On The Subject Of: Trigger Warnings

[Trigger warning: this post talks about trigger warnings.]

So, let’s just get this out right at the open: this is a topic about which, it seems, some people feel very strongly. I ask that you remain polite in the comments, or you will find a bootmark on your ass as you tumble helplessly into the spam oubliette.

[Trigger warning: spam oubliette.]

Let’s talk about trigger warnings.

I wrote a book: Atlanta Burns.

Here I note that it is $3.99 for your Kindlemachine, and under $10 for print.

[Trigger warning: total shamelessness.]

It is a young adult book, ostensibly crime fiction, about a young girl who straddles the line between detective and vigilante. It is a book about bullies. About people who abuse other people and also about people who abuse animals — in this case, dogs, through a dog-fighting ring. I had to do some pretty gnarly (as in challenging, not as in radical, dude) research for this book. The book also features teenage drug use, bullying, references to sexual assault, lots of naughty language, teenage suicide, and a teenager who uses a gun to mitigate her problems (though that is not without its complications in the story). It’s a hella rough book. “Mature YA.” (A lot of reviews in fact seem to gravitate toward: I hated it before I loved it. Which is probably right on.)

Should the book have trigger warnings? Should any book?

If so, who’s responsible for them? The author? Publisher? The bookstore?

The audience, through reviews?

Is a trigger warning an extra set of warnings similar to what you see with movie ratings or drug side effects? [WARNING: this book may cause sphincter-clenching psychological trauma and also restless leg syndrome.] Or should it be artfully folded into the description of the book?

I’m not opposed to trigger warnings — I understand that some argument against them is that fiction should be uncomfortable at times and blah blah blah if you don’t want to risk discomfort don’t pick up a book. And then, something-something, life should have a trigger warning.

Except, for me, I don’t want people to just blindly stumble onto things that traumatize them — the point of fiction can be discomfort, but often a kind of controlled discomfort. A book is a controlled environment. Safe, even when unsafe. But when that book runs the risk of clipping a tripwire and setting off trauma-bombs inside your own head, that safety factor is hell-and-gone. And trigger warnings are ultimately granular in that they help people understand what’s in the book. It’s not a vaguely ominous warning, but rather, something more specific.

(And actually, it would be quite helpful if life did have trigger warnings.)

The question becomes, what counts? What’s a suitable trigger warning? Obviously, some seem obvious: child abuse, animal abuse, sexual assault. Trauma, though, comes in a lot of ways: the violence of war, for instance. But some folks are also traumatized by clowns, so should Stephen King’s It have a trigger warning: “WARNING: CONTAINS CLOWN” –?

(Actually, maybe that’s not a bad idea. *shudder*)

I think the fear becomes that trigger warnings are a slippery slope toward a rating system — the rating system that governs film is basically inconsistent and downright nuttypants. It’s a fucking mess, that system. It’s governed and shepherded by a secret cabal of out-of-touch Hollywoodians who are prejudiced against sex and toward violence. And the ratings system over time has almost perfectly guaranteed that going to the theater means almost never seeing a film for proper adults. It’s superhero reboots all the way down — comfortable PG-13 line drives right down the middle. Not too many R-rated bonanzas at the theater anymore.

(Another comment about trigger warnings is that they’re spoilery. I dunno if that would be a problem, really, if they were handled somewhat generically — though something to watch for?)

I’d never be comfortable with mandated trigger warnings — because mandating them means someone, some moral body, some council, is in charge of it, and councils are very often how you subvert the goodness of the thing you wanted and turn it into a hot crap sandwich. But I’m eager to get your thoughts. (Again, be polite.) What about trigger warnings? What say you, commenters?

[Trigger warning: there’s a comment section.]

155 responses to “On The Subject Of: Trigger Warnings”

  1. Here’s my thought: Rather than putting the trigger warnings on the individual books or listings, you create a central resource for them. Maybe integrate it with Amazon or Goodreads somehow, but mainly separate and crowdsourced.

    So say someone with severe anxiety or trauma issues wants to vet a book. They can pull up this site or app and see what others have said about it before they read it. That mitigates the spoiler issue a bit, because putting it in a separate space means that you have to actively want to trade the risk of spoilers for peace of mind. The spoilers become opt-in rather than opt-out. It also takes the pressure off the author to figure out what the line is for what qualifies as a trigger, because anyone who read it and saw a potential land mine can flag it. And keeping it crowdsourced helps avoid the MPAA cabalness or the kinds of labels that might scare away a casual reader.

    It does create an extra step for the people who need that information, but I would think that the people who *really* need the information would be happy to take it if it spares them a panic attack. And the nice thing about a central resource is that you could use it for more than just books: movies, TV episodes, webcomics, all sorts of stuff.

  2. I do not personally require trigger warnings, because my life has been reasonably blessed and entirely free of the kind of physical or emotional trauma that can be triggered by environmental factors. I am entirely sympathetic, however, to those who do have those triggers. The activity of daily living must be like walking through a minefield at times.

    I appreciate your raising the question here. Sarah Wendell, of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, raised this very question with regard to romance fiction recently on her DBSA podcast. The question is particularly relevant for the romance genre. Many romance readers are survivors of sexual assault, who discovered a different view of sex and relationships between the covers of romance novels. However, rape and forced seduction are strong tropes, particularly in some sub-genres (old-school historicals, I’m lookin’ at you), and still crop up, though they are far less common now than they were thirty years ago. The depiction of sexual violence in romance fiction varies, of course, and so does survivor tolerance for it in their leisure reading.

    A content warning is somewhat different from a trigger warning, though, and I do appreciate a content warning, because there are things I prefer not to read about, or see images of. Our local news always warns of upcoming content that some viewers may find disturbing, and I always look away, for instance, from news reports about the SPCA responding to animal-cruelty cases.

    Content warnings work both ways, too. I’m not always averse to reading about a thing. I may not be in a mood for a book like Atlanta Burns right now, but there will come a time when a dark, violent tale is just what I want, even if I know it’s filled with tricky subject matter that I may find troubling. Sometimes I embrace “troubling”. Sometimes I go looking for it.

    Well-written cover copy should adequately prepare the reader for what lies within the story, both the ‘good’ stuff and the ‘bad’ stuff. It’s not possible to forewarn of every potentially off-putting story event, theme, trope, etc., but if you give broad definitions, you’re probably doing due diligence. And if you warn specifically about sexual violence, child endangerment, and cruelty to animals, you’d probably cover 90% of what 90% of the reading population appreciates a warning about.

  3. I have a trigger warning on my books because it is written in English and I got fed up with people contacting me to say I couldn’t spell and having to write back to them and explain, politely, that this was because I was writing in English, rather than American.

    There is also the kind of swearing in which British teenagers (the audience) and their parents will hardly notice but which may shock parents of other nationalities (and possibly other nationalities of teenage kids too). Plus there’s some violence which, so far, has distressed parents far more than the teenagers but…

    In short, I think there’s no harm in warning kids and parents – I’ve called it PG – so that the more sensitive ones go into it with their eyes open.

    Therefore, I think judiciously used, non-spoilery, generic trigger warnings are good but mainly because I suspect I’d have got into a lot of poop without mine.

    Just want to say that I think Brittany Constable’s idea of a central database of things that people who are freaked out by … whatever could go to and check out books would be a fantastic idea!



  4. I think the summary on the back should get across what the books about, thus helping people determine what they’re dealing with. If you say that a character is a drug running teen then you automatically know you’re dealing with drugs, sex, violence, and other heavy topics. It’s really as simple as that.

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