Thursday Thoughts, Trigger Warnings In Books

My coffee does not look anywhere near this good. I’d have to leave the house for that. It’s cold and grey here in New England and I am doing everything I can not to lpexels-photo-67514eave the house. There’s precious little food in the fridge, though and I’m currently wondering if my husband would be happy with ramen pride “casserole” with canned chicken. Probably not.

Also, I continue to be flummoxed by how wordpress decides to put pictures in its posting area. Also, I love the word flummoxed. I’m going to use it a few times today.

So, trigger warnings. This started in a facebook group as it seems a lot of my posts do these days. And that’s a grammatically terrible sentence, but whatever. It’s dreary today. Anyway, somebody said that he thought trigger warnings were ridiculous and people shouldn’t do them. Naturally, about 150 million other people jumped on to complain (it was really more like 10) about his complaint. Then, naturally, another 150 million people (probably more like 10) came back to defend his complaint often in pretty ugly ways. It ¬†went downhill from there. If you have never seen these kind of things on facebook, good for you. You have good friends and have found that secret, loving spot of the internet that many of us are looking for.

Anyway, I had never even heard of trigger warnings in books so I was flummoxed by the whole thing, but mostly by the anger and vitriol. (See how I fit today’s favorite word in there? Man, I wish I had not found that coffee picture. Mine is pretty boring in comparison.) I was immediately resistant to the idea as I am about anything that says I have to do more work. But then I went to bed and thought about it for awhile. I came up with 3 points.

  1. Trigger warnings are a nicety, a courtesy, from a writer to a reader that lets them know the writer is concerned with readers’ well-being. Done well, it doesn’t give away the story, nobody is harmed and it doesn’t take up a whole lot of space. In that respect, doing it isn’t that big a deal (or a whole lot of work).
  2. Trigger warnings are another way to stop the wrong people from reading your book and then giving it a terrible review. If you warn them and somebody does give it a bad review, then it’s on them. Pretty sure anybody who reads the review will dismiss it at that point.
  3. Some people like gritty stories. A trigger warning might actually intrigue more readers than it loses. And frankly, I am not going to go any further down that road because it looks kind of icky.

Finally, not a point I made on that page (I can’t find the post anymore. It might have been taken down) but why not try to spare somebody suffering from PTSD the pain? There was a whole lot of anger over the idea of doing this, and for the life of me I can’t understand why. If you don’t want to put the warning in your book, then don’t. Why are you (not you personally but you as in the angry people) so enraged by people who want to spare other people discomfort or downright disabling thoughts and recollections? It doesn’t make sense to me, but a lot things don’t make sense to me, which is part of the reason I’m a writer. I’m trying to make sense of the world I live in. So far, it’s a bust.

Here are some basic thoughts on the subject: you don’t need to put trigger warnings on books that the reader should know, just by being a person in the 21st century, are going to contain some nasty stuff. Horror books, war books, serial killer thrillers and probably some gritty cop stories. Trigger warnings in other genres, like murder mysteries, apocalyptic and dystopian genres, like what I write, may or may not be useful. Some readers may assume that violence could happen. Others may not, so it can go either way.

On the other hand, genres that a reader expects to be “safe”–cozy mysteries, most romances, and probably young adult–could really use a warning if you’re throwing something rough in there. One of my historical romances has a kind of nasty rape scene at the end (the heroine has a flashback and her memories are horrifyingly graphic). I feel it’s needed in the story for the reader to truly understand her motives, but I’ve always been a little uneasy about it. I do not want to traumatize readers. Make them (you) uncomfortable now and again? Yeah, if it makes you think. If it helps bring about a conversation in your head about society or the people in your life or whatever. Sometimes the greatest clarity we have starts with uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. But I don’t want readers curled up in ball, unable to move because they are reliving some terrible part of their lives. I don’t want to be the reason for a 2 am phone call to a therapist or a trip to the ER. So that book will get a warning.

While writing The PostPlague Trilogy I have considered friends of mine who have been victims of domestic abuse. I have thought about people who have escaped really terrible regimes in other countries (or maybe non-regimes like ISIS) and how they would react to brutality of the world I created. I suspect some people would find Neri’s fight and her wins to be the comforting. Good conquers Evil stuff, yes you can win in your life too! But not everybody will feel that way and I would never, ever want to hurt a friend. I don’t want to hurt people who would be my friends if I met them either.

Each author has to make this decision themselves. Each author should weigh the pros and cons of losing readers who might have liked their books, violence and all, if they hadn’t been warned, compared to finding readers who re-live past horrors because of the book and end up hating the author for life. This is not a simple “left or right” decision. It’s part humanitarian and part marketing.

For me, I feel like The PostPlague Trilogy is by default violent. It’s pretty clear from the blurb that this is a brutal society and there will be some terrible stuff in the book. But readers still may not actually realize that. So I will, because of that, put a short warning in my books. Just as soon as I get off the sofa, get dressed and get out to the local coffee shop for that coffee up there in the post picture.