Trigger Warnings by Neil McGowan

The main topic of discussion in my house these past few weeks (at, least, in terms of book-related) has been trigger warnings, and whether they’re a good thing.

I’ve never paid much attention to them, viewing them (rather cynically) as a marketing strategy – I’m reminded of when I was a teenager and a sure-fire way to guarantee a record would sell was to plaster it with stickers spouting text such as ‘Warning: contains explicit lyrics’ and similar. Of course, this all-but-guaranteed people would buy the records, because, well, forbidden…

I’m aware there’s been a growing discourse on whether books should contain them, although I’ve not been following it as such – my social media presence is minimal to say the least, so most of what I hear is second-hand information.

In my day job, I teach IT systems to healthcare professionals, and part of my remit is to look after mental health nurses. We often chat with them outside of training (and they’re a wonderful resource for a writer, but I digress) so we can keep up with the latest practices and how they may translate to their IT requirements. As a writer and reader, I was, therefore, very interested when there was a discussion between some therapists about the hospital library.

Some background: I’m based in a mental health hospital in Edinburgh, and it operates a community library. Staff, visitors, volunteers, anyone can bring in books to add to the library – I’ve donated a few myself. This leads to a wonderfully eclectic mix of genres and titles for staff and patients to borrow.

Under discussion was whether certain types of books should be restricted or monitored, and this is where the subject of trigger warnings came up. Should books have warnings if they contain graphic or upsetting descriptions of violence, was the question.

I’m very much against this normally, being of the opinion that if you pick up a book that belongs to the horror genre there is a fairly high chance that one or more of the characters is going to meet a rather unpleasant end. Similarly with crime.  I figure it’s kind of essential that something unpleasant happens. The reader would know to expect it, right? If the thought of literary descriptions of blood and gore is not something that appeals to you, then you’d not read that genre. I’m not interested in sport, so I’d not choose to read a book on, say, football, for those same reasons.

My other issue is spoilers – a trigger warning plastered on a book by its very nature will give some indication of something that happens in the story. To me, this takes away some of the surprise and pleasure, as you’re expecting something to happen at some point and often try to second-guess it.

The main issue for me, though, is where do you draw the line? When does a text require a warning, and at what point does the text cross the line from being fine, to needing a warning? Some texts will be easy to identify as potentially triggering (Richard Laymon, for example, mostly wrote fairly graphic body horror) but my issue is where things are not as clear-cut. Stephen King’s Delores Claibourne, for example, features virtually no violence as such – most of it takes place off the page, with the narrative covering the aftermath more than the event. Yet it deals with issues of domestic violence, and for a victim of such, such a book could have a very different impact.

Ultimately, I’ve come to think the responsibility rests with the author. If I write something which I suspect could have an adverse impact on a specific group of people, then I’d want the option to add some sort of warning if I felt it necessary. But would I want to add warnings to other books, based on my beliefs? No; that, for me, is too close to censorship.


Griselda Heppel said…
Hmm. Instinctively I'm against trigger warnings, agreeing with you that you should be able to judge for yourself and avoid books you know will upset you. And as you say, where do you draw the line? Every single novel by Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, Hardy, Balzac, all of Shakespeare's tragedies and history plays, as well as most of the comedies, Goethe's Werther, Dante's The Divine Comedy, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, all of contemporary Young Adult fiction, actually the entire wealth of world literature (except possibly Michael Frayn's Noises Off) will have to sport trigger warnings. Noooo!

You're talking about an uncurated community library in a mental hospital though, where there may be a real risk of damage to someone in mental distress. Are some of your patients victims or even perpetrators of violence or abuse? I can well imagine professional concern if lurid memoirs by serial killers or child abusers make it to the shelves. I'd go for quietly weeding those ones out... but then someone would need to be taking that decision. Interesting problem.

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