I was scrolling through my FB feed, and saw an author upset at a scene in a book she read that was a “trigger” for her. She was mad that the book did not come with a Trigger Warning.
For clarification, a trigger warning is a statement alerting the reader to content that may be upsetting or disturbing. For instance, if the book has rape, rough sex scenes or unexpected violence. This allows someone who may have PTSD from a past traumatic event to avoid a book that may “trigger” them.
It’s a nice idea, sure. But is it realistic? I have questions:
- Who defines what will upset each reader who picks up my book? Is killing an animal something that needs a trigger warning? What if it’s a beast from hell? Or a creature a demon witch raised from old bones? Does that need a trigger warning?
- How much responsibility does the author have?
- How much responsibility does the reader have?
- Should authors change with the times?
Who defines which book needs a trigger warning?
I have returned exactly one book to Amazon for content. I read the first chapter in which the main character mentally made fun of a woman for the way she walked on her prosthetic foot. He made clear in his thoughts he was fully aware that she was an amputee. I slammed the book closed and never read another word. I returned that book for a refund because I couldn’t live with that book earning any of my money.
But what kind of trigger warning would that book possibly have? The hero is a disgusting bully? An amputee is disrespected? How about, Jennifer Lyon this book is not for you?
That last one sounds silly, but it illustrates a point. Each of us can read the same scene and have entirely different reactions. It happens all the time. What if that character I assumed was the hero of the story turned out to be attacked by a pack of rabid coyotes and the woman saved him? And a result, he grows a heart and soul and learns how to be a real human being?
I’ll never know. I personally reacted so badly, I couldn’t read another world. But others may not have been affected the same way. Many may had been cheering his downfall and feel a measure of satisfaction at seeing it—if that’s what happened.
I think there’s a careful line to be walked here. First and foremost, if an author thinks there’s something in the book that needs a trigger warning, then that’s totally the author’s prerogative. I put at the bottom of my trilogies that the books are part of a trilogy. I feel readers deserve to know that. I suppose that’s a trigger warning of sorts. Many readers feel they’ve been burned by buying a book they think is a full length story, only to discover it’s only the first book in a trilogy. To me, that’s reasonable.
I’ve also warned of steamy sex scenes. I don’t like the idea of some reader expecting a “clean” (hate that term) romance picking up mine.
I loathe the idea of some entity out there deciding which books must come with trigger warnings. Reading is so subjective. What if some entity or governing body of trigger warnings decided that my hating the book meant we should warn readers that the book contains an amputee? I’d hate that a hell of a lot more than I did that book. That’s a terrible form of discrimination that casts blame on the amputee, rather than the bully.
I don’t want to go down that revolting slippery slope.
How much responsibility does the author have?
I worried about scenes in my Savaged Illusions Series trigging some readers. In my view, that series walked the line between romance and a little bit of woman’s fiction because it does have tragedy in it. A woman struggles with memories of a trauma, and I chose not to put a trigger warning in because it would have also been a spoiler. It’s a tough call.
One way around that is to put clues in the blurb of the book. For instance, in Savaged Dreams, book one of the Savaged Illusions Series, I have a sentence that reads: At fourteen years old, she survived an attack by a famous musician. I felt that gave a decent hint that her past was dark and potentially problematic for some readers.
The author has responsibility to give readers an idea of the book they are buying, and a blurb is an excellent tool, along with the cover and marketing material. But she or he should not be forced to put in a list of trigger warnings like lawyers warning of side effects in a pharmaceutical commercial.
How much responsibility does the reader have?
I wish I could remember if I read the blurb of the one book I returned to Amazon in disgust. Did I do my part in figuring out if that book was for me before I bought it?
If I didn’t, I should have. Readers have a responsibility too. I have a pretty good idea of the types of books I like and dislike. For example, despite being a Christian by faith, I don’t read or judge books marketed as Christian Romance (or whatever the current jargon is). While I’ve read some I enjoyed, I’ve also found others triggered some bad memories. It’s nothing at all against the genre or authors, and as an author I support those writers one hundred percent.
I just don’t want to read the books to force me to relive a painful past that includes the death of someone I loved. I recognize my trigger and respect it. But if I don’t take the time to at least read the blurb, then get annoyed because I end up reading what I didn’t want to—that’s on me.
The reader does have some responsibility too.
Should authors change with the times?
This one is so tricky. It’s like arguing political correctness which is open to wildly varying interpretations. All I can do here is give you my view. Remember I mentioned the reader who was venting about a book not having a trigger warning? Despite not fully agreeing with her, I read every word of her rant. Why? Because I care about readers. I listen when readers have complaints, even when it’s not about my book specifically. I care so much, I’m writing this blog.
But I have to balance that against things like giving away spoilers in the plot or feeling censored by a list of required warnings. It’s a balancing act. I will continue listening and if I see the readers are consistently asking for more warnings up front, then yes, I’m willing to change with the times.
What are your thoughts on trigger warnings?