The suggestion that books should have “trigger warnings” has been around for a little while now. In fact, they’ve actually become pretty commonplace within the online book community. Yet there are still quite a few debates surrounding them, too—do we really need them? Could they put readers off books? Is there a better alternative?
Before I address any of that, though, I should probably explain what trigger warnings actually are…
A trigger warning exists to inform readers that there is a potentially upsetting theme within a given book. Interestingly, the term is actually linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the concept that PTSD symptoms can be triggered by specific memories or experiences.
Think of it like this: if a book contains a potentially upsetting subject (such as self-harm, sexual abuse, or racism), then it can be supplied with a trigger warning. This will act as a red flag to any readers who may be particularly sensitive to that topic, and, if they wish to avoid the book (along with any negative emotions triggered by it), they will be able to do so.
Trigger warnings can be directed at a whole range of different subjects and experiences, such as:
- Sexual abuse.
- Racial discrimination.
- References to eating disorders.
- References to self-harm.
Authors and publishers, as well as book reviewers, are able to issue trigger warnings as a way of keeping readers safe, protecting them from specific, triggering experiences.
Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I think trigger warnings are a really, really good thing. In keeping readers safe, they help to keep reading accessible, which, in my mind, is one of the most important things for the industry to strive for. After all, we don’t want anyone to feel as though they can’t read a book just in case they may unknowingly be exposed to a difficult subject.
However, unfortunate though it is, trigger warnings are not perfect, and although I strongly believe that they are a step in the right direction, I can understand why some authors feel unsure about them.
Nobody likes spoilers. Books, especially fiction books, are often slow-burners, and that not-knowing-feeling we get when we open up a new book is what, for some people, makes the reading experience so exciting. (Trust me, this is coming from someone who had the death of a certain wizard spoiled when they had only just started reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Spoilers are bad.) The thing is, trigger warnings can also act as spoilers. By giving warnings—particularly specific warnings—to their readers, authors, publishers, and reviewers risk spoiling huge plot points.
Everyone is different, and everyone has had different experiences. This means that while one person might feel intense, negative emotions when exposed to one subject, someone else might experience similar emotions when exposed to a completely different subject. I realise this might seem more than a little obvious, but it poses an issue in terms of trigger warnings—which subjects do we provide trigger warnings for? How can we possibly cover every potentially upsetting subject? What if something gets missed? Although some triggers may be more common than others, it seems wrong to warn readers about one subject but not warn them about another, and, as there are currently no industry regulations, this can make the entire topic feel more than a little intimidating, especially to authors who just want to give their book its best shot.
Here I should add that there are some resources to help authors (and reviewers) sort through potential trigger warnings. Among these are Book Trigger Warnings and Does the Dog Die.
Some authors may also believe that providing trigger warnings will dissuade readers from purchasing their books. Yet although I can understand this line of thought, I’m actually inclined to believe that while trigger warnings may put off some readers, they will make other readers more intrigued to read the book. I’ve also noticed that those authors who provide trigger warnings for their books are regarded in a more positive way within the online book community, and, when it comes to book sales, this definitely works in their favour.
I’ve already stated that I believe trigger warnings are a step in the right direction, and I’ll stand by that. Like I said, it’s important to keep reading accessible for all, and trigger warnings are an important part of that. However, it’s also clear that trigger warnings have their issues. This begs the question, is there a better alternative?
One of my favourite suggestions is that of a content rating system (think of the system used for films and video games). Although this idea also has its issues, it would be a good way of warning readers that a book may contain a potentially upsetting subject (without giving away any spoilers)! The problem of limitation would also be lessened, as the warnings would be less specific. Of course, I’ll admit that this might not be overly helpful for readers looking to avoid individual subjects, but perhaps if a book was marked as “adult” or “18”, those readers would then be encouraged to check for more specific content warnings?
Like I said, the trigger warning system isn’t perfect, and neither is the content rating system, but it is clear that there needs to be some kind of regulation within the publishing industry. On that note, I’ll end this discussion with a quote from Book Cave, a site that provides its very own content rating system for books:
What do you think about trigger warnings—are they a good thing, or do you have a better alternative in mind? Let me know in the comments below!
5 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings: Do We Really Need Them?”
This is such a balanced and thoughtful discussion post, Emily! I have long felt that trigger warnings should be included in books, although I can certainly appreciate the arguments against it. One other possible idea is something like the parents guides on the imdb website for films and television shows, where categories such as violence or distressing scenes are rated on a scale from mild to severe.
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Thanks, Stephen! I’m so glad you think so. I know exactly what you mean about the imdb warnings—that’s another really good idea. Thanks for reading! 😊
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This is a really thoughtful post. Trigger warnings are a relatively new idea and we managed for years without them so I’m a bit on the fence about whether they are needed or not. There do seem to be huge variations in what people feel needs a trigger too. I like the idea of a film style rating with reference to the type of triggers contained. Personally, I just skip over bits that I’m not comfortable with but I do appreciate that many people may have a much stronger reaction. I also wonder if more books contain things that need triggers nowadays.
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Thank you, Janette! I’m so glad you found it interesting. I think the issue of variation/what classes as a trigger is definitely a big one, and that’s one of the main reasons why I struggle with trigger warnings. That said, I do think they’re incredibly helpful for those who have had really painful experiences and wish to avoid revisiting them. It’s a tough one, that’s for sure!
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