Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts on The Dark Matter -- c.anne.gardner

[...] allows the publishing of written depictions of sexually explicit scenes, but we do not allow pornographic images within the books, and we do not allow erotica that depicts minors engaged (willingly or unwillingly) in sexual acts with adults. Fictional scenes of rape, sadism or pedophilia are strongly discouraged, and they're strictly prohibited if their purpose in the book is to arouse the reader. -- Smashwords

I received an email from an author last week wanting my take on the above quote from the Smashwords Q&A section for publishers. My thoughts on it led to a lengthy email discussion with Mark Coker, the CEO and founder of Smashwords, and in light of our agreement on the subject, I wanted to talk a little bit this week about the dark matter and what this sort of standard boilerplate language means to a writer who writes Dark Fic, like myself. What is Dark Fic you ask? Well, it’s a broad term used to define the explicit written expression of subject matter that may be objectionable to some readers, including but not limited to those mentioned above. Sometimes it is called Transgressive Fiction, which by definition is: a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social and/or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sex, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime.

The genre of "transgressive fiction" was defined by Michael Silverblatt -- literary critic and host of KCRW’s nationally syndicated radio program Bookworm -- in a 1996 essay on the subject published in the Los Angeles Times. Later, Anne H. Soukhanov, a journalist for the The Atlantic Monthly, described transgressive fiction thus: A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge. Transgressional fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk, noir, and erotic fiction in its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers. But it differs in that protagonists often pursue means to better themselves and their surroundings—albeit unusual and extreme ones. Much transgressional fiction deals with searches for self-identity, inner peace and/or personal freedom. Unbound by usual restrictions of taste and literary convention, its proponents claim that transgressional fiction is capable of pungent social commentary. --

So Dark Fic or Transgressive Fic is as old as the day is long and spans multiple genres including Literary Fiction. Think *American Psycho* by Ellis, which contains graphic sexual sadism and torture; *Opus Pistorum* by Miller, which contains extended scenes of child prostitution; and *The Story of the Eye* by Bataille, which chronicles the overtly sexual fetish relationship between two teens. These are but a few among many many others, and I think my favorite would have to be *Looking for Mr. Goodbar* by Judith Rossner. Often Dark Fic is confused with Horror, but it is not limited to the Horror genre. Dark Fic often refers to stories in which the plotlines introduce death, violence, betrayal, and or loss as major thematic elements, and often sexualized violence and fringe sexual expression/exploration can come into play in order to articulate and argue the story’s thesis. Just having such scenes in your work does not automatically violate the TOS and prevent you from publishing your story. Strongly discouraged is not the same as prohibited. Anais Nin often explored pedophilia and incest in her erotica, and *The Story of O* is considered a classic piece of literature in the Lit Erotica genre.

So what violates the terms of service language and what does not? Well, that depends on the publisher. Some publishers will not print certain content regardless of context and/or intent, no matter how integral it is to the story. Fortunately, this kind of censorship doesn’t happen all that often anymore, and it tends to be genre specific. Consult your country's bi-laws if you are unsure. Horror, Thriller, and Crime drama writers have been free to explore the dark side of the human psyche without bounds for some time. Even Erotica -- the likes of Anais Nin -- takes a lingering, albeit uneasy, look at sexuality: its freedoms, its beauty, and its transgressions. Art has always been about the light, the dark, and the shadows or grey areas in between. Literary works are beset with controversial subject matter, and some writers come at it aggressively and some take a subtle approach. To each his own; every story begs a different angle and a different approach. The difference between art and obscenity is in the approach, and there certainly isn’t a clear line to delineate one from the other.

And that is why this is a difficult subject to address: the language or legalese can be vague and in reality it's all about context versus content, meaning: the context a scene is written in, specifically, the context the author intends it to be read in is the defining criteria. It’s not about the story, the scene, or the explicit nature of the words, it’s all about context and intent. For the purposes of this discussion, we can use two key points in the Smashwords terms of service to guide us: Authors shall not publish works that:

· advocate hateful, discriminatory or racist views or actions toward others
· advocate illegal activities

Exploring dark subject matter in a literary sense is not the same thing as writing deviant pornography, although, the definition of deviant is debatable, but I like throwing the term "illegal" in there, because it seems to put an extra measure of clarity on the guideline. Again we can look at Context and Intent with specific reference to Advocacy. Example: If a horror or crime thriller is about a child rapist/pedophile -- think Kevin Bacon in the Woodsman -- and certain scenes need to be written to make the story whole so that the reader has a broader view and a deeper understanding of the characters, their motivations, and the world they live in, this is acceptable and does not violate the TOS. We have to look at context; then we can say, yes, the subject matter -- child rape and pedophilia -- is illegal, but we, the author, based on our approach, are not condoning it as acceptable behaviour. Our thematic treatment of the subject matter is not advocacy. In our approach, we are clearly exploring the subject not advocating it. However, should that same book be labelled erotica, the author will need to take care here since erotica is primarily written with the specific intent to titillate. Should we, the author, write such scenes gratuitously with the deliberate intent to appeal to and titillate such a reader, then that is unacceptable because it is advocating said illegal activity. See how switching genres can make a world of difference. Should a reader feel some sort of catharsis is a much different matter. People read and watch horror films for catharsis and to reconcile their feelings about violence. But I digress ... back to the genres: Now if it be Literary fiction including Lit erotica -- yes, there is such a thing and it's primary function is to explore sexuality in an explicit/artistic fashion -- exploring the rehabilitation and the subsequent redemption of a child rapist, then again, as long as the scenes are not gratuitous and offer greater depth of understanding to the reader, understanding that will affect the way the reader relates to the character and the theme of the story, the author is not condoning it contextually or thematically so it would not violate the terms of service. As an example, the movie poster above is for the Danish film titled: *Naboer* or *Next Door* in English. It’s a psycho drama or thriller in which the main character has a certain repressed sexual proclivity, which manifests itself quite violently as the story progresses. There is only one sex scene in the entire film, but I can only liken it to *Fight Club*. It is brutally violent and subversive and yet it’s not gratuitous. Without the scene, the viewer would not understand the extreme nature of this character’s need and the level of his deteriorating self-control. The entire film would have fallen flat without it. Then we have the movie *History of Violence*, which lists in the opening that it contains a rape scene. It does in fact, even if the scene is between momentarily estranged husband and wife. As for literature, the Theme of Faulkner’s *Sanctuary* is also rape, and the book is considered his most controversial work. Hell, if I start listing literature, film, music, and art that has explicit controversial subject matter, this post would never end.

So, should you decide, as an artist, that moments of darkness are necessary and that the articulation of your theme would suffer without said “moments” then by all means do not censor yourself or your story. I have seen plenty of stories fall dead in the dishwater because the author held back. Just keep your mind on context and intent, take an artist’s approach, and be prepared to attach an adult content label to your work. Smashwords has an adult content filter; Lulu used to require that you keep your work "direct access" which supposedly made it unavailable in the marketplace; and as for Amazon, well, like most distributors, they just want the bibliographic data, specifically they want the appropriate reading age specified so they can filter it. For the exception of Antiquity, all my books are labelled 18+ and as adult content. Respect the TOS, do not mislabel your work in an effort to gain wider readership unless you can afford the legal ramifications. Now, if you’re going the traditional route and your publisher or epublisher of choice says NO to certain content, then NO means NO, and they will use terminology appropriate to get that message across. Simon & Schuster withdrew their offer to publish Ellis’ American Psycho. It was subsequently released by Vintage later and was censored and in some cases banned in a few countries. But that’s traditional publishing ... Indie publishing has a unique advantage as it innately allows unbounded freedom of expression, just be careful with your explorations ... the line is there, and any artist worth their salt knows where it is. Transgressive fiction has literary merit, and by it's very nature does not violate the rules of advocacy. No one scene can be judged out of context. However, know and respect your publishers guidelines and know the law.

I want to thank Mark Coker of Smashwords for the lively discussion we had on the subject. The term Indie is all about freedom of speech and freedom of artistic expression. So if you have a question about your work, get clarification.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

Edited to add: Dark Fic has many different meanings across many different genres of fiction-- see comments by Dusk Peterson -- and is not restricted to sexual content. Dark fic also applies to settings and the psychological state of the characters. For the purposes of this discussion, the term Dark Fic has been used in a limited fashion to specifically address the use of transgressive content and themes in literature as it applies to TOS and content guidelines.


Dusk Peterson said...


"A genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways."

I'm fascinated to learn from you that the literary world has a word for this type of literature, though it strikes me, from the definitions you quote, that transgressive fiction appears to emphasize certain fringe elements in literature (not that I think there's anything wrong with it doing so). Darkfic, on the other hand, can include plotlines that are quite mainstream in certain types of fiction, such as war or imprisonment.

As I'm sure you know, darkfic is a word that comes from the fan fiction community, though it is also used by some original-fiction authors such as myself. (And yes, it's frequently confused with "dark fiction," a synonym for the horror genre.)

As in all terminology matters, there is a lot of disagreement over what darkfic means. Here are some definitions:

"Generally used to describe stories that deal with dark themes; emotional and physical torture, suffering, despondency are usually associated with these stories. Happy endings are very optional." --A Short Glossary of Categories and Warnings.

"What is . . . Dark Fiction? . . . By 'Dark' we mean the setting of the story. That means harsh times for your character: slavery, prostitution, war, crime, abuse, non-con and worse situations, that sort of thing. No bad ending required, of course." --Mission statement for the Dark Male/Male Fiction e-mail list.

"A story involving a large amount of death/pain/trauma being inflicted on the characters, often to force out characterization. To quote Elsa Bibat's essay 'A Long Strange Walk': 'Those who really don't like seeing their favourite characters slaughtered or emotionally and mentally scarred for life are advised not to read anything with a [DARK] tag or warning.'" --Fanfiction Glossary.

"Stories that show you the darker side of life, dealing with topics like slavery, imprisonment and prostitution. But we're romantics at heart, showing how love can bloom in such unlikely places." --Mission statement for MAS-Zine, an m/m darkfic e-zine.

"Angst/Darkfic: This fic is characterized by intense longing, brooding, and angst. Perhaps unrequited love, perhaps [the protagonist] harboring not-so-innocent thoughts." --Genre Glossary.

"Darkfic is fan fiction that deals with intentionally disturbing material, such as physical and emotional violence. The main characters may be the victims of the violence, the perpetrators, or both. The mood and atmosphere are characterized by a shift away from optimism, toward despair or hopelessness, or even a sort of gleeful exploration of the disturbing." --Fanlore.

"Fiction in which dark events take place, such as slavery or imprisonment. The tone of the story may be dark or it may be light." --My definition, which is based on how I saw the term being used in practice.

As you can see, the various definitions disagree on whether darkfic is defined by the plot or by the atmosphere, and on whether a tragic ending is necessary.

Dusk Peterson said...


"So what violates the terms of service language and what does not?"

Authors also need to be aware of relevant laws, not only because they may be personally affected by them, but because their publishers may be. For a number of years, Canada Customs had a policy of confiscating any works that featured anal sex or sadomasochism (though it was finally shown in a court case that Canada Customs applying these standards unevenly). As a result, even if an American editor personally liked gay erotica or BDSM erotica, he might feel reluctant to buy it, since it meant cutting off the very important Canadian market.

There has been at least one case in recent years of the U.S. federal obscenity law being applied against text. There are a handful of states that have child pornography laws that include mention of text. In general, though, the U.S. is less restrictive than Canada and Australia, both of which mention text in their child pornography laws. The question of whether literary/artistic merit should be taken into consideration in such laws has been fought out in the courts for a number of years. Likewise, BDSM stories are legally vulnerable in certain territories; the U.S. federal law on obscenity, for example, penalizes sadomasochistic writing more than vanilla writing.

I agree with you that context is all-important, but unfortunately the context that the police often taken into account when deciding which cases to prosecute is not the inherent good taste of the work but whether the book is issued by a major publisher. There have been cases where stories that had originally been published in gay magazines that faced legal challenges were later reprinted by big publishers, and thereupon encountered no legal difficulties. So I'm afraid that small-press authors and self-published authors are particularly vulnerable if they write darkfic.

Not that I think that should stop them. I agree with all that you say about the potential social/artistic value of darkfic, and it's encouraging to me to know that many other folks in the literary/publishing world - and, on occasion, the legal world - share this view.

Dusk Peterson said...


"Lulu requires that you keep your work private, which makes it unavailable in the marketplace"

This isn't correct, actually, unless new rules have been added that I'm not aware of. The rules on access level that have been in place for several years govern only the content of book titles, blurbs, covers, and previews. When I enquired at the time that the current rules were implemented, I was told by the Lulu staff that it was fine to give public access to works with mature content, provided that you followed the above-linked rules and marked your work with the keyword Mature. And indeed, this is what many authors with mature content have been doing; if you plug the word "mature" into Lulu's search engine, 1200 titles pop up.

"As for Amazon, well, like most distributors, they just want the bibliographic data, specifically they want the appropriate reading age specified so they can filter it."

Is there a new filter in place that I'm not aware of? I've never seen anything in Amazon's documentation to publishers that mentions reading age.

Amazon has a generally good record of being willing to sell controversial books, but it has to comply with the laws affecting it, which means that it has deleted certain highly controversial books over the years. Given that the U.S., among other nations, periodically institutes hysterical legal campaigns against erotic works, one can't be complascent about this topic. However, I think most authors and publishers are unlikely to be affected by this problem.

Overall, I think caution should be the byword for any authors writing darkfic; they shouldn't be blithely certain that the world will treat their writing as it deserves. On the other hand, I agree with you that some authors engage in unnecessary paranoia, self-censoring when this isn't necessary. I think the best advice for authors approaching publishers with any sort of boundaries-pushing manuscript is the one given by a Tor editor at a panel I attended, when discussing the topic of how much sex should appear in mainstream novels: Write the scene the way you think it should be written, and let the editor decide which parts of your story are acceptable for that particular press.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I love all your definitions Dusk, thanks for those. I find it amusing that all those definitions apply very generally to most of the Literary fiction I have read in my life. Hunger and The Stranger and also Faulkner's Sanctuary come to mind immediately as well as much of Henry Miller's work. Lit Fiction sometimes I think tackles more "dark" subject matter and settings than genre fiction.

And yes, that was why my final words were one of caution, if you are not sure then get clarification.

As for Lulu, they might have changed settings since I have been there. They used to have levels, then they changed their policy to direct access only for mature content,which was one of the reasons I left. they might have made modifications to that since I left. As for Amazon's Createspace and Bowkers they have what is called a "reading level" and that is required so they know how to categorize the book. Bowkers uses an age requirement, and Amazon uses a grade level requirement. But these must be entered for obvious reasons.

And of course an author can write dark subject matter without including overly graphic content. And Dark fiction doesn't necessarily have to have transgressive content. But I always advise authors to err on the side of caution. If their depictions of the dark matter contain graphic content, then they should use a disclaimer and label their content adult or mature and use the appropriate age/grade reading level where offered.

Obscenity laws have always been rather vague as is the definition of "reasonable" individual.

My litmus test is always American Psycho by Ellis. That is listed and carried in book stores in the Fiction/General section.

As for traditional publishing, yes, write your book, and your editor/agent will decide for your based on their policy.

Dusk Peterson said...

"I love all your definitions"

And I enjoyed reading the ones you quoted. Sorry if I derailed your discussion of literary fiction - that wasn't my intention. It's just that so few people in the world of literature talk about darkfic that I get overly excited when my genre of choice is mentioned. :)

"As for Amazon's Createspace"

Ah, you meant CreateSpace. Thanks. I was confused, because I hadn't run across this requirement at Amazon DTP.

"If their depictions of the dark matter contain graphic content, then they should use a disclaimer and label their content adult or mature and use the appropriate age/grade reading level where offered."

I agree with you that a fair warning is good - and man, could the mainstream publishers learn a lesson from that, because I would like to have had a label slapped onto George R. R. Martin's novels that said, "Graphic torture and death of several main characters." But I don't think warnings alway needs to be accomplished by the words "adult" or "mature." I tend to think that genre labels and blurbs often provide enough information. To use an example from one of my own novels (which is borderline between mature and non-mature), nobody's going to pick up a gay novel set in a dungeon of torture and expect all the pages to be filled with gentle kisses. If you then add the words "dark aspects of erotic life" to the blurb, readers will get the idea.

On my Website, on the other hand, I do provide quite detailed labels, since the needs of Web surfers are somewhat different.

"they changed their policy to direct access only for mature content"

I think you might have been a victim of their initial, confusing announcement about this. (Lulu has a communication problem. They recently announced their new "DRM is optional" ePub offering as though they were saying "DRM is required.") At the time their access policy changed, I and a bunch of erotic fiction writers were bemoaning the situation, but then I wrote to Lulu, asking for clarification, and it became apparent that Lulu was doing the opposite of what their announcement implied.

Prior to that, access at Lulu was determined at the customer level: if the customer said that they wanted to see adult books, they were permitted to. But this information was hidden away in the customer settings, and wasn't even available to customers who hadn't signed up, so I think it's actually easier now for customers to access mature books than in the past.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I agree about the cover copy thing, if you word your cover copy correctly than a reader should have no problem knowing if it's suitable. However, Smashwords really limits the word count on their descriptions, and that makes it difficult to get in what you need to get it. On Amazon I don't have that problem. But Smashwords allows me to label it adult, so I don't worry, but on Scribd, even though I don't write explicit or graphic, I use a disclaimer anyway because I do use a lot of "language" and the subject matter, while not graphically depicted, still might be unsuitable for some readers. I just use a reader discretion is advised label.

Lulu is confusing. I just saw that it had to be labeled direct access and that direct access would not be searchable. I believe that wording is still on there. I wasn't aware there were other customer access level changes. I think everyone needs to use the same damn system: age, genre, and whether or not it's for mature audiences, or hell, let's adopt the movie rating system, at least everyone is used to that.

And no, highjacking is fine. I think writers need to have this discussion more often, I think everyone needs to have this discussion more often. I write primarily in the Gothic/dark romanticism genres which were precursers to some of the transgressive fiction themes we have today. I love it love it love it. Dark is good, the darker the better for me. :-)

Dusk Peterson said...

"But Smashwords allows me to label it adult"

I really love that option, especially since Smashwords is very loose in its meaning of adult. It would allow me to label my e-books that have no sex in them but have mature subject matter, without feeling that I'm misrepresenting the e-books.

"I just saw that it had to be labeled direct access and that direct access would not be searchable."

As I say, that's what I mistook their initial announcement to mean, because of how they'd worded it. But the rules that I linked to are the very rules that they placed online, shortly after their initial announcement. So there's been no change in rules since that time, only an initial garbled announcement of those rules that confused a lot of us.

I think that the initial announcement was garbled because they were trying to keep from saying outright, "We're letting customers have better access to adult material." So they tried to slant their announcement to make it seem as though they were preventing access. That's my theory, anyway.

Dusk (starting a darkfic fan club)

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Again, that was another reason I left Lulu. I still have an account because I buy books there for review, but as far as publishing ... I had a lot of issues.

A Dark Fic fan club ... I am so in!!! I wonder if there is a group on goodreads or somewhere like that. And I agree, Dark Fic isn't always about sex. Gothic and Dark Romanticism, also called Dark Fic, were all about atmosphere and state of mind, often the subject matter was dark too, but not always. Poe and Lovecraft are my all time favorites of the Dark Romantics and of course Byron. Of the transgressives of course de Sade and Bataille would be my all time favs. But I could list hundreds if I wanted to.

Dusk Peterson said...

"Poe and Lovecraft are my all time favorites of the Dark Romantics and of course Byron."

Darn it, that was going to be my last post, but then you had to go and mention Gothic literature.

James Buchanan alerted me to the existence of the Goth genre called "dark fiction," which is descended from the Gothic fiction tradition; those stories tend to be defined "dark" by their atmophere.

It turned out that LiveJournal has a ton of dark fiction communities. Here's a couple of their mission statements:

"Here, poems of depression, death, suicide, pain, suffering, heartbreak, and so much more are placed."

"Embrace darkness, enjoy morbid things, and do not bring depression here."

The latter community has "ravens" in its tags list. :)

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