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.
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