Trigger Warnings

I want to talk about a kind of serious topic that I’ve seen cause a lot of controversy.

Trigger Warnings.

When are they necessary? How specific should they be? Where should you be able to find them? Whose responsibility is it to create them?

I remember when I first started reading bear Town by Fredrick Backman. Now this is one of my all time favorite authors, and easily one of my favorite books, but I was blind sighted.

Here’s the official synopsis of the book:

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove returns with a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.
People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.
Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.
Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

Lets pay specific attention to the line a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Now, when I first read this line my mind didn’t immediately jump to rape. I thought this book was about hockey, and for some reason I assumed the violent act was a different type of physical assault, maybe a murder.
Maybe its just me, but I didn’t think the assumption was too clear, and was extremely surprised when I reached that point in the book. Because this is not a book about hockey. This is a book about rape. Its about the trauma after the fact, public accusations, mob mentality.

So would I have read this if it at the bottom it said Trigger Warning: rape?
I personally, still would have read it, I just would’ve been more prepared.
But maybe some other people who didn’t pick up on the subject line would have passed on this book. Maybe they thought it was a book about hockey and had to put it down when they realized the real storyline.

I think in this case, a trigger warning would’ve been helpful.

But then there’s the other side of this, and I’m going to use the recent Ninth House, as an example.

Bardugo is known for her YA grishaverse books, and Ninth House is her first dive into adult books.
Here’s the list of trigger’s I’ve found for this book:
rape of a child, sexual assault under influence of a magical drug, drowning, heavy violence, gore, drug addiction, overdosing, death, suicide, blackmail, self-harm, and forced consumption of human waste.

When you read all of those back to back its extremely off-putting. I haven’t actually read the book yet, but friends have told me that the list of TW’s makes it sound a lot worse than it is. Some of these are quick references, other’s are a lot less dramatic than the warning makes it sound. I wonder how many people would’ve read (and enjoyed) this book if it DIDN’T have this list?

So what works then? Too many trigger warnings can be off-putting, none at all can potentially harm unprepared readers.

The simplest answer is to know your genre: if its middle grade or YA, trigger warnings are 100% necessary. But for adult? Should adults just naturally assume every book could potentially have content their not prepared for?

I personally think there should be a very simple system, similar to the way we rate movies and tv shows. On the back of the book next to the blurb have a little stamp. Rated M for mature content, sexual assault, violence.

It’s a lot less daunting that way, and it’s up rto the reader to decide if they need more details about what “mature content, sexual assault and violence” means.

Because here’s the thing: you can always find the answers to those questions. Between ARC reviews, Goodreads, bookstagram, Twitter, author’s website, there’s a wealth of information available to readers to find out details of what’s in a book. Still not sure? You can reach out to authors/agents/publishers directly. Anytime I’ve contacted ANYONE in the book world I’ve received a response within a few days.

Overall I do like the general idea of trigger warnings, but there needs to be a line. In a society where “cancel culture” is at an ultimate high it’s easy for a book or an author to be “cancelled” because of how the trigger warnings or advanced reviews portray it. Ninth House, again, is a perfect example. In book groups across Facebook I watched as dozens of people canceled their pre-orders, day they’re no longer supporting her books, all because of the list of trigger warnings. Is that healthy?

It’s still a tricky subject, and I’m curious to hear what other think. When do you think trigger warnings are necessary? How specific should they be?

Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings”

  1. Great post! That’s a good point, about a simpler cautionary system like with movies. It might be harder to get everyone to use the same system unless a big site like Goodreads would implement something like that to help make it universal, but that would be helpful in the end. I do hesitate to share some trigger warnings because sometimes they can seem like spoilers, which is frustrating- I don’t want people to be surprised by content that will upset them, but I don’t want to ruin the plot for everyone in the process of warning about it either. I hadn’t heard quite that much about the Ninth House reaction, I didn’t know the trigger warnings were having such an effect! Personally I don’t avoid a book for any trigger warnings, but I do like to offer them for others, so it’s still something I think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s something I forgot to mention with the spoilers! I definitely agree because depending on what it is (death, drug abuse, etc) it can be a massive spoiler and ruin some people’s reading experience.
      I do think I want to start putting some sort of trigger warnings in my reviews, but haven’t quite figured out how to yet.
      But I definitely agree, I think it’s going to be a tricky subject until it does become an automatic thing on sites Goodreads/Amazon!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Completely agree! I’ve been trying to incorporate warnings into my reviews as well, but I tend to place them at the top so that anyone who’s avoiding certain topics will see right away if something difficult is going to come up in the review, but I worry that can be a turn-off as well, for readers who see the warnings and decide to skip the review/book without looking any further. I don’t want anyone to be triggered by reading my reviews of course, but I also find it a bit frustrating that they might skip my review (which I’ve probably put a lot of time into) based on the book’s content. It’s hard to find a good balance, as a reviewer!

        Liked by 1 person

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