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.





On Reviewing

Like most writers, I read widely and not only in my favorite mystery genres, and post reviews of most of what I read. I read lots of nonfiction as well as fiction, but I only hesitate when it comes to reviewing crime fiction. For many years I happily reviewed for the Drood Review of Mystery, edited by Jim Huang, as well as for Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene. I thought a lot about what to say and how to say it, what to omit and what to emphasize.

An editor I did freelance work for back in the 1980s explained how she approached each manuscript. In general, she said, it takes a lot of work to complete a book that is worthy of publication. No matter how many readers may dislike it after it’s published, that level of quality is still there. She remembered that when she ushered it through the publication process and sent it out for review. Her perspective held very good advice.

I think of her often now when I read a mystery novel that doesn’t work for me. For whatever reason I dislike it, I try to temper my view with the broader understanding that an editor and others in the publishing house saw something worthwhile in it, and were willing to back it financially. This doesn’t mean that I overlook anything that is offensive or stupid or very poorly done. It does mean that I think twice before I eviscerate a book.

Some readers reading this will rise up from their chairs in outrage, to tell me I’m failing as a reviewer because I’m not giving the reader my honest opinion. There is some—only some—truth in that. My honest opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s, but the person who has a blog or a newspaper or magazine column has far more influence than the ordinary reader, and I take that into consideration. This does not mean that I withhold an opinion on the tropes that I’m sick of—young female assaulted and murdered by demented male—or that I give a rating of five to a book that will never have enough substance in it to rate a five only because I know the writer. I know I’m in the minority on this one.

I’m thinking about all this now because I’m increasingly aware that some forms of crime fiction are susceptible to ideas and behaviors that are offensive to most women. The genre is by definition conservative, designed to depict the breakdown of social norms that are restored in some measure by a significant figure, male or female. This isn’t always the happy ending but it is a restoration of some form of stability. When a writer explores this limitation, I find a lot to praise. This is what I look for in my reading—something that challenges both the form and the reader, something for my mind to grapple with, and a story told in a way that will broaden the reader. These are the stories that will get the highest rating, the ones I’ll remember and tell others about. 

What do you look for in a mystery?

Typos and the rest of it

I’ve read several posts lately about the carelessness of authors and editors today, with typos and other errors missed, often to the point of driving the reader to dump the book for something else to read. I too notice the misspellings, confusion of names, missing words, and other slips in the text. And I too have learned to read right past them. No text is going to be perfect, and holding the writer to a strict standard of three or five errors misses the point of reading fiction or any other prose. I cringe just as much as any other writer when I come across a goof in what I’ve written, and for self-serving reasons I argue that it doesn’t hurt to be generous as a reader. That said, I have another perspective that hovers in the back of my mind.

The rate of error for any human endeavor is two percent. I first learned this in the library at the University of Pennsylvania when I occasionally thought I’d come across an error in the card catalogue (remember those?). A librarian, skeptical, mentioned that figure while examining the card in question one day, found it correct, and explained why I might have thought its location to be inaccurate. Two percent sounds minuscule, but in a collection of twenty-two million items, such as at the Boston Public Library, that means 440,000 could harbor an error. That’s not a negligible number even though it’s only two percent.

I think of this percentage when I come across an error in a printed book. In a novel of 80,000 words, the reader could expect to encounter 1,600 typos or other mistakes. That’s a lot of goofs in a typical book, and I’m guessing most of us would be too disgusted to continue reading past the first dozen.

There’s a reason we’ve come to expect a nearly perfect text. Over the decades, publishers have trained us to expect a clean page, and they achieved this with a battery of experts. Writers turned in a type-written, or sometimes a handwritten, manuscript, which then went to a content editor, next to a line editor, and finally to a copy editor. At each stage the writer reviewed the work. The text was then sent to a compositor who put words into type, and don’t think the compositor wasn’t also sometimes reading, noting what he was seeing. But once the text was set, it was printed, went into galleys, and was sent to at least one proofreader as well as the writer. Think of the number of trained people reading the novel, catching those 1,600 slips, saving the writer from embarrassment. (And consider this: many publishers charged for the correction of errors in proofs after the first ten or twenty. That may explain why some nonfiction books were riddled with errors in earlier decades.)

Most of those people don’t exist today, and if they do, they’re probably working in very specialized areas where accuracy counts more. Think of chemistry, mathematics, and other technical subjects.

I think of these things when I’m reading along and trip over a missing word or letter. Occasionally I think about writing the author so she or he can make a change in the next iteration, but I don’t do it. Instead I marvel at how proficient we’ve become at catching these little stumblers, and how clean our texts are now. We demand a lot of writers today, and for the most part we writers deliver a clean, readable narrative with few flaws to make a reader feel brilliant for catching the slip or smug that she or he never made that one. At least, we haven’t yet. Every time I catch an error in whatever I’m reading, I remember to be humble. That could be me next time.