Friday, 5 June 2015

Should Our Books Have Trigger Warnings?

Get ready, guys. This is a long one.

Last year there was a lot of talk about the inclusion of trigger warnings in books. There were people who agreed with them, people who didn't, and people who didn't really give a hoot either way. I meant to write this post last year, and just didn't. I guess I wanted a little more time to mull over what I thought before I wrote a discussion post like this.

Now the first thing I will say is that my views aren't meant to offend or insult anyone, though I hope they won't, and I'll also say that I'm very lucky in that I've never needed trigger warnings. There are certain things I don't like to read or watch, but thankfully I've never experienced any traumatic or upsetting event that has made me require trigger warnings. I just wanted to get that out there because there's a good chance that people who do need trigger warnings may have very different views on this topic to me.

Last year I completed an MA in Creative Writing. This was a year in which I got to dedicate my time to a creative project in the form of a 30,000 word portfolio as well as a 5,000 word reflective essay to accompany the creative work. Including me there were ten people on my course, and it was nice to have such a small number of us; everyone was working on something completely different, and we had two seminars a week in which we read extracts from each other's work and offered constructive criticism.

Very early on in the MA, we all agreed we would include trigger warnings at the beginning of our submissions, in fact it was requested by a couple of my fellow students. Sometimes trigger warnings are necessary; they were certainly necessary for one of the students on my course, who frankly wrote some pretty horrific stuff. Immediately there was a debate as to whether or not they were needed, and not surprisingly the one student whose work was most in need of trigger warnings was the one student who disagreed with them most vehemently. The rest of us were happy to include them - ultimately, it was no skin off our nose.

In truth practically none of us - aside from one student - wrote particularly graphic, violent scenes, but trigger warnings aren't only used for violence. Some students found it difficult to read about mental or sexual abuse, sometimes because, like me, they just didn't like reading about it, and sometimes because they had unfortunately experienced it themselves. Others, such as a good friend of mine, found it very difficult to read about any form of violence towards animals.

But where do we draw the line between a trigger and something that people just don't want to read?

There are some books which have trigger warnings already. The first one that springs to mind is Danielle Vega's The Merciless. I haven't actually read this book, but I do know there is a warning at the beginning because it includes graphic scenes of torture. 

Pretty cover, though.
Some people are squeamish, there's no shame in that, and a trigger warning like this is very useful, particularly when the cover of The Merciless is so simple and, in some ways, rather misleading as to its contents. The trigger warning's also great for people for whom torture is a trigger; some people find it very, very upsetting to read about other people being tortured, or to watch it for that matter - I know a few people who will never go near the SAW movies for that very reason.

I guess what I'm saying is trigger warnings are good for people who need them, but what about the people who don't? Trigger warnings for them are unnecessary, they may even be considered a spoiler. What if a book includes a trigger warning that manages to ruin an upcoming scene in the book? And how much of a book needs to be considered a trigger to warrant a trigger warning? Would one little scene justify putting a warning right at the front of a book? What if that put a reader off reading it when, in reality, the majority of the book is perfectly safe for them to read, and the triggering scene may be so minute they may not even find it triggering? Could the warning itself, then, actually make the trigger worse than it is by making the reader feel as though they're building up to something awful?

Who decides what counts as a trigger? People who have triggers themselves, or the people that don't?

Most importantly, as someone who doesn't require trigger warnings, is my opinion even valid? After all, I have no right, nor does anyone who doesn't have triggers, to criticise another person for theirs.

I don't mind trigger warnings in books for those who need them. Perhaps the ideal solution is to print two versions of each book, one with triggers and one without, but as someone who works in publishing I know how costly and tricky that would be for most publishing houses. I do think there are some real benefits to including trigger warnings, however, that even go beyond the simple reason of protecting readers with triggers. The main advantage I can see is that trigger warnings might help some readers who want to explore a certain topic more.

For example, if someone wanted to read more about characters who experience eating disorders or substance abuse or self-harm they'd be easier to find, and those readers would find it much easier to broaden their knowledge on a certain topic or even come to terms with their own struggles. Books, after all, are wonderful healers.

Having said that, I can't help but find trigger warnings a little concerning. I'm not one of those people who thinks someone with a trigger should 'just get over it', and I think people who do have that point of view need to go and give themselves a long, hard look in the mirror.

 As someone with friends who have triggers I would never want to do anything that made them feel as though they were 'just being dramatic'; there's a reason I have friends who are triggered by violence towards animals and sexual abuse and terminal illness, and I never want to make them feel unsafe.

No, my worries are fairly simple. Where does it end? 

As a feminist I'm constantly met with 'not all men' whenever I'm debating something or fighting for what I believe to be right, because for some reason some men find their gender being accused of misogyny more infuriating than the fact that all women, at some point, have been made to feel unsafe, belittled or downright pissed off by a man. My worries with trigger warnings would be whether or not there would be some sort of backlash.

Would racists and homophobes request trigger warnings to warn them that the book they're holding in their hands includes POC or LGBT+ characters? I'd like to think publishers would never agree to that - in fact I'm sure they wouldn't - but these people have a way of ruining a good thing for everyone else, and if they couldn't have trigger warnings then perhaps nobody could and we're back to square one.

My other, perhaps even bigger concern, is for the younger readers with strict parents. I was very, very lucky growing up in that my parents let me read whatever I wanted; whenever they asked me what I was reading it was because they were curious, not because they wanted to know if it was appropriate. My parents trusted me to read what I felt ready to read, and they trusted me to put a book down if I was finding it uncomfortable. When I was very young they always read to me, so if anything did frighten me, which I don't think it ever really did back then (it's hard to get frightened by Biff and Chip), they'd be there for me to talk to about it.

This was one of the best gifts my parents could have given me. Not only was their trust liberating - I could read anything I wanted, so I got to explore so many stories from a young age - but it meant that I got to discover for myself what I found uncomfortable, and think about why that was.

I've known people who, as children, were only allowed to read what their parents approved for them first. Time and time again I've heard stories of children who desperately wanted to read Harry Potter but weren't allowed to because their parents and grandparents believed it was anti-Christian. When parents do this to their children they don't let them decide what scares them or upsets them, and all that creates is blind hatred, ignorance and bigotry. When my parents let me read whatever I wanted it meant I got to explore race, gender and sexuality during my early teens, and it made me a much more socially aware person.

I'm not saying parents shouldn't be involved in their children's reading - for heaven's sake read with your children, they love that! - but creatively strict parents have a lot to answer for, and I can't think of anything worse than one of those parents with a trigger warning. Their children would never be able to read again.

Should our books really be censored? Literature is one of the ultimate artistic modes of freedom - you have to be a certain age to see a film, but your age doesn't matter when you crack open a book - and each year we even celebrate Banned Books Week. There's a big difference between banning a book and adding a trigger warning, of course, but would adding trigger warnings somehow lead on to banning certain books altogether?

Ultimately I've given myself about a year to think about this topic and I still don't have a straight answer, and I don't think I ever will. As with most things I can see the pros and cons of including trigger warnings in the books I read, though as someone who doesn't need them I'm still not entirely sure if my thoughts on the matter are even valid.

What do you think?


  1. A really good post - as a member of that MA group this topic has stuck in my head ever since. This is a really balanced view. As someone in a similar position - without triggers but with friends with triggers - it's hard to know what to say. I'm for trigger warnings in principal. I've always thought if they just listed them on a page at the front of the book - like they do the publishing info - people would know where they were and could read them if they needed to.

    But as you say, where does that stop and would parents start using it to stop children reading certain books? My parents also let me read whatever I liked and I'd happily moved onto adult/YA/crossover books in the latter years of primary school. I'm not sure other parents would be happy to do that if they had a list of everything that's included in the books. In fact I'm fairly sure that some parents would have snatched Harry Potter out of their kids hands if they knew how dark it got in parts and then where would we be?

    1. Thanks Natalie. :) I think this is just one of those things people will be debating for a very long time, and I'm not sure we'll ever have an answer.

  2. Great post Jess. I believe that if the content is incredibly graphic then there should be a trigger warning. I understand what you mean about parents using it to stop children from reading, but I think there has to be some sort of warning as to content. Obviously if it was as graphic as I believe constitutes a trigger warning I wouldn't want a child to be reading it. Your post has made me think :-) Chrissi Reads

    1. Thanks, Chrissi! That's a fair point, I certainly wouldn't want to see an 8 year old picking up American Psycho, for example. Ultimately I think a lot of problems can be solved if parents just read with their children more.

  3. I'm always torn on this idea as well. I don't need trigger warnings in my life so I supposed I don't have as much of a stake in the debate as some people. My opinion should probably be less important than people who have actual triggers. As a person with no triggers, I have no problem with them but I don't think they need to be required on a book. I think that they can potentially spoil parts of the book and that they can also skew how a book comes off. If there is a small rape, abuse, etc. scene in a book, it is nice to provide a trigger warning. But, then again, people might avoid the book assuming that there is rape or abuse throughout the book when, in reality, it's just one scene and the rest of the book is benign in that area.

    I also think it's hard to draw the line with trigger warnings. How far do you go with them? Obviously abuse, rape, torture, animal abuse, eating disorders, etc. are big triggers but there are people that have serious issues with more obscure things, like Trypophobia, a fear of something with small holes or Cymophobia, the fear of waves or swells. I imagine that the description of these things could trigger someone with these fears. Do you need a trigger warning for them? For anything that might seriously bother someone, no matter how uncommon?

    I think that people with triggers should take it upon themselves to research a book. Take a look at a couple of Goodreads reviews or something. A lot of people will note early in their review if there are any trigger warnings. That way they are warned and everyone else is not spoiled or thrown off.

    But, I don't have triggers, so I can't really talk from experience at all.

    Cayt @ Vicarious Caytastrophe

    1. Hi Cayt, that's a very good point! I think if trigger warnings were included in books there would be a lot of argument as to whose triggers 'count', and though some people do have triggers that aren't as well known that doesn't make them any less valid.

      I can see you what you mean about book research, but at the same time I know I often don't research a book before I buy it if I'm in a book store, and it almost seems unfair that people with triggers have to research everything before they touch it when perhaps it could say somewhere in the book, even, as some people have been saying, where all the other publishing information is so people who aren't interested in trigger warnings don't have to look at it if they don't want to.

      Thanks for giving me some more to think about! :)

  4. You bring up an excellent point in regards to parents censoring their children's reading. My parents were very similar to yours, they read to me before I was even born and never stopped me from reading something I was excited about or interested in. Since triggers usually accompany sensitive and controversial topics, I can see parents using those warnings to sensor their children's reading. Reading is great for kids (and adults) because it allows a person to develop empathy and exposes them to new people, places, feelings, and situations that they may never experience in real life. I am very firmly against censoring literature in any form, at any level, but I do think that including trigger warnings is a brilliant idea. Perhaps publisher's websites could list any warnings on their website, and a page at the beginning of the book can simply inform the reader that this book contains trigger material, and ask the reader to please visit the website for more specific information? That way those who are concerned about triggers can get the information they need, and those who are afraid of finding spoilers won't find out anything about the plot.

    The fact that this topic is coming up more and more in the book world is a step in a positive direction.

    Great post Jess!

    1. That's a great idea, Mallory! I think that'd be a really good middle ground, actually; the warning's there so people with triggers know they can research the book further if they'd like, but it's also not giving away anything that might disappoint a reader who doesn't have triggers.

      I agree, I think it's great that people are talking about this issue more. :)

  5. This post is fabulous! Such an important and relevant topic. Here's my two cents: It isn't that I inherently MIND trigger warnings, but like you said, there is a chance they are spoiler-y. No, my real problem is, everyone's trigger is different. Sure, more people have triggers to say, rape than like, a dolphin attack or something, but if that one person's trigger IS a dolphin attack well... how exactly can we differentiate? No one's trauma is inherently worse, or more significant than another so it kind of doesn't make sense. If we go down that path, literally ANY unpleasant thing in any book can be considered a trigger to SOMEONE. While it's nice in theory, in practicality it's kind of a mess. Thanks for this amazingly insightful post!!

    Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

    1. Thanks, Shannon!

      I agree, there is the problem of making some people's triggers more 'relevant' than others, which certainly isn't fair to people who have triggers we might consider 'unusual'. Perhaps the safest route is Mallory's idea, to inform readers the book contains content that may be triggering, where the publishing information is, and then having a list on the website that people with triggers can explore. :)

  6. Love this post! I honestly think trigger warnings are such a complicated topic. I once had a discussion in a street team about this and there were two sides. Even though I can't stomach any violence towards animals, suicide or torture scenes. I don't necessarily am for trigger warnings. Like you said trigger warnings can be spoilers, but they can also make me more hesistant to read a book even if I porbably don't have any issue with the scene the trigger warning refers to, it still makes me do a double look and consider whether I want to read it.

    I asso have read some books which had trigger warnings, where I was expecting the worst and then it wasn't that bad. And also one book where I thought I could stomach it and it was way worse than I thought. I also have read some books without trigger warnings, where I would've liked knowing in advance that there was an animal cruelty scene for example.

    I am just not sure if trigger warnings are the right way to address that, maybe a website where you can check books for triggers if you want to or something like that woudl be more efficient. I also think that trigger warnings can never be complete, because you don't know what is a trigger for people. Maybe someone has had a traumatic experience with something that is quite normal for other people and wouldn't normally consist as a trigger. So I think that trigger warnings always miss something and can't warn for everything as it's simply not possible to know what consists as a trigger for some people. There are so many people and everyone is different, what needs a trigger warning for one person is different for another.

    On the other hand like you mentioned trigger warnings have their uses, they can group books on a certain topic and people for who that topic is a trigger can avoid them, while other's can seek them out. I think this is a very difficult topic and there really isn't a straight answer as trigger warnings do serve some purpose, but at other times I also think they can work in the wrong direction, by either scaring people away who don't need the warning or by not including enough triggers.