Monday, October 09, 2017

More on trigger warnings

A recent blog post on what to say when querying a book with potentially difficult scenes generated some very thoughtful comments in response.

My initial answer (which I stand by) is to not include a trigger warning in a query. Let the chips fall where they may.

Here's why I believe that: putting trigger warnings on a book is someone else telling you what you should/should not  read. I am unalterably opposed to that. (It's not censorship because censorship is the government making that choice. )It is dangerous because the foundation of democracy is the freedom to read what we choose, unfettered.

Now, am I in favor of small children reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson? No I am not, but we're not talking about small children, or children of any size or stripe here.

Trigger warnings are intended for grown ups and soon to be grown ups.  The implied warning is "don't read this, it will upset you."

I think you should be darn careful about who you give that kind of power to.

Do you give it to me? Not on your life. I'm not responsible for your mental health (and you're not responsible for mine.)

Do you give it to librarians or a form in the copyright office? No no no. There's no way one designation will work for the myriad of needs people have. Trigger warnings are not quantifiable.

So who do you listen to?
People you know, and people who care about you. In other words, your community.

Here's an example of what I mean:  Manchester By The Sea is brilliant (if you disagree, totally fine, but this blog post isn't about that, ok?) and deeply disturbing movie. I will never forget it, but I never want to see it again.

And when I was talking to a good friend who has two little girls, I told her to never let her husband see that movie. I was afraid it would disturb him deeply.

I knew her husband, I'd seen the movie. I offered an opinion. He's free to make his own choices.

But once we start labeling things, or giving blanket warnings "this is disturbing" we've removed the "I know her husband" element of the equation.

If you're querying a troublesome book, remember you DON'T know me. For all our conviviality on the blog, my personal life and my mental health are not things you know about.

And I don't know about yours (with some very few exceptions.)

Thus I'm not going to warn you off of Manchester By The Sea other than by saying that movie will haunt me forever.

I'm not going to warn you off The Lottery by Shirley Jackson other than to say it was so disturbing I haven't forgotten it for more years than I care to number, and I never read anything else she wrote.

I'm never going to tell you to not read a Vince Kohler mystery despite the fact I never forgave him for a scene in one of his books, and he's been dead for 20+ years.

You are in charge of your own mental health. If you're finding a lot of books disturb you, you might want to read more reviews ahead of time. If you find a book had a troublesome scene for you, you might want to post that on an Amazon or GoodReads review as your opinion.

Trigger warnings are well-intentioned but we all know what paves the road to hell.







52 comments:

Colin Smith said...

It has to be said that even the ratings system for movies is unreliable. You can find some pretty salty stuff in PG13. The most reliable source of content info for movies tends to be IMDB, or other web sites that indicate specific types of violence/sex/language/substance abuse in a movie, and leave it up to you to determine what's tolerable for you or your loved ones. Of course, this is what friends will do for you, too.

I tend toward Janet's view, and certainly sympathize with it. But there's a whole conversation roiling underneath with regard to free speech and responsible speech that I don't know our society has really ever discussed (not that politicians haven't shouted past each other for years on these things). That's a bit beyond the scope of "trigger warnings," however. As one of the people who was curious about why you oppose such warnings on books, thanks for the response, Janet! :)

Jessica said...

Hi Janet! I haven't commented in a while, but I still read your posts religiously. Thank you for answering this question, but I'm still on the fence. I agree, in part--you don't want to ruin the surprise of a book, and agents are used to reading things that may be sensitive. Plus it can go into censorship territory for sure (but I'm optimistic that it wouldn't go that route). But as someone who could actually use trigger warnings, and as someone who has a best friend who will have a panic attack if she stumbles upon something that's too much for her...I don't know. I don't see the harm in including a movie-like rating in the early pages of a book. Just a "contains sexual assault references, violence, and swearing" thing. You can read it if you want. You can skip it if you want. If I wasn't a lowly intern, there's no way I'd read half the books thy send me. There are no trigger warnings for those, but I truly wish there were so I could request a different MS. It's a complicated problem for sure, but I just wanted to weigh in. Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!

Amy Johnson said...

Earlier this morning, I was pondering the recent trigger warning discussion here, and was thinking about the unintended consequences such warnings could have. As I took from Janet's post, nobody can know what might trigger someone--especially someone they've never met. Even a trigger warning could be a trigger. I really like the point that people know best for themselves what is good for them to read and what is not. Particularly for adults, but oftentimes (at least) for kids too. I still remember being a little girl in school when the class was being read Where the Wild Things Are. I found it very scary, wondered why such a scary book was being read to us, and wanted to leave. But I knew I wasn't allowed to. Years later, we were required to read The Lottery.

Even though I wouldn't be in favor of required trigger warnings, I'm glad I get to hang out here with people who care about others, even if we don't all agree on the best way to do that.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I picked up Suzanne Berne's A Crime in the Neighborhood and on the 2d page...a child is raped and murdered. I did finish the book and it was very good and very sad. But I thought about just putting it down.

I find Patricia Highsmith very disturbing. I couldn't finish a collection of her stories though I read Strangers on a Train which is rather nasty.

I find sad animal scenes unbearable. There was a scene in a series of crime books I liked in which a small dog is murdered and it is told from the dogs POV. I almost trashed all of the author's books. And in a sad b plot, a man's beloved cat disappears and never comes back. You read the rest of the series hoping the cat goes back but you know it won't.

Shirley Jackson was a housewife who wrote in between doing the laundry. But I agree, The Lottery is terrifying. She also wrote charming pieces for places like Good Housekeeping.

I won't read mysteries that depend on gruesome killings to create drama. I won't read horror. I won't read stories of child, women, or animal abuse. I did PR for an animal shelter and the real stories are enough to break your heart.

I just drop a book if it is not something I want to know about. But when I am buying books for other people I know I am very careful.

John Davis Frain said...

Amen to this.

I realize how fortunate I am to never have suffered from PTSD (and many other things). And I won't stand on a podium and try to convince you that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, even if I believe it. But these warnings are impossible. Who decides where the line sits between a love scene and a sex scene? When does a story move from necessary to unnecessary violence?

There's a WHOLE LOTTA grey area when you start talking trigger warnings because mine and yours and the next person's are all in different places. We all define words personally.

BJ Muntain said...

In Canada, 'may contain' warnings about allergens in foods must contain every allergen that might be in the food. (If there may be contamination by nuts and wheat, the warning can't say 'may contain nuts'. It must say, 'may contain nuts and wheat'.)

If a warning is given about one thing and not another, people will assume that the item does not contain the other.

Emotional triggers are individual and varied. You can't warn about every possible trigger.

If you warn against one thing, though, people will decide based on that. If you give a warning for rape, but also include a clown in passing, the person triggered by clowns won't be prepared.

BJ Muntain said...

I've only stopped reading one book because of a scene. A light-hearted fantasy, told from the POV of the bad guy monster. That was fine. You expect monsters to live that kind of culture. I dropped the book, though, when humans entered a house and killed a family in cold blood - with a dispassionate description of how they killed each child - just to steal some money.

I can't think of any good reason to include all that, unless to show that humans are worse than monsters. Maybe they are, but that could have been shown without the details. The details turned 'lighthearted' into 'too-dark-for-me'. I grabbed the nearest Discworld novel, and tried to expunge that scene from my mind.

Sam Mills said...

I never saw trigger warnings as a "you shouldn't read this" but a polite "fyi if you have ptsd related to one of these common issues then be forewarned." (Usually rape, child abuse, etc). They're like film ratings (R for sexual violence) which are admittedly flawed but seem to help people gauge maturity level anyway.

I don't see the need to attach a specific warning for agents though, who I assume have to build a thick skin against the gratuitous work that floods the inbox. If it's that ingrained in the work, it should be implied in the query anyway, no?

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

We've been watching The Vietnam War and it does come with trigger warnings. It is the most horrifying video I've ever seen. I feel I should watch it but it does have scenes I will never forget.
It does me make thankful though for the life I have. I do not have to decide if I will eat one of my cats today.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I just went to stir my black bean soup with Ramona in my arms and she's yelling,
"don't put Ramona in the soup!"

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Janet speaks true. And Shirley Jackson's The Lottery still haunts me as well. But that was a damn well-executed bit of literature. D.H. Lawrence's The Rocking Horse Winner also stuck to my soul. Neither needs a trigger warning. So, yeah. That.

I don't like Mondays...

Julie Weathers said...

We haven't had this discussion perse on the writer's forum, but things very close to it. People think the Outlander books should come with warnings about violence and rape, etc. The debate on whether it's too much never gets old. One reader has started an anti-Gabaldon campaign and proudly popped in to tell everyone about it. She contends Diana must have had a very disturbing childhood to write the things she writes and needs serious psychiatric help. The books, of course, should all come with warnings.

Rain Crow doesn't get too bad in the first book, but there are some battle scenes and one death that bothers people. I wrote the scene after reading a newspaper article from the NYT someone sent me about JEB Stuart's ride around McClellan's army. I continued to read the newspaper and found a letter they had published from a Union POW who described the death of a drummer boy. I decided to flesh it out and add it to the story. It bothered some people, but...war. I chose to zoom in on one focal point rather labor over the big picture.

I generally read reviews of books and talk to friends who have read them these days before I buy them. That being said, apparently Agatha Christie is racist and out of favor, but I still enjoy her books, so I guess sometimes you just have to use common sense.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

So, speaking of trigger warnings…

I received some insight on what triggered that academic beta reader who was so angered by my book. In the 1st chapter, my female MC determinedly walks to a bridge and throws herself off in what might appear to be a suicide. This was in reaction to a society of absolute authoritarianism (hence the Ayn Rand reference, I think).

If the angry academic had read the 2nd chapter, she would have found out that it was impossible for the female MC to commit suicide. She was already dead, a demon or damned soul escaping Hell. A spell cast in the 2nd chapter basically awakened her and called her out of Hell.

This poor woman thought I was glorifying suicide like in the book and now often vilified series, 13 Reasons Why. Her job in the school district involves dealing with suicide directly (counseling). It happens now and again and so the apparent suicide in the 1st chapter of my book set her off. She apologized to me this morning.

This is another thing about trigger warnings – it would not necessarily be effective anyhow because you simply can’t tell what will set a person off. A perfectly rational person can be triggered under stress. I would never have said my book had any themes around suicide, and yet, well my fantasy book upset someone because she saw what she perceived to be a young person killing herself.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

One question (that's actually more like two questions... and maybe more...) that keeps coming back to me as I think about trigger warnings is this: When did we start needing them? Have we always needed trigger warnings and we've only recently become enlightened to the fact? Or have we become over-sensitive? Or are we bombarding people with so many intense images and ideas over the internet and other media (especially the news) that it's easier now than ever to provoke a reaction? Does society need to have a thicker skin? Or do we need to become more responsible with our story-telling and media output?

I don't have solutions to these questions, but I think they could be the foundation of a fascinating panel discussion.

Someone arrange that conference! :)

Beth Carpenter said...

I have to agree that generic warnings will never really work, because everyone's wounds are a little different. I do think the description should hint at disturbing content. For example if a book with pretty flowers on the cover that starts out as a sweet romance is going to suddenly twist into a gruesome murder, I'd like to know that going in. Reviews help.

But we're grownups, and we are responsible for our own choices. With online reviews and forums and facebook, if we have any doubts about whether a book might contain something we don't want to face, it's not hard to find out.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin Those are all good questions. I come from a generation of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and the Eleanor Roosevelt quote “No one can offend you without your consent.”

I suspect it is a little column A and a little column B. People have become way too thin-skinned, and it seems to me, that lots of people are dying to be offended, to claim victim status even when the only thing that is happening to them are words they don’t like. At the same time, society has become quite impolite and disrespectful of one another because we can hide behind our keyboards and spew venom we would never dare speak face to face.

It would be an interesting panel. I have no idea what the answer is. I do wish we would all stop blaming those people over there, whoever we perceive “those people” to be. That is such a lazy way of thinking. There is no them. I think William Golding had the right of it in Lord of the Flies all those years ago when Simon stumbled upon the "monster" and saw behind its grotesque mask.

“Maybe it’s just us.”

Now, that still chills me to the core. And I don't think Lord of the Flies had a trigger warning. Although, probably not a book to give your nine-year old. I was nine when I took that from my parent's bookshelf. I flung it at my parents and yelled at them for an hour after I finished it. I was so upset. *shudders*

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

As a not-quite-librarian, I don't disagree that censorship is Right Out. And I'm happy to report that this year I finally remembered to purchase an "I'm With the Banned" t-shirt for Banned Books Week (that also got compliments like, in the grocery store, which was interesting)


" I will never forget it, but I never want to see it again." That's how I feel about American History X. Amazing movie, Edward Norton played his role to a T. But I never want to see it again. I hardly want to talk about it, even.

I love Shirley Jackson. I didn't read "The Lottery" until college, somehow, but I read a different story collection, and then THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and then WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE and then "The Lottery". She's definitely one of my influences, which I think sometimes shows up a little too strongly in my short fiction.


On the topic of Manchester By the Sea, apparently a local couple watched it and within a few hours may or may not have performed actions that led to their house burning down with their adopted developmentally disabled son inside. They were both indicted on the murder charge (and others) but no trial date yet, that I know of.

Timothy Lowe said...

I have a related problem. As a high school teacher, I keep a book list that students can select from to read for extra credit. There's all sorts of things on it, but I'm always a little leery of the fact that some will try "The Color Purple" and put it down in disgust, saying they just can't do it, even though I think the book is gorgeous. (If you can't do abuse, you can't even get through one sentence of that book, let alone a full chapter).

At that point, I always say "I understand. All books aren't for all people." But then I wonder - I also have content I'm required to teach. International Baccaulaureate (I'm not even bothering to look up that word - I hate spelling it) has a prescribed book list. We have to read a major poet. For whatever reason, my predecessor in the position chose Sylvia Plath. Now, I love her poetry, but it's pretty incendiary, layering suicidal references with Nazi imagery.

Sometimes I think about changing major poets to somebody more palatable (like Robert Frost - also love love love his stuff. "After Apple Picking" is one of the most beautiful poems in English. Seamus Heaney claimed he wrote it without scratching out a single line). But when I find myself thinking about switching it brings up the inevitable questions. Am I trying to shy away from anything that might upset someone? What's bland enough to prescribe to a classroom of kids I know nothing about personally? Yikes.

Sorry for the long post - but it brings up quite a few thoughts.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: I would be seriously interested in a balanced study of "trigger warnings." And I really do wonder if we as a culture have become so brash and in-your-face with offensive language and images that it's harder for people with sensitivity to those things to manage their reaction. Do we as writers think about this when we write? Not that we edit content on the basis of whether it offends, but whether we really push our artistic talents to express that content in a way that makes the point without being sensational.

Adele said...

When I was young I saw an episode of "Walt Disney" - the quintessential family show - that terrified me; I had long-term nightmares and lost sleep for years. You couldn't possibly have saved me from that because my trauma wasn't from what I saw - it was due to me misunderstanding what I saw. So I'll second E.M. Goldsmith, that you can't possibly know what will trigger someone.



Jessica said...

Colin and Elise, I wanted to say I'd also love to attend that conference. I agree that it's probably a little bit of both. I'd like to hear from more people who need trigger warnings, like me. I can't read anything with child abuse and trauma associated with such; I personally would love a trigger warning for that. Panic attacks are not fun.

I want to raise another question in our virtual conference: respectful representation. Before my internship, I didn't think twice about sexual assault in books. But when I do see it in the manuscripts I read, there's a disturbing trend lately that it's not respectful. I see SA leading into romance, or used as a plot device, or to "damage" a female character. I've gotten to where I won't beta read anything with SA in it because I'm afraid of how it will be represented. Has this contributed to the need of trigger warnings too? Besides bold and blatant, disrespectful to survivors as well? It may not be related, but I've been wondering about it lately...

Lynne Main said...

Hello all. Haven't posted much due to my youngest being sick (nothing serious) and having been on serious writing frenzy.

What I find very sad is our society being so violent that we must have warnings on practically everything these days. When it comes to books, things are so dystopian I find it depressing. What ever happened to happy endings? Things are so sad out there, I believe stories should have happy endings--at least some of the time--since life never seems to work out that way. Happy endings represent hope...something seriously lacking in our society.

Books are our escape, yes? How can we escape all the horrible things going on out there if they are always in the stories we read? I know people will say those things need to be expressed so we can relate with what happens to us. Sorry, but I haven't had the happiest life in some respects and I read to escape what was going on around me. The last thing I wanted was dealing with it in what I was reading. We wouldn't have to worry about trigger warnings if degrading content wasn't allowed into the stories in the first place.

I know I live in a bubble for feeling that way. But one of the reasons I love watching classic movies is because I know I'm not going to be dealing with something vomit-inducing throughout the story. And those old movies had great storytelling (and actors)--and yes, serious issues were dealt with at times, minus all the shock and gore. Sorry, but I'd rather watch the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy "Desk Set" (1957) than anything that comes out today--the writing and the duo of Hepburn/Tracy sparkles in that movie.

But yet, I would never criticize folks for telling it like it is in their stories. As writers, we have to write the story, whatever it may be. But we must also deal with the criticism when someone one else doesn't agree with what we have to say. Which is why I pick and choose my films and books carefully.

Although I must mention the film "Manchester by the Sea" was shot in my old stomping grounds in Massachusetts. Even before I knew what the film was about, I recognized where the story took place by that title. But the bit Jennifer mentioned about the couple burning their house down with their disabled son in it after seeing the film, that's so sad.

Sorry, for the long post...making up for lost time ;)

literary_lottie said...

I need trigger warnings, personally. I struggle with major depression, and I have found that going in cold to certain books provokes great distress and anxiety.

But I agree, for the most part, with Janet. I absolutely do not think publishers, agents, the government, etc., or any other non-reader third-party, should be in charge of some dubious scheme to label books as potentially harmful. That's what reviews are for. And I maintain that good reviews - as in, useful reviews - should contain information about whether a book covers potentially upsetting topics. (This is where my opinion differs with Janet a little bit; I would prefer, rather than simply being told Manchester by the Sea is disturbing, "hey, this movie contains child abuse, take care of yourself however you need" (I don't know if this is true; I haven't seen MbtS.) Noting that something disturbed you, personally, is pretty much useless unless you say why. Just 2 cents from a person for whom that "why" marks the difference between whether I'll have a flashback watching a movie or not.)

It's correct and fine to note that what's considered triggering varies from person to person, but generally speaking there are a few obvious categories (child abuse, sexual violence, suicide/self-harm, racial violence, violence against LGBT folks) that I see people requesting - or giving - trigger warnings for over and over again. If you're reviewing or recommending a book, movie, etc. that covers those subjects? Do your more sensitive peers a solid and mention that. Even if it's a spoiler.

Usually, I can tell my a book's description whether it covers topics that are Not For Me. If not, I don't mind spending time digging through reviews. It's a better use of my time than an emergency session with my therapist.

Kate Larkindale said...

I had a conversation similar to this with a customer at one of my cinemas a long time ago, when Amores Perros came out. She was outraged there wasn't a warning about animal cruelty in the film. I pointed out that the film did have a restricted rating with a note about violence. Admittedly, classification labels tend to be fairly generic, but they should be enough to give you pause about whether or not you want to see that kind of film. There is just no way a cinema - or an author - can know what might upset one individual and trying to figure out how to warn people about content that my upset them will drive you crazy. And you'll always miss someone. People need to take care of themselves and be responsible for educating themselves about conent if they know something will distress them. Sometimes all you need to do is ask someone who has already read or seen the thing before you commit to paying your money.

literary_lottie said...


The only time I've ever read a book containing disturbing subject matter that I thought deserved editorial oversight was a YA novel that featured a five pages long, extremely graphic rape scene of a 14yo boy in the first chapter. The scene was ugly and cruel and unnecessary, and not, to my mind, appropriate for YA. While I don't think books should contain warnings, I do think that books targeted to non-adults readers need to have their content carefully considered; it is entirely possible to harm younger readers by covering difficult topics insensitively.

I'm actually struggling a bit with this myself; my current WIP, also YA, opens with an attempted suicide scene. It's necessary for the reader to understand the MC's mindset, and the story just doesn't work if started at any other point. I plan on querying it with that scene in (and no warnings). BUT. If I'm later asked to tone down the scene for sensitivity reasons, I'll understand. I also understand that some (maybe many) agents will reject the novel out of hand because of the way it opens; that's okay, too. I'd rather go balls-to-the-wall with that opening scene, and have it sanitized later, than submit a milquetoast opener that I don't think accurately represents either the story or my own writing.

Colin Smith said...

literary_lottie: OK, I've got to ask--and it may seem like I'm being provocative, but I think this makes a point: if you believe the scene is necessary for the reader to understand the MC's mindset, and a milquetoast version wouldn't accurately represent the story or your writing, why would you even entertain the idea of it being sanitized later? If it could be sanitized, why not sanitize it? If sanitizing it would be detrimental to the story, then wouldn't you fight to keep it as is? :D Sorry, I'm being a bit devil's-advocatey because I understand you don't want to come across as unwilling to work with an agent or editor. But this goes back to the point about being thoughtful as writers about how we handle certain scenes. Just because we can be ruthless and brutal, doesn't mean we have to be. And part of the art of writing is evoking a feeling, or a reaction, using well-crafted and carefully-considered prose.

Seriously, lottie, this isn't a critique of you or your writing. I'm just using what you said to exemplify a point. I'm sure you'll do what's best for your story, and you'll write it accordingly.

Ronan Wills said...

"Here's why I believe that: putting trigger warnings on a book is someone else telling you what you should/should not read."

This is not how I interpret trigger warnings, and it seems like kind of a strange way to look at the issue, to be honest.

The closest analogy I can think of is the warnings before some movies and all video games (or at least the console boot-up screen) about how viewing them may affect people with photosensitive epilepsy. That's not telling anyone else not to watch that movie or play games on those consoles, it's just advice to people who may be badly affected by it.

I've known people who struggle with PTSD and similar conditions, who find trigger warnings helpful. They have never described the experience as seeing a warning and thinking "I am now incapable of consuming this piece of media because the trigger warning told me I couldn't", but rather "I, a rational adult, am going to use this piece of information in the process of evaluating whether I want to read this or not."

I believe you yourself have stated that there are certain themes or topics you don't like reading about. If the back cover synopsis of a book mentions one of those topics, is that the publisher telling you you can't read the book? If not, then would moving that information to a line of text below the copyright info change its nature?

I'm not necessarily saying that all books should have trigger warnings, but I think authors should be able to include them if they wish without being accused of somehow eroding freedom of speech.

writerrachel.com said...

Regarding queries--and specifically queries. I'm on my acquisitions team :)--the query doesn't need trigger warnings. TWs would naturally accompany a summary or a full request. It's really just extraneous info until then, imho.
Generally, though: proper TWs (clinical, non-morally-judged) only warn people off if they're not okay with that content. Which...good? Working as intended? TWs for me are not about opinions, but rather akin to me recommending a book by saying: 'Oh! This book's amazing! Fair warning: there's a rape in it and I don't know your opinions on that.' To which my friend can reply 'Oh, that doesn't bother me, why is the book awesome?' or 'Yikes, thanks for the heads up, I might pass on that, sorry.' Everyone's informed. The TWs did their job. A book doesn't automatically deserve to be read, even good books that treat warned-for content with nuance and skill, and there's no harm in informing people about the presence of common triggers when they're adults who can make their own decisions afterwards. Can't warn for everything, but warning for common stuff is a courtesy.

kathy joyce said...

Interesting thoughts, as always. I'm in the "no trigger warning" camp. If individual authors want to add a warning, that's their right. But, requiring warnings seems like a form of censorship to me. (I'm feeling all wiggly now remembering ladies in my high school book store refusing to sell assigned text books because they didn't like the content.)

I know two people who get panicky when someone mentions a car accident. One's son was killed in an accident, and the other had an unspeakable experience while serving in Iraq. Reading about a car crash would set them off. I know others who struggle with sobriety of various sorts. They'd love to not have to deal with scenes of drinking, smoking, drug use, sex, and so forth, in books. I think we have to warn for all triggers (which really isn't possible), or none. Even if we could do all, I'd vote for none. A little good-hearted censorship will lead to more. I see the end as lack of freedom, or worse. Jackson's The Lottery chilled me, but Hoffman's Incantation scares me beyond words.

Megan V said...

I stand firm in my previous position.The road to hell might be paved with good intentions but the slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

Trigger warnings allow for informed decisions. they allow for choices based on information. Sure,that may lead to some self censorship, but not permitting self censorship, especially in this scenario, is like saying that Hook should be thrown into the water to get over his fear of water when the croc that bit off his appendage is also there and ready to rear its ugly head. Yes-there are reviews and blurbs and even some word of mouth, but these are things that while taken as a given, aren't necessarily so. Not everyone has internet or phones or even friends. Prior Trauma could even affect all of the above.

I want to note too that while I can appreciate other commenters wanting to include personal experiences, and while I admit I don't know everyone's background, it seems that we may be utilizing turn offs and general phobias in place of triggers. These things are not the same. They cannot be rightfully compared. It's apples and oranges.

And yes, I get it, we can't cover every possible trigger in a book. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to provide even the barest bones of a warning for those who may need it. It's like fireworks on the USA's Independence Day. Generally people know they'll happen. That doesn't mean it's useless or wrong to inform your Veteran neighbor that you too will be celebrating the holiday in that fashion, even if you don't tell them the exact number and brand of firework you're using or the frequency of that use.

I understand the opposing views here, especially in terms of a query letter but...at the same time I like to think of agents as readers, as people with their own experiences, and while I can understand why QOTKU may not feel warnings are needed, this is a situation where I d worry that there may be an agent out there who'd not only appreciate the heads up, but would also genuinely need it.

Julie Weathers said...

Completely and totally off topic.

I have a car I need to sell, not that I want to because I love old Lincolns, but I need to. So, I put an ad on Craig's List. I get a text consider it sold. I'll send a bank certified check tomorrow. This was yesterday. The conversation goes on and I determine he's running a scam so I say, "I'm going to pass, but I'll pray for you."

He ignores me and continues on about sending the check.

I say again, I'm passing, don't send the check.

"I already have the check write out. I'm sending it overnight UPS tomorrow."

"If you send it I will tear it up."

"If you tear it up I will kill you."

"Try it, sweet cheeks. I'm from Texas. We don't screw around with pansy asses like you."

He decided he didn't want to play.

I guess I'm triggered by people threatening to kill me. It totally messed up my good mood.

Lynne Main said...

Oh Julie, that's just damn frightening. Good for you standing your ground (wouldn't expect less from a Texan).

Hope that's the last you hear from him!

Colin Smith said...

Megan: ...it seems that we may be utilizing turn offs and general phobias in place of triggers.

I think this is an important distinction. It's the difference between "I don't like peanuts" and "Peanuts will kill me." OK, maybe not that severe, but TWs are not intended to cater to your preferences. They are supposed to alert the consumer that the product contains something that might be detrimental to their health. I don't see the harm in putting something on the copyright page for those that need it. On the whole, though, most people don't need to know beyond reviews and word-of-mouth.

In a query? I tend toward Janet's view. Sure, horror might wig her out, but will she have a panic attack, or go into a depressive state if she reads it? Probably not. Might there be agents who would require such a heads-up? Possibly--would the answer be for them to ask for TWs in queries? Honest question.

E.Maree said...

"Here's why I believe that: putting trigger warnings on a book is someone else telling you what you should/should not read."

This feels, to me, like a misunderstanding of the tone and purpose of trigger warnings. And it's a common one, too -- trigger warnings have a certain negative stigma attached to them that has skewed how they're perceived.

Trigger warnings, as used for years in fanfic, are the writer gently giving you a nod and saying 'Hey reader, if you're sensitive to these topics, take care going forward. You might want to brace yourself an upsetting scene, or you might want to avoid this story altogether. Do whatever you need to do.'

But more and more, I see people who think the tone of a trigger warning is 'DON'T READ THIS IF YOU DON'T LIKE [BAD THING]' or even worse 'THIS STORY CONTAINS [BAD THING] AND IS BAD'. That isn't what trigger warnings are intended to do, and it's not the purpose they serve for the vulnerable people who need them.

I wonder, since us writer-types are sensitive to wording, if it's the phrasing? 'Trigger advisory' or 'trigger guidance' would be more accurate to the intention, though I think 'warning' does a nice job of grabbing attention by invoking warning signs and notices.

Adele said...

You know, nowadays - why do we need to even try to police every reader? - why not an online resource where anybody who wants to avoid a certain type of content can post the title of the book they're thinking of reading, and ask?

Personally I think requiring the publisher to print warnings on books is just going to open a whole can of worms - and possibly lawsuits - from people who believe they should have been warned when they weren't, or from authors who believe their work has been unfairly stigmatized.

Brittany Constable said...

Most people I've seen who oppose trigger warnings see them as some sort of generic "you should avoid this." And if that's what they were, then yeah. But part of why I've seen many spaces use the term "content warnings" instead is that they're intended to give someone specific information about what they might encounter so they can plan accordingly. That might mean never reading/watching the thing, but it also might mean avoiding it if you know you're having a bad mental health day, or making sure you have something comforting on hand, or actively seeking out spoilers so the tension doesn't wind you up past breaking, or what have you.

For instance, I went into Colossal thinking it was gonna be a quirky scifi comedy. Instead it's a really intense breakdown of the "nice guy" and goes deep into some disturbing emotional abuse. I was NOT prepared for that, and had to apologize profusely to the friend I brought with me. I didn't dislike the film, but I would have enjoyed it *more* if I'd been on its wavelength from the start.

It's true that you never know what can trigger someone, but there are some fairly common ones that will cover most of your bases. The people I know who have strong, uncommon triggers take their own precautions to avoid them.

If you want people to make their own choices about what they read, trigger warnings give people the information they need to do just that. Because the person who would look at that information and nope straight out was never going to enjoy that work anyway.

Bridget Paulson said...

Thank you for calling out 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson! That story has haunted me since I read it in high school. I was telling my book club about it last month. I thought the Hunger Games was inspired by it, but couldn't remember the name. No one in my book club had heard of it. (Crazy right?!?)

I had forgotten to look it up afterwards. So, I am glad you mentioned it!

Jen said...

To this day I remember the warning signs walking in to see Saving Private Ryan in the theater. Good place for trigger warnings, IMO.

Bad place for trigger warnings is in a query b/c if an agent IS bothered by your novel, then he/she wasn't a good rep for your work to begin with.

Susan said...

I can understand and respect this viewpoint, but like Meg V, I stand by my own comment in the previous post. And Meg explains it eloquently, so I'll just add that I agree with her on trigger warnings--they are not a "you shouldn't read this," but a warning for people to be able to make informed decisions for themselves, I fear there might be some semantics happening here...

Timothy Lowe: I once had a professor who everyone loved and I abhored because he was an egotistical jerk. Turns out, my fellow classmates are starting to realize that ten+ years later. But I realized that for myself when we were asked to analyze "After Apple Picking" in class. Now, reading is subjective, right? Anyone could find any number of meanings in poetry, especially. So when he called on me asking me what I thought the poem meant, I told him that I thought the tree represented the tree of life/knowledge and then backed up my claim with lines from the poem and allusions to the apple in the Bible. When I was done, he looked at me, said "no" and then proceeded to talk about how the poem was all about sex.

Yep. He was one of those.

Still love the poem but it's somewhat tainted by that memory now.

Just thought I'd share. ;)

kdjames.com said...

I agree with Janet on this.

I also think there's a difference between the relatively small numbers of people who are genuinely triggered/traumatized by certain subject matter (who will do their own due diligence, regardless of warnings) and those who are offended or upset or disturbed by certain things. I don't have much patience for the latter group. Neither do I think that being "upset" is the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. I would even argue that it's good for you.

There are studies showing that people who read fiction have increased empathy toward others. I guess we could argue about cause/effect, but for the sake of argument let's say that increased empathy is the result of being moved by witnessing "strangers" suffer through difficult situations or emotional trauma. Empathy is uncomfortable. It makes us challenge our assumptions, leads us to understand other people and situations when it would be easier to avert our gaze and ignore them. But it's the bedrock of civilized society and something we should foster. Fiction does that. Uncomfortable fiction does that.

I could go on and on about this, but won't.

I don't remember whether it was Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett who said, talking about the danger and scariness of children's stories, [paraphrasing] the point is not that there are monsters, it's that children come away from those stories knowing that monsters can be defeated, they come back with weapons and armour and hope. And that's empowering. Perhaps even necessary.


[Aside to Timothy Lowe: As the parent of an IB graduate, I say assign them the challenging stuff.]

Timothy Lowe said...

Susan,

All about sex? That's one sexy apple tree. I mean, really...

Sorry for anyone who has been scalded by literary interpretation - discussion should not be like an invitation to a private party where the chief activity is playing pinata with the invitees. My professors in college - and some of them were undoubtedly egotistical jerks - never engaged in that kind of thing. I hope for the sake of everyone in my room that I don't either.

People like that are why some people hate poetry...and English class...

John Davis Frain said...

Julie, I'm sorry that lowered your good mood, but reading your retelling of it raised mine. Put that guy in a story. He'd make a disturbing villain or an accurate idiot.

This has been a fascinating discussion. I respect both sides, even though I'm squarely on the side that would rather move forward without warnings. Regardless, it's great to be in a discussion where you don't have to worry about vitriolic attacks from strangers just for stating your case and trying to back up your opinion.

Long live discourse!

Craig F said...

Trigger warnings are the first step towards censoring and that is the first step onto an even slippery slope than we are on now.

Most people find triggers to be lessened in quality work. Quality work as in both well written and written with a purpose. Graphic and gratuitous violence is what trips most people and often they just show up somewhere in even otherwise well written works.

I like to write and read books that start with a bang but I have reasons that I can't and won't write about violence against children, though that is still a major problem in this world.

An example of how I would to see more things done is our own dear Donna's DIXIE. Her first line states what is coming so you can walk into to with your eyes open or put it down.

Brigid said...

kdjames, I agree that being upset can be good for a person--if you stay within your cozy zone all your life, you can't grow. I'm not sure, though, that that's the real purpose of trigger warnings. I think that's just a misuse of them.

Seven years ago this month, my boss played intense mind games on me for a year, crossed a physical boundary, blamed me for it, and then when I complained about his misuse of his authority, he turned my social circle / the whole damn town against me. I was told I had 7 days to get all my belongings out of town, and my best friends wouldn't guarantee my safety in the meanwhile. Called me a viper, asked if I was lying about events they'd witnessed.
So I moved across the country and got a new life, because who has time for that nonsense! But it took me a few years to learn to sleep again, and to stop wincing when I heard sirens. (I was volunteering at a fire department when this went down. When I visit the area I still go hours out of my way to make sure I don't drive through, because what if I crash?) Every October, I melt down for a couple of weeks. As I write this, my teeth ache from the effort to not shake.

So I'm with literary_lottie. If a book has abuse, and I know about it, I can handle it most days. And in October, I just can't. Fine print on the copyright page (per Colin) would be perfect. Oftentimes reviews don't mention that information, and one month out of the year, I really need it. I picked up Fredrick Backman for some light reading the other day, and it turns out Beartown is, uh, not as light as the rest of his work.

I'm going to go make tea.

Brigid said...

Craig F, I don't care if it's Hemingway. Yeah, bad attempts to be Hemingway are worse, but even if it's not gratuitous...I spend a month each year feeling like I have my skin on inside out, like the sensitive part is being sliced open by the air and the impermeable part keeps me isolated from anything good. Even gracious, meaningful, redemptive, exquisitely-written hard things are too much for me right now.

Trigger warnings don't have to mean "people shouldn't read this". They don't have to be censorship at all. It's just a quiet courtesy so I can keep pretending to function til November finally comes.

Colin Smith said...

Janet: Could an author request to have trigger warnings included on, say, the copyright page?

Brittany Constable said...

Colin: I've seen some self-pubbed stuff that puts them in the backmatter so the people who don't care about them can avoid spoilers. There will usually be some sort of note up front telling the people who do care about them where to look. When I'm published I intend to have a section of my website for content warnings, which is not a perfect solution but better than nothing.

kdjames.com said...

Brigid, first, I am so damn sorry that happened to you. I'm so sorry, and so very angry, that someone in a position of power hurt you and bullied you that way and that friends betrayed your trust. It is my fervent wish that karma catches up to that man with full force. Soon.

I tried in my earlier comment to make the distinction between people who have experienced actual trauma, like you, and those who are puffing themselves up full of (what often seems to be false) indignation. The remainder of my comment applied to them, not to someone like you. I'm sorry I didn't make that more clear.

As difficult as your situation is, as much as I feel for you, I'm not sure what sort of warning would be sufficient. "Abuse" covers a wide spectrum-- maybe some stories of abuse would affect you and others not. As you said, even certain times are worse than others. I'm not without sympathy. I read a romance a few weeks ago that was mostly light and cheerful, the usual misunderstandings and drama, until it got to a part where it was revealed the woman's emotional wound was that her parents and brother had been killed in a storm and she'd left that town and those memories behind. Resolving her journey meant going back home and facing loss. It hit me at a time when those issues touch a raw nerve. I wasn't expecting it and felt absolutely gutted. Like, literally, sobbing my poor little heart out. I don't know how anyone could have warned me about that. Certainly not without spoiling a big part of the story for me, let alone for others.

But my reaction was temporary and situational, not the result of a lasting trauma. I don't know what the answer is for people suffering from deep trauma, like yours. I'm sure it makes you more cautious, less willing to take a chance with new stories or unknown authors. But I still don't think trigger warnings are the solution. I don't think they'd be sufficient, comprehensive, consistent, or reliable. Partly because there is no governing body regulating all the books, and I don't think there should be, but also because our emotions are so individual. I do think word of mouth and recommendations from friends and reviews are usually sufficient. Again, just one opinion, and perhaps one that marks me as being insensitive.

Brigid, I do hope someday your feelings will ease and you'll feel safe again. With fiction, but more importantly, in real life. NO ONE should ever be allowed to take that away from you.



Sorry to have been vommenting at length here recently. I'll go sit on my hands for a while now as recompense.

Melissa said...

I've read some deeply disturbing books I wished had come with a warning. No one I knew had read them to give me that heads-up. I stopped immediately but wished I could wash the darkness out of my heart. I can't unsee the images those scenes put in my brain. Give a warning and people have the option to opt out. Once they start reading, they don't always have that option until it's too late.

Diana said...

Okay, I didn't read the comments on that other post or this one yet, so I may be beating a dead horse at this point, BUT I'm surprised at what Janet says trigger warnings are. All the warnings I've encountered on written works are a simple note at the beginning saying "this work contains [upsetting content]" (usually for particularly upsetting subjects such as rape or child abuse, and especially for content where it is unexpected). I've never encountered one that says to not read the work! I may be missing something, but as far as I can tell it just empowers people to make more informed choices.

Other Becky said...

This post and many of the comments misunderstand the point of trigger warnings. It's not to say, "this is upsetting; don't read it." Being upset and being triggered are different things.

I am upset by, among other things, realistic depictions of violence. A little is ok, but too much and I put down the book/turn off the TV, because it's not enjoyable.

I am sometimes triggered by depictions of sexual assault and/or child abuse. I may be ok, or I may have a flashback, have a panic attack, or flat-out dissociate. That's much less likely to happen if I know it's coming. That's what trigger warnings are for.

Let me illustrate with A Tale of Two Movies. In undergrad, I took a Shakespeare & Film class. The week we read, and then watched a film of, Titus Andronicus was not a fun week for me. Rape and mutilation are central to the plot. But because I knew it was coming, I was able to get through the text and the movie. I didn't enjoy it, but I wasn't triggered by it.

A couple weeks later, we read and watched Macbeth. I'd read Macbeth before. I was not expecting on-screen sexual assault. But there it was, during the attack on Macduff's castle. It was a total surprise.

I don't remember the rest of the movie. I remember a brief flashback, then trying desperately not to hyperventilate, cry, or run out of the classroom. I dug my nails into the palms of my hands so hard the marks were still there the next day. And the thing is, that was totally avoidable. All it would've taken was a brief statement from the professor, "Just so you know, the attack on Macduff's castle shows soldiers sexually assaulting women." Instead, I spent the rest of the semester being wary and on edge every time we watched a movie. The lack of a trigger warning where it would have been useful prevented me from enjoying movies that were totally fine.

That's what a trigger warning is for. Both so that people can be prepared, and so that they can relax and enjoy the book/movie/show/etc. And you can't warn for every possible trigger, because some people are triggered by uncommon or unexpected things. But you can warn for the handful of really common ones. Because being triggered is awful, and it's nothing at all like being upset.