS: Picking up on your first point, about having a better experience with the classics after reading contemporary work, this, so very much, this. And, to be honest, the contemporary novels are doing a better job with the ideas because they’ve had the chance to look at what’s gone before and thinking “Yes, I can do something with that, or about that.” It is another form of dialogue, if you like, and a lot of writers are very clear that this is what they are doing. Kierkegaard said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” almost as though he had foreseen this difficulty for readers and commentators. He makes a good point. I mean, we can’t even agree what the first true SF novel was so we can hardly start insisting people begin at the beginning!
It is, though, really important to have reviewers and commentators who are able to take a left-field approach in dealing with a novel, in the way you describe above, because that opens up whole new areas of discussion. And it really is all about the discussion. That collaborative thing again.
We’re all building on what has gone before to make something even bigger and better rather than trying to put up barriers to understanding.