Warning Labels on Critique Submissions

Everything requires bubble wrap and warnings to avoid complaints and lawsuits when someone invariably gets hurt or offended by something they encounter in the world. The Internet immediately brings information to us when asked, and with the lack of restrictions comes the responsibility to ensure visitors are aware of the dangers and possible PG or higher-rated material. The following material (violence, sexual content, foul language, etc.) may not be suitable for you.

I knew I might discuss controversial topics or use adult language on my blog, so I included a warning. Is this necessary? I believe it is and isn't. I wouldn’t want someone to stumble upon something only to have the disturbing images permanently burned into their memory, although, a little shock could do them some good (I am still battling with my public image). Living in a bubble causes damage as well, folks. And I certainly wouldn’t want children to see something that might possibly steal away their innocence.

Now, what about a piece of writing submitted to a writer’s group for critique? A writer brings their unfinished piece of work in need of different perspectives and opinions in hopes of improving. Well, a member of my writer’s group submitted a chapter from his novel that addressed two adolescents’ sexual awakening in detail. The controversy of his writing set the group ablaze.

Since the submissions are sent to the members ahead of time, an email was sent to the organizer expressing disapproval and discomfort of the "pornography" and possible "kiddie porn" in the piece. The organizer then started a thread on the message board entitled: Putting Warnings on Monthly Submissions Feedback. A passionate discussion followed leading to members stepping up on their soap boxes, carelessly throwing their words around and inflicting damage to one another. It got pretty ugly. The members unnerved one another more than the writing did.

As I read through all the posts, I weighed my own opinion on the piece of writing and the idea of imposing warning labels on submissions. Yes, the detailed scene did jar me a bit, but it was not the homosexual nature of it, but rather the question of the scene itself as part of the entire piece. It felt disconnected. I wasn’t sure if the scene gave insight to the characters, moved the plot forward, or if it was like a rock in your shoe, no real purpose.

I believe my thoughts and questions about the scene would help the author gain perspective on how readers respond and improve accordingly. It would give him a chance to decide what he wanted the scene to do, what the scene still needed, and ultimately, make the final decision of whether it should be kept or cut out.

Unfortunately, many members were appalled by the idea of allowing sexually explicit material into the group for critique, and asked that an author slap a label on anything with graphic violence and/or sex, giving the reader a choice to proceed or pass. If unfinished writing has a warning label, would it receive quality feedback or would preconceived notions taint it? Wouldn’t the author want the readers to respond to something in the moment? I think the immediate reaction to shocking material, positive or negative, would be helpful to the author. If for nothing but determining the audience for the piece.

I understand the group is made of many different people with diverse religious, political and emotional backgrounds, but do you think warning labels on writer’s group submissions are necessary?


anvil said…
Laura, you've done a great job of presenting this issue in a balanced, unbiased fashion, well done. Unfortunately, I'm not so good at that. In my head, I'm practically screaming "OF COURSE NOT!"

First of all, the assumption is that everyone in the group is an adult. Good, no chance of corrupting innocence. Then it only leaves sensibilities that might be offended. So what? If we censored writing to leave out what might offend someone, there would be not one iota of writing left. People have the right to their opinions, of course. They can think that a piece of writing is pornographic or immoral or just crappy writing. But requiring a writer, before submitting to a group, to put a 'label' on their submission is, I think, the same as 'pre-censorship'. It's telling you 'you may be offended by this' and that gives you a predisposition, creates a preconceived notion on the work before you even read it.

If we are honestly getting together to give thoughtful feedback in a sincere environment - which I hope is the goal of all critique groups - then this kind of censorship has no place. Of course a person in the group may wish to abstain from giving critique based on those sensibilities, but that's AFTER they've read it.

I say, come on. We're all adults here. It would be interesting to take ten minutes to look at published books that might not exist if their writers had belonged to this writer's group and been discouraged in this way...

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