Writers and Their . . . Warnings?

Several articles over the last few weeks have circled around the issue of “trigger warnings.” I’m used to seeing them before certain television shows, but I haven’t seen them on books yet.

Jamie Beck’s essay in Writer Unboxed explored the perplexing and even confounding question of trigger warnings for novelists. Her 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.” In the end, after extensive discussion, she decided to add a warning in the author’s note, as an expression of her commitment to building “a trusting relationship” with her readers.

The essay is reviewed in Victoria Weisfeld’s blog, where she considers other books, including one that seemed hardly to need a trigger warning of any sort. On Fabian Nicieza’s highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks, she comments, “A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.”

The idea of trigger warnings may have grown out of academia. In 1991, when I attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a young MFA student admitted in a workshop that her fellow students were paralyzed in their classes for fear of writing something that would lead the teacher to accuse them of . . . of what wasn’t clear. But in general, they feared writing something considered politically incorrect, and as a result couldn’t write anything. 

At MIT students are sometimes afraid to speak for fear of consequences, which suggests we haven’t made much progress since 1991. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “A recent FIRE survey of 45,000 students at over 200 US colleges found that 60 percent were uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic; at MIT, it’s 68 percent. In the national survey, 63 percent of students worried about damaging their reputations because someone misinterpreted their words or actions. At MIT, 68 percent worried about this.” It should be understandable that my brain jumped to the news of Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, shutting down the AP course on African American History. 

For me the issue isn’t whether or not what I write will offend someone, a reader I’ve never met and probably never will. I write a traditional mystery, and avoid violence in any form. But the question upends my longstanding view of the reader, as someone who comes to my work with an open mind and an optimistic attitude. 

Whenever I’m looking for something to read in the library, I pull several titles off the shelves until I find one that appeals to me. I check the genre (thriller, sci-fi, traditional, cozy, etc.), read the blurbs and jacket copy, and consider the author. Once I make my choice I go home wanting to like the book, and I give it my full attention as a reader, a form of respect for another writer’s best effort to date. Do I look for trigger warnings? No. Have I ever missed one and wished it had been included? No. Have I read into books that I wished I hadn’t? Yes. 

I don’t think I could read a novel and notice every instance that might cause distress in a reader. Would a deadly car crash qualify? Or back story about a child taken from the home because of physical abuse? How about the story of a bully who made high school miserable for a group of students? This is the kind of information I’d expect to find in the jacket copy—a clear indication of the parameters of the story. But I also wouldn’t want the jacket copy to give away important features. 

There’s no easy answer to the question of using or not using trigger warnings, but the discussions have caught my attention and made me think. I don’t want a reader to be distressed by one of my books (very unlikely, considering what I write), but I also don’t want to find myself unable to write freely out of fear or concern about a reader’s reaction. The decision will be different for each writer, and may vary with the book. I look forward to more discussion, and learning more about how this plays out for writers.





14 thoughts on “Writers and Their . . . Warnings?

  1. Interesting and thoughtful discussion of trigger warnings, Susan. When I look back on the novels I published in the early 2000’s, I realize that the way things stand today, editors/publishers might have required trigger warnings on them, and it’s not a good feeling–smacks too much of censorship. Thanks for sharing! Leslie

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    1. The discussion has been informative and interesting. As I look back on your early fiction, I don’t recall them as you do so perhaps a rereading is in order. Thanks for sharing that perspective.

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  2. From my understanding and experience, the concept of trigger warnings originated among trauma survivors, in public (typically online) forums, to warn other survivors when the topic under discussion (whether poetry, another form of creative writing, or just ordinary conversation) was one that might be retraumatizing for other members. It was created as a signal of respect and compassion, as well as empathy, to signal that everybody’s pain was worthy of respect, and that each member also had a responsiblity to look after themselves and practice self care in these environments where difficult things were often discussed. It was part of the recognition that everybody was in a different place emotionally, and what one person needed to discuss might “hit too close to home” for another, and be overwhelming.

    Many trauma survivors often find they are more able to handle difficult subjects if they are warned ahead of time that such topics are going to be encountered, than they are if they are blindsided by them. Given how common trauma is turning out to be in the general population (as understadning of trauma, and of mental health in general, increases, and the stigma, slowly decreases), it has become more and more important for society in general to realize that we are all responsible for treating each other with respect and compassion, and part of that means respecting the potential for harm we each have with each other if we just assume that trauma is solely the responsibiility of the individual, who needs to “suck it up” and “stop being so sensitive”, or other ableist oppressive attitudes.

    I agree with you that a good cover blurb *should* include a good idea of the subjects and types of characters one will encounter in any given story. Hopefully without giving too much away. That said, I have, on a number of occasions found myself in the middle of a good story before I discover that “hey, this character has a considerable trauma history, and OMG, I’m being overwhelmed”, or “THAT wasn’t in the description of the book. If I’d known that was part of the story, I never would’ve picked it up”, or otherwise wishing I’d been warned about some form of violence or trauma that was a substantial part of the plot or worldbuilding. Some of the books I’ve had to put down and walk away from, wishing I didn’t have to. Books that, if I’d been warned, I’d have been better prepared for, and more able to finish, and continue to enjoy.

    As for the matter of “everything seems to need a trigger warning these days, where does it end?” it has been my experience that the people who ask this question, especially those who get all up in arms about it, are those who are either 1. completely oblivious about their own mental health, 2. part of an earlier generation who weren’t taught to respect emotions and emotional expression, 3. Agitators, who like to stir up trouble, for any reason they can. Or, 4. more rarely, those who are honestly confused, and not really connected to the minority communities whose lives are directly impacted by the forms of systemic violence western society is rife with. (Whether that is racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, or any other type of discrimination and oppression)

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    1. Thank you, Kim, for this thoughtful, extensive reply. I hope others take the time to read it through and deepen their understanding of this complex issue. I’m glad to know another part of the history of the idea of warning people what’s coming, in trauma forums as you indicated, and perhaps in other groups and meetings. In those instances I agree it is wise and kind to let people know what the discussion will be so they can act accordingly. My agreement wanes with the last paragraph.

      I don’t know what motivates other people. My ability to read someone esle’s mind is limited, is one way to put it. I sense frustration, confusion, and more, but I don’t know what it means. I’m reluctant to make assumptions. This is a difficult topic, and because it is emotionally charged, we want others to stand with us. But in difficult areas, consensus comes slowly. And when it does come, I have found that we’re all standing not exactly where we thought we’d be. The idea of “trigger warnings” has prompted a lot of discussion, and this will lead to changes in thinking. We’ll learn a lot about each other, and probably not what we expect. This is progress, and we’ll move forward. I’m keeping an open mind is about all I dare promise.

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  3. Susan, great topic and post! I agree with everyone. As long as the blurb gives a nudge to what is inside the book, there shouldn’t be a need for a trigger warning. I edited an anthology last year and there was a story that the author had left out a key thing in the blurb she sent. Because reading the story and having experienced what was portrayed in the story, I was uneasy. Had I known the malice intent on the character I would have been prepared. By adding two words to the blurb, it let readers know what to expect.

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    1. Paty, thanks for bringing up the anthology as an example. Readers have a right to know what a book is about before they buy it, and a good blurb with jacket copy does the job. I’m editing the third anthology in the new Crime Spell Books continuation of the Level Best Books anthologies of Best New England Crime Stories. Our books are targeted to adults who love crime fiction. They know what kinds of surprises to expect, and our introduction reminds them of what’s to come.

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  4. Susan, the post was excellent, but I wonder if your Florida example was prompted by perhaps unconscious fear. I suspect students at MIT and Harvard are silenced by fear of the censorious left rather than the bigoted right, and I had to overcome fear myself to post this comment.

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    1. Liz, your comment about posting here is telling. No one should feel uncomfortable stating a belief or preference, so I’m very glad you decided to post some of your views on this topic. I don’t want to see us go back to a time when people were afraid to speak up regardless of which political side might pounce on a different viewpoint.

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  5. This is an excellent post! A lot of food for thought here, including the background on why “warnings” are even being considered. I find no need for warnings – I feel that the blurb on the back of a book, along with the title and cover images, should give us an accurate idea of the material contained within.

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  6. Thank you for this post. I find the complex state of heightened sensitivity to be far removed from simply being open minded, both in our daily lives and in our artistic expression.

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    1. Exactly, Karen. We read to explore different worlds and expand our own thinking and perspectives. If someone doesn’t want that, then they shouldn’t be reading anything except labels on food packages and train schedules.


  7. What an excellent and very truthful post! I find the very idea of trigger warnings a very sad comment on today’s society. As you say, the jacket copy should be enough to guide a reader as to content… and apparently today some people are simply too sensitive to be reading. Warnings could be considered a form of spoiler, thus ruining the story for normal readers. If after reading the jacket copy a reader finds the story too ‘whatever’ they could just simply close the book and quit reading – but that would not advertise their fragility, would it? I find the whole idea of trigger warnings ridiculous.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Janis. I feel bad for those who are swept up in this. I don’t know where this will end, but I hope it ends soon with enough writers and editors saying no to this “fear of what others might think.” I thought we left that behind in the 1950s.


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