Wednesday, August 26, 2020 Publishing, First Become Ashes, and the pretty pastel packaging of abuse

CW: Discussions of rape, rape apologism, abuse, slavery, racism, explicit BDSM. Spoilers for Docile by K.M. Szpara.

Imagine: you're on the internet one day, and you hear about a book. It's a new standalone, by an author with one previously published novel, and it looks gorgeous! Pastel blue cover, vibrant yellow birds, bold white font, all pointing to something romantic but maybe sad and thoughtful, a bit like All The Birds in the Sky or This Is How You Lose the Time War. The tagline promises a book that "blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what is real, and what is magical." If you frequent Edelweiss, you may also have checked out the author letter, saying that "during a time when we are all struggling with isolation, Ashes asks what it means to support those we love when it's hardest." It's a lovely sentiment, one that pushes a lot of the right emotional buttons. There's some pretty dark stuff in the rest of the blurb - abuse and cult thinking - but on the whole, the book seems to promise something gentle and healing.

Perhaps, if you were around the internet for a few glorious hours on August 19th, you saw the publisher's next marketing image for this book, which surrounded the cover with a bunch of cutesy chalkboard "tags" - elements of the book's plot and main tropes pulled out to showcase its content, a device used extensively in fanfiction - and maybe, from that, you started to get a bit confused. Oh, so the pastel bird book has "cock cages and keyholding"? And "roadside S&M"? Huh, well it did say it would blend pleasure and pain, but that's a spicier variety of that concept than I might have expected from that cover! It also promises "[ASMR] Professional cosplayer washes and braids your hair," and "motel magic", and you know what, OK, books can be cute and spicy, and as long as this one remains very far away from YA, then, well, fine.

And then, maybe, you also notice "CW: Non consensual sex" at the top of the image, cut off by Twitter preview, in the same cute font as all the other tags. "Non consensual sex", to be clear, is a mealy-mouthed synonym for rape. It's the kind of wording you use when "rape" is absolutely the thing you mean, but, you know, it just seems so harsh, do we really have to say it? Can't we think of a less confrontational way to talk about the rape, so it doesn't interfere with the tone we're going for? The book's still pastel and still looks like it's full of gentle magic and it's still, apparently, about a heartwarming combination of BDSM and cute romantic tropes, but also rape. And, from the reactions of early readers, it's not a little bit of rape either, but multiple graphic scenes of rape, abuse and torture. Including the cock cages. Sorry to anyone who wanted consensual, cute-fun erection denial play to finally have its moment in mainstream speculative fiction publishing. Your princess is in another castle.

Of course, if you're familiar with this particular publisher's history with this author and their previous book, you might skip straight to thinking "for fuck's sake, not again."


The book is First, Become Ashes, by K.M. Szpara, coming out from Publishing in April 2021. It's a lead title, which, for the uninitiated, means it's got lots of marketing behind it and is expected to do well accordingly (in other words, expect them to keep banging on about it until next April and beyond). It follows on the heels of Szpara's previous novel Docile - a book about debt slavery which is also pastel, and also involves repeated, graphic rape which both text and marketing dance around calling out as such. Docile takes its premise to some pretty morally grey, unpleasant places, some of which are inherent in the clearly signposted slavery aspects, and some which definitely aren't. Both characters in the central, abusive relationship end up in a "reciprocated feelings with an open door for later romance" state by the end. If you know about Docile, your expectations for First, Become Ashes are probably quite different to if you're just scrolling through Book Twitter.

Side note: I want to avoid talking in detail about my feelings regarding the text of Docile, because it's irrelevant whether I think the book is good, or if it's "for me" (though, if you must know, it wasn't). These could be the best, most groundbreaking books ever and my frustrations with the marketing would still exist. However, I can't let it go by without pointing out these two critiques, from Stitch's Media Mix and Strange Horizons, of Docile's use of the slavefic trope without any critical engagement with the racial history of slavery in the USA.

Let me be entirely clear here. I have no issue with dark, troubling stories of abuse, rape and violence being told, when that telling is done thoughtfully and offered to the world in a way that minimises any potential for harm. There are difficult, painful stories that people - both writers and readers - find worthwhile things to take from. And by "worthwhile" I don't necessarily mean deep, exquisite life truths: maybe you occasionally read unpleasant things in the same way you occasionally get drawn into googling unpleasant symptoms of rare diseases at 1am. (If you don't like that sentence, substitute "you" for "I" and then if you still have a problem come fight me on Twitter). There are limits: when it comes to depictions of white supremacy, for example, there are stories that those who haven't experienced racism simply can't tell responsibly and thoughtfully. But, ultimately, there aren't objective moral boundaries on what human experiences can be depicted in fiction, whatever personal feelings and limits people have about their consumption of that media.

The responsibility to minimise harm, and to get the story to the right people while signposting it for those who know they won't benefit it, is still a bloody important part of the process, and one which different fiction mediums have developed different ways of dealing with, including the normalisation of content warnings particularly in short fiction, and of tagging in fanfiction spaces like Archive of Our Own (AO3). This is a process with both moral and practical imperatives to get right, because unless you're a deeply unpleasant person who gets off on hurting others, nobody benefits from having their story inflict unwanted pain and the loss of trust and future readership that causes (unless you're a publisher reaping sales money from an author you're comfortable with dropping if you don't think you can sell further books, but even then your reputation is at stake). Different spaces have developed different ways of dealing with this. AO3 uses a very different method than book publishers, in part because the act of choosing a book to purchase involves different expectations and investments than clicking a fic to read, from the time and money investment to the expectations of professional publishing versus unedited or “unbetaed” fanfiction on the internet. No system is perfect - AO3 may have clear, non-negotiable requirements for tagging rape/non con and other “major archive warnings”, but it falls down when it comes to racism and other fandom language (like “dead dove: do not eat”, the warning for an unapologetically horrible fic) requires insider knowledge to understand. But that doesn’t negate anyone’s responsibility to try.

The question of foreknowledge, and of the harm that stories can do in a particular context, is something that has particular challenges to negotiate when it comes to queer literature. With queer tragedy, and tropes like "bury your gays" and queer-coded villains having been deployed so constantly and thoughtlessly by non-LGBTQIA+-identified creators for so long, its understandable that many readers who seek out queer stories do so wanting assurances that stories will contain queer joy, happy endings, or nuanced personal growth, for queer characters. But suggesting that the world is objectively saturated with queer pain because the straights have already written enough of it is a deeply unfortunate stance for all of the queer creators who want to tell those stories themselves, in all their tragic, painful, heartbreaking glory. We may have opinions as readers about the balance of such stories; I do think it is still much more difficult to find stories celebrating queer joy than queer pain, and a lot of books still end in queer tragedy with minimal prior signposting. But, fundamentally, the problem with balance is not an inherent problem with the individual stories that exist on the imbalanced side of the scale, particularly when they are by marginalised creators who have the opportunity to take on tropes that have defined their own identities.

In a way, it's hard not to read the marketing of Docile and First, Become Ashes as a giant middle finger to that "purity" discourse. Everything about it seems to push back against the idea that there is something inherently wrong with queer books with dark themes being celebrated and given the all-star treatment as a hot new must-read title. Docile is unapologetically not a tragedy, despite all the terrible things that happen in it, and from what I know about First, Become Ashes, the same seems to be true. Certainly, watching some of the individuals involved celebrate the branding of Docile, I think the transgressiveness - yes, it's queer, it's a BDSM book, it's anti-capitalist (available exclusively in hardcover for £21.99!), it has a happy-ish ending for survivors and rapists alike, and it's PINK and TEAL in just the right shades for a matching manicure - is a huge part of the attraction. It's also, for those who know what to look for, making a point of aligning itself with known fanfiction tropes, which in itself can be seen an act of transgression for those who see fanfiction as an inherently disreputable form of writing (the Strange Horizons review I link above, for all its strengths, does rather fall into that trap). By making that cuteness into a point of transgressive pride, and tying together the queerness and the kink and the rape and the social commentary into one inextricable package, it becomes nearly impossible to challenge the appropriateness of any part of this without it feeling like a challenge to the whole thing. For those of us who consider ourselves vehemently on the side of queer pastel glitter pride, that's a deeply uncomfortable position to be in. And, hey, Docile had a content warning for rape! Not originally, but at some point between September 2019 and the next Wayback Machine capture in March 2020, that content warning became a thing, just like we all wanted! So what's the problem? 

The thing is, though, the desire to celebrate the transgressive blending of rape and happy endings (pleasure and pain!) plays out rather differently in an unmonetized fandom space than it does when backed up by a significant portion of a Big 5 Publishing imprint's marketing budget and social media reach. The use of tags in fanfiction can be playful, but they are ultimately there to inform readers of the exact content of a piece of media (however imperfectly), and let them make their own choices. When turned into a marketing tool, the incentives for "tagging" completely change to become about what will sell, and that completely changes what is appropriate and what is trustworthy. Likewise, the choice to pair your dark stories with an unexpected pastel aesthetic is one thing when you're choosing a Tumblr theme or commissioning an artist to draw your fic, but it has an entirely different weight behind it when you're printing 75,000 hardbacks to go out to major stores and sit on the shelf alongside all the other pastel aesthetic SFF books which are almost entirely not about rape and BDSM. Once you’ve started writing about the traumatic, abusive cock cages in your book in cutesy handwriting font, it’s possible you’ve lost the plot entirely... but even if there is an audience that would be good for, it’s certainly not all 25,000 Twitter followers of Publishing! These are not responsible choices; they deliberately obfuscate and misrepresent the book, and in doing so prevent potential readers - particularly those who aren't clued in on the past pattern via Twitter - from making fully informed choices about their reading. For other books, that might be annoying, especially at hardback price point; for one with this combination of sensitive topics, it's frankly dangerous.

At the time of writing this, the marketing image has quietly disappeared, and an extra line has appeared on the First, Become Ashes page on the Publishing website: “First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape”. (Here's the Wayback Machine's archive of the page without that line, for reference.) It's a welcome gesture - and a lesson that could perhaps have been learned from the previous book - but it's not one that addresses the deeper issues with this whole pastel package. Painful, dark, queer stories deserve to exist. They deserve to have traditional publishing deals and be lead titles. Most importantly, they deserve to be taken seriously, and treated carefully, and delivered responsibly into the right hands. Publishing does a lot of great work, and I am glad that they are willing to take a risk on the kind of story that Szpara is telling here, regardless of my feelings about the execution of Docile - but we need to demand better when it comes to how these stories are presented to the world.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.