Monday, November 19, 2007

When Ignorance Is More Than Annoying

It's always annoying to be reading a book, even a work of fiction, and come across places where the writer is pretty clearly faking it and doing a horrible job. When there are things you know are false being blithely tossed about, with no apparent plot-related reason for stretching the truth or twisting a fact, it's hard not to think some scornful thoughts about the writer who couldn't be bothered.

I majored in history, emphasis on the Middle Ages in Europe, and whenever I see a character in 12th century France eating turkey, or a 10th century English castle with enough bedrooms to open a modern-style hotel, or any medieval characters anywhere speaking and acting as though it were perfectly normal for everyone they know to be born, live until about age thirty and then drop dead, I start talking to the book and what I have to say probably wouldn't please the book's author even a tiny bit. These kinds of problems are easily fixable with minimal research and thought, and the incorrect information is rarely vital to the plot. But even I have to admit that the particular flavor of ignorance being spread here is only annoying, and not actually harmful to anything but the general level of knowledge and intelligence among the populace.

There are some topics, though, where false information in fiction can be actively harmful. One of them is BDSM.

I've unfortunately become accustomed to writers of BDSM fiction who don't know what they're talking about. Despite the many who are knowledgeable about the subject (and just damn good writers), there are unfortunately a few others who think that the whole BDSM thing is "cool" to write and who just sort of dive in with the most rudimentary knowledge, most of it false. That's bad enough, and whenever I see people commenting on these twisted, full-of-crap stories to say that they never knew anything about BDSM before but they're learning So Much from this story!! I start swearing and feel a strong urge to throttle the writer.

Up until now, most of the writers I'd entertained thoughts of killing were amateurs -- people who write stories for fun and post them online for anyone to read for free. This is still bad but at least their audience is pretty limited. Right now, though, I'm up visiting my mom and I was browsing through her bookcases. I found an anthology of BDSM stories (yes, I have an incredibly cool and open-minded mom) and sat down to read. There are four stories in this book and I'm a few pages into the second one, and so far we're two-for-two on writers who don't know what the hell they're talking about. These are professional writers, who were paid money for their stories and whose books are being sold in bookstores all over the country and for all I know all over the world. That's a huge potential audience, and I find this horrifying.

So how is this different from the historical errors? It's different because people who believe this crap can actually get hurt. It's different because the BDSM community is already grossly misunderstood by the more conservative end of the population, and having people end up in the hospital -- or dead -- because they tried some dangerous practice without understanding it and without knowing what precautions to take and with no clear step-by-step instructions is the sort of thing which could hit the news and convince that many more people that there should be laws against all this "perverted" stuff. And the fact that the people who were hurt or killed got their information from some ignoramus who wasn't even a member of the BDSM community isn't going to matter one bit.

And in the case of the amateur fiction, or possibly even electronically published professional fiction, depending on how some reporter or politician decides to slant the story, the outrage could spill over onto the internet in general. There again, there are plenty of people already who think the internet is dangerous and should be regulated and censored. If someone ends up hurt or maimed or killed because of bad information they got off the internet, whether from a web site or a blog post or an e-book, that could easily sway public opinion that much farther to the regulation and censorship side, which would affect all of us who hang out here, whether we're into BDSM specifically or not.

Some of the ignorance is perfectly harmless. One of my favoite writers wrote a story a while back where the female protag needed to go undercover as a prostitute, to try to get close to a villain with a strong streak of kink who was known to regularly patronize a certain BDSM house. The protag and her boyfriend (who was also an agent and had Issues with her doing this in the first place) hired a professional dominatrix to teach our heroine the basics, in hope that she could pull off her masquerade as a pro herself and fool the villain. The supposed professional trainer gave them a "flogger" made of velvet ribbons tipped with feathers, saying that after all, it was supposed to be pleasurable. [facepalm]

This was incredibly stupid, but it wasn't actually harmful. Anyone who read this book and then decided to try a velvet-and-feathers flogging session with their significant other probably wouldn't find it terribly exciting, or even very stimulating, but they'd have a hard time actually getting hurt, unless they had a strong feather allergy or something.

[And to this day I truly hope that the writer originally had this scene written as a realistic training session, but had it vetoed by an uptight publisher. I really hope that. Because otherwise my respect for this writer would have to take a huge nosedive.]

But when I read a story where a sub is branded against her will, and then goes into agonies of guilt for thinking negative thoughts about the "Dom" who did it to her, because a True Sub never ever thinks things like that about a Dom, I really need to slap someone. When I read about a sub who's incapable of allowing herself to take pleasure in sex unless there's pain involved as well, because she doesn't feel she deserves to enjoy sex unless she's being punished at the same time, and her Dom thinks this is normal, that's another slap I owe someone. When I read about a large BDSM community where a sub has to "prove" to the group at large that he's worthy to serve a Dom (any Dom) by demonstrating that he can take a certain amount of pain by being whipped long and hard in public, I just have to headdesk and then wish I could slap the writer. When I read about a Dom who binds and gags his sub, then leaves him alone in the house for an extended period, I want to get out the baseball bat.

All of these are actual examples from stories I've read. All of them show a serious ignorance of the basic philosophy and mindset of someone who's into BDSM, and do it in a way which could get an ignorant newbie badly hurt or even killed, either because of a specific practice which is incredibly unsafe, or a more general mindset held up as an ideal which in actual fact could lead someone into a dangerous situation with either a predator masquerading as a Dom or just some other ignorant idiot who doesn't know any better. With any luck, a reader who's curious about kink will find someone knowledgeable to play with, or at least to use as an info resource. Or as a last resort, there are plenty of good information sources (non-fictional ones) online, for someone who prefers to do their research in private, although someone starting all the way back from square one might have some trouble sorting out the good ones from the iffy ones, especially if they're not willing to take the time and trouble to cross-check information with multiple sources.

But if the reader goes up to their boyfriend or wife or whomever, who's just as ignorant as they are, and says, "Hey, this sounds like fun -- let's try it!" then the results could be dire.

Normally I'm willing to assume that adults are adults and capable of taking responsibility for their own decisions. And likewise, I think people who depend on any "facts" they've gleaned from a piece of fiction, without double-checking them with a non-fictional source, are kind of stupid and deserve whatever results.

On this subject, though, and in the current social and political climate, a sufficiently harmful outcome could conceivably end up splattered all over not only the dummy who took a piece of fiction as fact, but also all over other people who were minding their own business and doing nothing wrong. Whether it makes it that much harder for legitimate members of the BDSM community to go about their lives without being sneered at or scorned, or whether it provides that last bit of ammunition some technophobic politician needs to convince a voting majority that Something Must Be Done about the internet, the consequences of this particular flavor of ignorance could spread a lot farther and cause much more damage than out-of-period turkeys.

I have no idea what to do about this, except perhaps to issue an open plea for publishers of BDSM fiction to make sure their editors who handle these books know enough about the practice to weed out the ignorant and clueless stories. That won't do anything about the amateur end of the problem, but at least the professional end -- the one with the much larger audience and international reach -- could police itself and make sure it doesn't spread any horrifically bad information. Which would, incidentally, also make the stories much more enjoyable to read.



Unknown said...

OMG you are so correct. Few things make me more angry and annoyed than reading BDSM stories full of made-up, unsafe crap, and then seeing other readers exclaiming about how wonderful it is to be "learning so much" from the story. And I can't even COUNT how many times I have seen this happen. It's really a shame so many people think they're being educated when they're really being misinformed and potentially put in danger.

Charles Gramlich said...

I typically find it amazing when anyone takes fiction to be real life in any kind of situation. Think how many people took everything that Dan Brown said in "The Da Vinci Code" as fact. There's a reason it's called fiction.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I am making an assumption of what BDSM stands for since I don't know exactly but have got the general idea of it from the post. I would think that in this country if someone were to get seriously injured - it would be an instant lawsuit which would then teach the publishers and authors to be more careful. but I have to agree with you in general that it bothers me when people do not check out facts and do some minimal research.

Angie said...

Bodhi -- It's very scary how many people think they're learning all about it when they read fiction. [nod/sigh]

Charles -- Very true, but people do it anyway. :/ Usually I'd say, "Hey, they were stupid, see what it got them," but like I said, this is an area where their stupidity can spill over onto other people. But yes, if everyone would get a clue about the difference between fiction and fact, and not treat the former like the latter, this wouldn't be an issue.

Ello -- I would like to think that lawsuits wouldn't come into it if the source of the false information was clearly fiction. I'll grant that you can sue anything for anyone, but I'd really like to think that someone wanting to sue over this would have a very difficult time finding a lawyer to take the case, and that if they did, the judge would throw it out anyway. [crossed fingers] But yes, I think everyone should be doing more research -- the writer who writes the story in the first place, the editor who accepts and publishes it, and the reader who decides they want to lift something out of a story and try it in the real world. Everyone in that chain has a responsibility to do some research and checking IMO, and it's very frustrating that so often none of them do.

And BDSM is Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism. It's often seen separated, as B&D or S&M, because although all four often go together they don't always, and the definitions are different. If you're interested I can point you at some decent online sources once I'm back home on my desktop computer where most of my bookmarks are stored, and if you're not then you probably have enough info just from my post to get why this is an issue. [nod]


writtenwyrdd said...

I know a limited amount about the scene, but the first thing anyone who knows anything will tell you is "safe word" and the basic rules of etiquette.

I am also troubled when people read something in a book of fiction and believe it is all real.

But really dumb stuff, like turkey in the Middle Ages? Eye roll...

Angie said...

WW -- exactly. If everyone were smart enough not to get their facts from fiction, this wouldn't be an issue. :/

And yeah, I've seen people eating turkey in the Middle Ages. Or potatoes.

I read a Regency once where the male protag was an alcoholic (which is certainly period) and the female protag pretty much came up with the entire philosophy and program from AA all by herself. [sigh] I can appreciate wanting to address serious issues in a novel, but the discontinuity just threw me right out of the story, which makes it an ineffective vehicle for the writer's ideas. You can't just jam any concept into any setting and hope to spackle it over. Things have to fit relatively smoothly. Or at least, the ridges and bumps have to serve some purpose in and of themselves. In this case, they didn't.


Unknown said...

Agreed 100%, I dont read much D/s or BDSM fiction. However I am 1.5 books into a 3 book series called Bound Freedom. This series is D/s and book one is going to be published by Publish America.

I wish more who wrote about the life were in it and understood just what it takes to make a serious, loving, caring D/s relationship.

Best Regards
Bound Freedom
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