Bookishness · Society · Writing

Trigger Warnings in Literature (and what I think about them)

Recently, a rather well-known author has come under fire for saying that she doesn’t want trigger warnings (which may give away spoilers) on her books. She says she prefers her readers to go in blind, offers a blanket “don’t read my books if you think you’ll be affected by sensitive material” comment and says go and read an entire plot summary if you think you may be triggered by a book.

I’m sorry, what? 

Let me put this into context for people who may not and may never be triggered by anything. Imagine you are in a serious car crash. Your car was destroyed. Maybe people died. Perhaps you were in hospital for days, or weeks, having surgery. And then, when you get outside, someone is holding open a car door for you. Your throat closes up, you have black spots in front of your eyes, and maybe you sway on your feet. You can’t do it.

What do you think would happen next? Would the doctors and nurses, who had to clean the blood off you and stitch you back together, tell you to grow up, get a pair and get in the car? Or would they maybe try and find another way to get you home, offering counselling? After all of this counselling, perhaps you can now get in a car, but you’re still anxious the entire time, with sweaty palms, tense legs, the need to empty your bladder constantly.

Let’s keep in with the car crash theme. You’re reading a book. Perhaps you think it’s a fluffy literary fiction book. Maybe it is – for a while. Then, suddenly, there’s a devastating car crash you weren’t expecting to happen. You’re so absorbed in this piece of literature that you find it hard to come back to reality, and when you do your hands are shaking, you can’t breathe properly and people around you are pointing and staring because, look, that weirdo over there is freaking out over a book?

And you sit there, with your book which you’ve been reading for maybe an hour or two, unable to calm down for quite some time, because in your mind you’re just reliving your own car crash over and over again and you can’t break away from it. This book that you trusted, that you thought would be an escape from reality, has now become a nightmare.

Triggers in literature can be very serious. Often, as I have described, people become so absorbed in what they are reading that they may feel the same things that the characters do, or sometimes people don’t even realise where they are. It might take them a little while to get back to the present. If you’ve ever urgently needed a bookworm, it may take you a few calls to get them to come and help you, because they’re so absorbed.

If there was a veteran (bare in mind, please, that I have never been in a war) who had PTSD, people wouldn’t mock them if they panicked on a packed tube or in a crowded area that reverted their mind back to the war. But if they read a book and the same incident happened? Suddenly they aren’t brave enough, or aren’t strong enough, or need to grow up and get some help?

The fact that people are saying that they don’t want trigger warnings because they might be spoiled is childish and selfish. Y’know what? Here is a revolutionary idea: don’t read the trigger warnings if they don’t apply to you and you don’t want to be spoiled.

Here, I’ll make it bigger in case some people still aren’t getting it.

Don’t read the trigger warnings if they don’t apply to you and you don’t want to be spoiled.

It’s as simple as that.

And to the authors who know that they are writing about sensitive subjects with graphic scenes that aren’t in their blurbs or are a pivotal plot point: do not be so short sighted as to think that this plot point matters to the people who will rip your book apart because you have hurt them. 

If I ever get a book published and I know that it contains, for example, a graphic rape scene, I would put that into a trigger warning. Perhaps under a caption that says something like:


And then, if people know that there is something that might trigger them into an attack, then they can read the spoilers. If people know that nothing really triggers them, or it has to be in the real world, or it’s so specific that a book about dogs isn’t going to have anything to do with aeroplanes, then they don’t have to read the trigger warnings.

It’s not rocket science.

If a book of mine were ever published, I wouldn’t want a reader to be hurt by my words. I might want them to be moved to tears, or to laugh, but to be hurt and to panic just isn’t okay and, if I knew that this had happened to a reader because I hadn’t want to potentially spoil anyone and put in trigger warnings, I would be devastated.

At the moment, I’m writing my book because I want to tell my character’s story, but, writers, you have to remember that once it’s out in the world it isn’t just your story anymore. People might interpret characters differently. You’ve probably heard of ship wars. You’ve written it. You know you aren’t going to be triggered, but it doesn’t mean someone else isn’t.

I completely, completely understand that you might want readers to go in blind to amp up the shock factor, or you don’t want them to be spoiled. But there are ways to get around that. Readers on the internet scoot around spoilers of books they haven’t read yet, and it’s not that difficult to warn them about spoilers and trigger warnings. You just have to put a little page in the book before the main body, or on the blurb, and give a fair warning. Many people out there are robust, but anything graphic which you know might cause someone to panic? It’s just selfish to keep it to yourself and for them to have a serious problem when they come across it on their own.

But that’s just what I think. I don’t mean that you have to put trigger warnings for things like “public speaking”, “news program”, “dog dies” or “books burnt”. You probably don’t have to warn for things like death in a WWII novel, because people know what happened and what is likely to happen in the course of the book (eg, the deaths in The Book Thief or Nevernight which is about assassins (hmm, I wonder what will happen)). Most readers are rather intuitive.

Besides, what’s the worst that will happen if you put in a trigger warning? A few people may get spoiled. So what? Isn’t a few people getting spoiled (I mean, if there is a trigger warning, you know that’s going to contain spoilers anyway, so why read it if it doesn’t apply to you?) worth it to protect some people who might have an anxiety attack or stay in their room for a couple more days?

What’s your opinion on trigger warnings?

PS: A blanket statement saying “don’t read my books if you don’t like sensitive material” just isn’t damn helpful. Specifics would be nice because sensitive material can range from anything from “I have flu and vomited” to “there was a horrific rape incident” to “there was a stabbing at the bottom of the road”. Just sayin’.



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