Fair Warning?

triggers-fair-warning-guns-467710_960_720There’s been a discussion in the media over the past couple of weeks about students on some college campuses calling for trigger warnings on their course syllabi.

The term trigger warning, in case you managed to miss the excitement, is defined most narrowly as a notification that what you’re about to read (or see or hear) might cause flashbacks or panic attacks in someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The practice of labeling such content apparently began in feminist and self-help forums. Since then, it has spread – even some media outlets now use them – and the initial definition has broadened to include everything from rape and murder to colonialism and (I kid you not) animals in wigs.

We could debate the usefulness of these sorts of warnings and their place in our broader society. But we’re all about indie authors here at Indies Unlimited, so I’m going to try to limit the discussion to what sorts of warnings, if any, indies ought to provide about difficult content in our books.

I talked with my daughter Kat about this the other day. Apparently trigger warnings are a thing in fanfiction forums. Archive of Our Own, for example, requires authors to include a rating, a fandom, and at least one of the following warnings: major character death, underage sex, rape/nonconsensual sex, graphic violence, “No Archive Warnings Apply,” or “Author Has Chosen Not to Use Archive Warnings.” Authors are free to use other tags, as well. The idea is to point readers in the direction of things they would like to read, of course, but it’s also aimed at those who believe they would be traumatized by reading something they’d like to avoid.

As an author, I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, I certainly don’t want to traumatize my readers. But on the other hand, I write urban fantasy. Urban fantasy novels often include characters who are shapeshifters. Sometimes, they have sex with humans. Sometimes, they’re not very nice about it. The first chapter of Fissured includes a jaguar attack in downtown Denver. It’s no secret – anyone can read it in the “Look Inside” feature. Should I include a trigger warning for it? Would I be giving away the plot if I say there’s an attempted rape later in the book? Would it make a difference if I said the assault is not depicted as graphically as it could have been? What if I told you that Naomi overcomes her would-be rapist?

There’s a legal concept called a chilling effect. It’s anything that inhibits or discourages your natural rights – including your right to free speech. What concerns me about the concept of trigger warnings is the chilling effect it might have on the creators of graphic content. I doubt I would have handled those scenes in Fissured any differently, had this topic come up before I wrote the book. But I can see where another author might. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

We live in an age in which everybody is supposed to be celebrated and nobody is supposed to get hurt if we can help it. Every kid on the team gets a trophy at the end of the season. We take off our shoes at airport checkpoints because some guy tried once to hide a bomb in his shoe. It’s all about never having a bad or difficult experience. It’s all about having a safe life.

But that kind of safety is an illusion. I guarantee that as soon as that guy was caught, terrorists gave up on putting explosives in shoes. And the kid who got a trophy every year for simply showing up for T-ball isn’t going to be very well prepared for life in the real world – nor is he or she going to be motivated to improve.

One of the things literature does is give us a safe place to examine things that scare us. What if a writer labeled a tough scene, or even stayed away from writing it, out of a sense of duty to protect his or her readers – but that scene would have helped somebody work through a problem?

I don’t have an answer. But I think it’s worth thinking about.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

42 thoughts on “Fair Warning?”

  1. This is such a slippery slope. On the one hand I have had a children’s author tell me my books need even be labelled as adult in spite of a rape scene and some violence. Yet, if these folks have their way they would have to be. What happens if I choose not to label (and I do so choose) them and someone objects?

    The other aspect of this is that we all have to learn to face the difficulties life throws at us. If we attempt to protect everyone from all possible traumas we will end up with a generation that has no idea what the real world is and will not be equipped to deal with it. And it will prevent readers from reading many wonderful works.

  2. Great topic for discussion, Lynne. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, my first and last novels would definitely be candidates for a trigger warning. I’ve tried to write the descriptions in such a way as to let potential readers know they deal with some disturbing topics. My hope is that readers will use the descriptions (which work even better when used with the “Look Inside” feature and prior reviews) and be able to make an informed decision.

    But I know the reality is that many people don’t read the descriptions, and even if they do, might not grasp how disturbing a topic really can be. So what to do? There’s so much subjectivity involved, I don’t know where we’d begin. For example, just this morning I signed my first book up for a promo. I had to answer several drop downs during the process. “Profanity” was one, with choices like, “None,” “Mild,” “Extreme.” Well, 98% of the characters in the book don’t use profanity, but the bad guys use extremely vulgar language. So how do I answer that? Same with trying to answer questions about “Violent Content.” Yes, there is some extremely violent content, not graphically explained but made evident. That’s maybe 10% of the book but absolutely crucial to the story. How do I answer that?

    I wouldn’t even know where to begin to create a rating system for books.

    1. I hear you, Melinda.

      I also wonder whether people think they can handle something until they are in the moment of reading — and their reaction might depend on the day. My daughter cited a particular fanfic that she absolutely loves, but that she cannot re-read if she’s in a down mood because it features a dangerous behavior that resonates with her. That’s not the kind of reaction that an author would ever have any control over.

  3. It’s a difficult subject and a slippery slope. Ideally, if you’re an adult and you know your triggers, you should be able to read the description or a peek inside and see if this is something you can handle. For instance, after 9/11, I was dealing with some trauma and couldn’t read any books with terrorists in them. Later, I was able to go back and read what became some of my favorite stories. Also, I’ve had people contact me directly and ask a few questions in advance of letting a friend or family member read one of my books. So should I have a warning? What if a warning gives away an ending? Interesting topic.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. As you say, reactions can certainly be situational. And I think you’re right that if a reader knows his/her triggers, they ought to take responsibility for checking out the blurb, the “Look Inside,” and the reviews, and see whether a particular book is something they ought to stay away from.

    2. I have myriad things I can’t deal with in my life. However, nobody owes me anything. It is my responsibility to filter and unfilter what I am exposed to. The world is hard. The world won’t put tissue around things for me. This freaking country needs to toughen back up.


    Just kidding.

    Ultimately, the nature of drama is conflict, and without that, without making the reader experience something that challenges him or her, all you have is uninteresting mush. Who wants to read that?

    There’s nobody here who hasn’t had a traumatizing experience; overcoming such things is how we mature. Reading about a similar experience, no matter how difficult, shouldn’t require a warning label beforehand. How fragile have we become in the 21st century that college campuses are looking to protect their delicate snowflake students from potential discomfort by issuing trigger warnings?

    Participation trophies and trigger warnings didn’t just pop up on their own. And they won’t just go away. Without pushback from mature adults, this kind of silliness will only get worse.

    1. You raise a good point, David. PTSD isn’t a new invention for the DSM-IV — it’s been with us as long as humans have been humans, and certainly for as long as humans have waged war. In WWI, it was called “shell shock.”

  5. I have mixed feelings about this, too. As Lynne says, we obviously do not want our readers to have traumatic reactions to our books. However, that’s not within our control. This feels very much to me about making other people responsible for some people’s reactions. If a passage triggers a traumatic response in one person but not in 99 others, the problem is not in the passage; it’s with the one person. Therefore it seems to me that it is that person’s responsibility to make their best effort to avoid trauma when possible (read descriptions and/or look inside) or, if it’s a recurring, frequent issue, get professional help in order to de-sensitize themselves. Demanding that ALL books contain warnings because of reaction from SOME people just does not make sense. I agree with David; we can’t wrap everyone in bubble wrap. There’s a real world out there and we all have to learn to live in it.

  6. Lynn, thank you for this very thoughtful and well written article. Apparently this is the trend with the next generation coming on adulthood. A friend works at a university and he tells me he has freshmen coming to him saying they don’t feel safe living with their roommate who happened to say they didn’t like their shirt. Seriously?!! Yes, apparently he deals with this stuff daily.

    If such a ruling came to pass, I’d say it was just another way to help lawyers increase their income. There is no way to win these opinions/ratings. For instance, in my book Fettigrew Hall, there is a sex scene. My main character has had her body possessed by a ghost. The ghost seduces a very willing man. So was it rape? The main character would say yes, but the characters who had sex would not. What am I supposed to say??

    1. Exactly, Anne. And I think you’re right about the generational divide on this issue. My daughter certainly doesn’t have a problem with putting warnings on the fanfics she posts at AO3.

  7. This brings us back to the record label debate. Is it censorship if all we are doing is warning that there is bad language and such?

    When labeling first started, I used that as my guidepost for what I would listen to. From a promotional aspect, this could happen again with books and stories labeled the same.

    On that same note we will run across people who will go out of their way to make things so horrible to blow the labeling away.

    But this doesn’t really address my view on censorship overall. Which is exactly what is happening here. Sure they cover it with fluffy bunnies by saying that they want us to be prepared for the distasteful parts, but where does it end after that?

    Do we next publish two copies of our work. The first as intended and then next with the fluffy bunny stamp of approval.

    Life isn’t fair, we are subjected to things we find distasteful all through our lives. We (royal) cry all the time about our rights and how they shouldn’t be infringed upon by the oppressor of the week, but then demand that they change what it is they say, do, share…

    We (royal) can’t cry for our rights and then take someone else’s rights away.

  8. Golly! When I read stuff like this I just want to close up shop, go to Bingo and be done with it. Here is what I notice–all of America is living cubby holes. We drive from Point A to Point B on massive freeways and never see a real America–the small towns and byways or the little villages, the cows, and chicken and goats. I have a preference for my reading material just like every other person. In third world countries the newspapers print pictures of dead people with heads cut off. In Europe the newspapers think nothing of printing photos of nude models. I followed the link of a troll on one of my books on Goodreads and it took me to an Islamic picture album showing videos of a young couple being beheaded, blood splattering everywhere. Gads. Goodreads refused to remove the link. I don’t have any answers to the dilemma. I don’t think anybody does.

    Jackie Weger

    1. I’m surprised Goodreads wouldn’t remove the link, as it had nothing to do with your book.

      Anyway, I think you’re right about the way Americans isolate themselves today. And I’ll be going back to my little isolation room on the internet now. 😉

  9. Lynn, this post has prompted me to write a “Forward” or a “Note To Readers” (I’m still deciding on what to call this) to include at the beginning of my book of short stories that will be published soon – hopefully this month – as my stories touch upon “risky issues” faced by youth. (Coincidentally, the title of my book is RISKY ISSUES, so that should say something, too, and on the cover it explicitly states “Stories about identity, drugs, abuse, death and friendship.”)

    Thanks for helping raise awareness about our need to raise awareness of things that may “trigger” negative feelings and memories. As a rape survivor, I cannot be more emphatic about how important this is.

  10. Doesn’t an author set up subtle little warnings to the reader that ‘there’s something nasty (lurking) in the woodshed’ ahead?

    I would want to know that a book is erotic or violent but surely the blurb would tell me that.

    Are we cosseting people too much? We have kindegartens not allowing kids to climb big strong trees! Nope, I think we might be going too far.

  11. Oh boy, Lynne, I don’t have mixed feelings about this. I have rage. We are THIS freaking close to becoming the Eloi from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. We are a weak people, and we are crawling and cringing on our losing journey to be nice and not to offend.

    Well, guess what? There are billions of people out there just dying to be offended so they can fling their so-called pain and suffering at the world.

    I tried. I tried to be sensitive to all the offend-adites. It doesn’t work. Every time some spineless crawler cries out in offense, it antagonizes people to the point that a real sufferer will face outrage when they raise a salient point regarding their problem.

    I have zero time for people who are offended about anything. All the whiners have killed it. Oh, how I would love to go on about this!

    1. Sounds like you have enough material there for a book, Kenyon. 😉

      I don’t have time for people to take offense at the drop of a hat, either. But I think this is a slightly different issue. Some people really do suffer panic attacks when reminded viscerally of a traumatic event. And PTSD is well documented as a phenomenon amongst certain war vets.

      However, I don’t know that we ought to pad all the sharp corners of the world for the few people who will walk into them accidentally. I’ve got a pretty nasty bruise on my upper arm right now from running into the pointy corner of my work ledge last week. But I haven’t asked my employer to bring in somebody to round that corner off — nor do I intend to. I just plan to be more careful from now on.

  12. Right off the bat, let me say I suffer from PTSD and depression.

    Okay, that said, my immediate instincts were to say a resounding no to trigger warnings. We’re adults and life is messy and often ugly, and it’s a writer’s job to depict that. And as readers, we can’t pick up a novel and not expect some kind of conflict.

    But then I calmed down and thought about it some more and wondered how I’d handle it if I wrote an extremely graphic rape scene. Or child murder? Could I in all conscience simply leave something of that nature for every unsuspecting reader to stumble upon? (Although the reality is that reviewers would likely begin pointing it out, many of them not happy with the author.)

    But then again, my genre of choice is horror, and most horror readers are hardly in a position to complain about graphic content. Then again, a trigger warning on a horror story might help it sell *more* copies! Kind of like a badge of honour. 🙂

    So, in other words, no. But then, maybe, in some extreme circumstances. Ha. Thanks, Lynn, for making me even more confused than I initially was. 😉

  13. The trigger warnings are definitely a tricky issue. No one wants to cause their readers stress or trauma, but no one wants to make the reader less excited by giving away too much of what’s coming in the book. Telling readers there’s a rape coming may be a spoiler some readers don’t want to know about. Telling readers that there’s an attempted rape, but that the heroine gets away, is also a huge spoiler.

    I feel like romance has done a good job and helping readers categorize books without giving too much away. Avid readers of that genre know a sweet romance is one with all the action behind closed doors. Then it gradually goes up and you get steamy romance and later erotic, for those who want pretty graphic detail.

    I don’t know that a trigger warning is necessary, but if people want more detail about the content of a book (graphic violence, sexual violence, bestiality), perhaps there is a way to include that information. However, I think it’s impossible to try to figure out everything that is going to trigger an adverse reaction in people (For those who are horrified of clowns, avoid p. 36).

    1. Yes, Sweetie, clowns are scary. 😉

      Sorry, couldn’t resist. But in all seriousness, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. My next novel has some graphic violence in it, and I intend on putting a warning on it as such. But how much detail do I need to actually go into? That is such a tough call.

      1. I never got the whole “clowns are scary” thing. Although I wish I’d bought the t-shirt I saw once that said: “Can’t sleep — clowns will eat me!” 😀

        But seriously, this is a good point, RJ. One person’s trigger warning could be another person’s spoiler.

  14. The trigger warnings are NOT a complex issue. They’re gross stupidity.

    For schools, they’re a legal nightmare. The reason this grew from “basic triggers” like rape and warfare to much more is because if you make schools responsible for ANYONE’S triggers you make schools responsible for EVERYONE’S triggers. No matter how silly it might sound to someone else, a trigger for clowns, bats, or animals in wigs is no less serious to the person with the trigger than any other trigger.

    Make schools responsible for ANY triggers, and you essentially gut schools’ ability to teach anything at all. Because someone out there is triggered by just about anything (or can say they are…).

    So LET people be triggered. That’s how you get over a trigger. LET people be hurt by books. That is how you grow. Make people responsible for their own issues. If you have a problem with scenes that include X, then you ought to be checking reviews before you buy a book to see if it includes X or not. Same as someone allergic to peanuts reads ingredient lists before buying a candy bar.

    1. There’s that “personal responsibility” thing again. 🙂 Thanks, Kevin. And I do agree with you about the schools’ responsibility — if they’re going to require warnings for one thing, they’re pretty much going to have to require them for everything.

    2. Let people be triggered? That’s how you get over a trigger? Um, no. Seriously, no. That’s shockingly ignorant of the dynamic here. Triggers without something in place to support a person dealing with trauma are, well, potential little death grenades. Yes, unmanaged, they can lead all the way to suicide. I’m surprised you’d be so cavalier about this, given your usual sensible approach to less emotive matters, Kevin.

      Make people responsible for their own issues? Oh sure, I’m all for personal responsibility, and embrace it in my own life, but can you not see the difference between a person who was raped when they were five and another person who decided to rob their local convenience store? You know what I’m saying? One needs to look at himself and take stock, but how on earth do you make the other “responsible”? What does that even look like?

      Overall, I actually agree with you, and definitely side with free speech, but there’s a huge blind spot in your post that’s honestly kind of offputting.

      1. By “making people responsible for themselves”, basically – know what you have reactions to, and take measures to stay away from them.

        For example, if you know you are triggered by images of animals with wigs, warn your teachers about that trigger, quietly, in private. The teacher can then warn you if you’re about to encounter your trigger.

        But understand: from a LEGAL perspective – once you tell schools they must warn students about triggers, you’re no longer even on a slippery slope. You’ve slid all the way to the bottom. Because, y’know, equality. And the animal wig trigger person will say their trigger is just as important as the person who was raped at age 5, and – they’re not wrong.

        So as soon as you mandate warnings and protection for one trigger, you mandate warnings and protections for ALL triggers. Since everything in life triggers somebody, you end up with a real mess. 😉

        If you think your book might bother someone, then perhaps warn them. I write mostly non-graphic stuff. I have written some borderline horror stories lately, which are much more graphic. I included a “graphic violence” warning on those stories because the readers of my other work might not expect graphic violence from my work – and I’d rather lose a few sales than have readers surprised and upset!

        But it’s not the writer’s responsibility to warn. It’s the readers responsibility to be careful. It’s not the teacher’s responsibility to know every student’s trigger – it is the students’ responsibility to inform the teacher of potential triggers.

        Does that make more sense? 🙂

        1. Yes. I think so.

          And the person who says their animal wig phobia is the same as the trauma suffered by a child who’s been raped is basically wrong, not to mention insensitive. I mean, common sense has to be taken into account here. I have plenty of ridiculous phobias, all genuine even: heights, mosquitos, balloon animals, etc. But I also know that, in terms of the wider world they’re trivial compared to larger traumas (mine as well as others’), which I don’t want to detail here, obviously. But yeah. It’s ludicrous to suggest a fear of paper towels or ring binders (for example) is the equivalent of a fear of gang rape by family members (say). Some things are objectively worse.

          1. I’m going to disagree on that last. Psychological trauma is always subjective. It’s never objective. You and I might assume the family rape would be more traumatic than a fear of something more mundane. But fear doesn’t follow rational rules. Fear is subjective, and how strongly someone reacts to a fear might appear out of proportion with the actual risk involved.

            I knew people who would not board airplanes for years after 9/11. It was an entirely irrational fear – but to them, it was completely real.

            So no – you cannot categorize trauma by type. One person might have very light trauma from a rape. Another might have horrific trauma from a clown that scared him at a birthday party. The second persons trigger is going to be more risky, because the trauma is more severe.

            Even if the source of the trauma seems silly to us, you can no more tell someone to “buck up” for one trauma than you can for another.

          2. Oh, yeah, I know that’s party line in terms of psychology as a discipline, that no single trauma can be considered worse than another, and to some extent I understand where they’re coming from with that, but I’m stepping out of that rarefied academic milieu for a moment and asking if you can honestly, with a straight face, say fear of balloon animals should be treated as seriously and is an equivalent of actual child rape or murder. I’d say no, and that we have to be deep into devil’s advocacy to even consider it equivalent. That’s not to completely disregard all forms of trauma, of course not. I would never tell them to “buck up,” of course, that’s simply silly. Not sure where you got *that* from, lol. I just wouldn’t classify it as seriously as certain other types of abuse. It’s still traumatic, to the traumatized, obviously.

  15. “One of the things literature does is give us a safe place to examine things that scare us.” Wasn’t that the point of the original fairy tales, before they were Bowdlerized? Snow White, I am told, used to be about rape. Hansel and Gretel deals with abandonment and the awful things that can happen to children on their own. Three Little Pigs? Etc.? I believe some major psychologists have pointed out this truth. The idea behind the “safe place” is to help children become mature adults, not to infantilize adults. This trigger warning stuff infantilizes. When someone runs across something they don’t choose to read, the CHOICE to put it down is theirs. I read voraciously. When I find a book contains stuff that I don’t care for, I put it down. As near as I can determine, insisting on continuing to read something that revulses you is either some level of OCD behavior or a deliberate choice to grow through the issue in question. (It could also be something else, because reality isn’t polarized.) But there is a CHOICE involved and I think it might be time to return that to our society.

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