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To Warn or not to Warn: The Controversy around Trigger Warnings in Literature

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Please welcome bestselling Jamie Beck to Writer Unboxed today! Recently, Jamie asked the opinion of other writers about trigger warnings on novels, and such a robust conversation evolved that it seemed obvious: This would make a great topic to explore on WU. Happily, Jamie agreed to write the piece. From her bio:

Jamie Beck is a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of 18 novels, many of which have been translated into multiple languages and have collectively sold more than three million copies worldwide. Critics at Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist have respectively called her work “smart,” “uplifting,” and “entertaining.” In addition to writing novels, she enjoys dancing around the kitchen while cooking, and hitting the slopes in Vermont and Utah. Above all, she is a grateful wife and mother to a very patient, supportive family.

Learn more about Jamie and the novel that sparked the conversation, The Beauty of Rain, on Jamie’s website: www.jamiebeck.com.

My publisher engaged a sensitivity reader to evaluate the portrayal of a neurodiverse character in my summer 2023 release (The Beauty of Rain). I eagerly anticipated the reader’s feedback, whose notes on that aspect of the manuscript were ultimately helpful and unsurprising. Conversely, her recommendation that I add trigger warnings about suicidal ideation and prescription drug abuse did momentarily throw me.

Most everyone knows that a trigger warning is essentially a statement cautioning a consumer/reader that the content may be disturbing or induce a traumatic response. Although these labels are not as commonplace in publishing as they are in film, television, and music, in recent years they’ve begun to appear on a book’s digital detail page, its back jacket, or in an author’s note. The big argument in favor of such labels is that they give a reader the choice to avoid a book that contains material said reader might find harmful or that could unwittingly force them to revisit past trauma.

While I consider myself to be a compassionate person who would never purposely cause someone harm, my initial reaction was to reject the suggestion. Trust me, I know that sounds awful, but I worried that the warnings somewhat mischaracterized the tone and themes in my work. After all, if A Man Called Ove had included a suicidal ideation warning, many people might have missed out on an extremely life-affirming story. I discussed my concern with my agent and editor, both of whom also expressed doubts about the necessity of the warnings.

Coincidentally, around that same time I was doom-scrolling on Twitter and came across a New Yorker article from 2021 entitled “What if trigger warnings don’t work?” That piece discusses studies conducted with respect to the effectiveness of content warnings in academia (which are on the rise). The data suggests that such warnings not only don’t work, but they may inflict more harm by causing additional stress and reinforcing the idea that a trauma is central to a survivor’s identity (which is the opposite of PTSD therapy goals). On Twitter and in an Authors Guild discussion thread on this topic, more than one licensed therapist concurred with the article’s conclusions and believed trigger warnings had no meaningful effect.

You might think this data cemented my decision, but it merely piqued my interest in the topic. What better excuse to procrastinate writing my next book than to dive down the rabbit hole of articles and blog posts about the pros and cons of trigger warnings in literature?

It did not take long to identify some other commonly debated pitfalls, which include:

  • Spoilers: One simplistic and popular complaint is that a content warning may give away a plot twist and thus spoil the story for every reader, which is especially frustrating for those who didn’t want the warning. This camp argues that, prior to purchase, a sensitive reader can visit websites such as Book Trigger Warnings or Trigger Warning Database to verify whether a particular book contains personally troubling content without forcing the author to ruin the surprise or twist for every potential reader who picks up the book.
  • Trigger Identification: There are as many different triggers as there are readers, making it a practical impossibility to adequately warn every potential reader about every potential trigger. Similarly, readers with comparable experiences might have different reactions and preferences (for example, I was raised in a violent home but did not want or need a warning before reading The Great Alone). We can certainly group some content into broad common categories like domestic abuse, addiction, rape, etc., but what about a reader who might be traumatized by something more obscure (like a color or a setting)? It seems ambitious if not impossible to imagine one could create a list of all possible triggers. If we can’t screen every scenario, is it fair to screen any?
  • Genre expectations: In dark romance, for example, it is almost guaranteed that there will be some level of violence and crime (such as kidnapping the heroine or dubious consent). The same could be said of crime novels and thrillers (graphic violence, rape, murder, mental health matters). Should authors and publishers need to take additional steps to prepare a reader for something that is essentially foundational to that genre?
  • Censorship: Some teachers, librarians, and publishing professionals argue that content labels are a form of censorship, and that the line between labels and trigger warnings is thin. They worry an overreach or abuse of these labels could result in many books being segregated onto separate shelves. For example, YA books often tackle an array of topics from fatphobia to date rape. If the use of multiple warnings persists and leads to segregated shelving, those books might become less visible and accessible to the general public who might otherwise benefit from exploring those topics. This slippery slope could also ultimately affect what stories publishers choose to invest in and distribute, which would be bad for both authors and readers.

In my opinion, some of these arguments hold more weight than others. I haven’t had an epiphany when it comes to their efficacy, nor am I convinced that there is a clear right answer to this complicated question. That said, my research journey helped me focus on the decision I had to make and its effect on my writing goals. I write stories because I want to emotionally connect with others. Would I prefer to have as many readers as possible give my story a chance? Yes. But do I want to sell my books to everyone at any cost, including the potential emotional torment of another? No, of course not.

If I value the privilege of having strangers let my words into their hearts, I must build and protect a trusting relationship with them. That bond cannot exist if I’m unwilling to do my part to ensure that they don’t accidentally purchase content they might find traumatic. I won’t attempt to create an exhaustive list of every potential trigger in my next release, but I can take the sensitivity reader’s suggestion. While I’m certain that the decision to add this notice in the author’s note will result in some readers choosing not to pick up this particular story, I’m equally certain that it is better to lose those readers for this one book rather than to hurt and lose them for all future books.

My personal choice, however, does not resolve the bigger questions about censorship, spoilers, or whether such warnings do more harm than good (the reinforcement theory mentioned above). I’m curious to know your thoughts about the debate, so please share your opinion in the comment section.

I’m curious to know your thoughts about the debate, so please share your opinion in the comment section.


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