Warning Labels and Gatekeepers

When I’m in the market for a good book to read, I like to go to a favourite book’s Amazon page and look at the reviews.

But I don’t look at the positive reviews–I look at the negative reviews. Why? Because often, reviewers who hated a given book will readily offer recommendations for books that they think are better. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), this usually means I have to wade through a lot of dreck to get to the recs.

One of my favourite/most aggravating negative review comments is “warning label” type comments, as in: “This book has a gay protagonist, it should come with a warning label so that people who don’t want to read books with gay protagonists can avoid it.”

“This book has a black protagonist, it should come with a warning label so that people who don’t want to read books with black protagonists can avoid it.”

Do you see how stupid this sounds?

Of course, these reviewers don’t know how to respond when someone says that they should put warning labels on works with heterosexual protagonists because it never occurs to them that someone might not want to read about heterosexual sex if they can help it. After all, that’s silly, isn’t it? You’d have to cut out large swaths of so many genres. In fact, pretty much all you’d have left are the books in the “LGBT” section of the bookstore (assuming there even is such a section).

Now, I understand that there are elements of some books that might trigger people (which is part of the reason I put trigger warnings in my review posts) but, TBH, this isn’t what I’m seeing with these reviews. What I am seeing are people who would really like it if there were no LGBT+ characters in their beloved genre–characters who don’t have to solely exist in their own little niche labeled “LGBT”.

But you know what? Amazon reviewers are small fish compared to the big publishing companies who demand that authors change their characters to make them more “appealing” to mainstream audiences. For examples of this phenomenon in action, I recommend reading this excellent article on self-publishing and gatekeepers at Fangs for the Fantasy.

Around April of last year, there was a bit of a shitstorm kerfluffle surrounding the anthology Wicked Pretty Things, which was to be a YA anthology of “dark faerie romance”. I love YA fantasy, so I was genuinely excited for this novel….

Then author Jessica Verday was told that her story featuring two boys in love with each other needed to be changed to a male/female romance in order to be acceptable.

Instead of caving to pressure from the editor, Verday pulled her story, and a bunch of other contributors followed suit. The project was cancelled.

For those of you who are interested, you can read Verday’s original post here and this post with a ton of relevant links related to the incident.

This kind of thing should not happen. No one should have to change their marginalized characters because editors and publishers don’t think that “the mainstream” will like them. It kind of makes you wonder: “H0w many of my favourite characters are heterosexual/white/[insert marginalized group here] due to Executive Meddling?” “How many were once intended to be the main character but got shoved into a secondary role because of who they are?” and, perhaps most disturbing: “How many authors sat back and let it happen?” Yes, that’s right, you cowards! I’m calling you out on your shameless sacrifice of your integrity over your bottom line!

The story I’m currently working on has an intersex protagonist in love with an AFAB trans man (although, they just call them men) and I’m keeping them, both of them, as they are, just like I’m keeping my lesbian protagonist with two mothers and her heterosexual friend with two fathers. I’m also keeping the characters who have lots of sex, and the ones that don’t particularly like sex. Oh, and I’m keeping the gay man of a certain age who fought a demon to protect his son and lost his leg as a result (and he’s no less of a badass because of that) as well as the man who was born blind who happens to be the only one who has a strong enough will to impress a deity (who is never that impressed by humans) so much that said deity decides to marry them, and those are just a couple characters I plan on including in my Big Story. Seriously, fuck your bottom line! These characters are great just the way they are, and they’re here to stay, so nyah nyah nyah!

Seriously, if anyone catches me caving, beat me with a cluebat until I stop moving, you’ll be doing me a favour.

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