Trigger warning: the trigger warning below may be upsetting to some people because it mentions castration and gang rape. You have been warned.
Trigger warning: This post is going to mention castration and gang rape.
The controversy goes on, of course. I just read an excellent article in the New Yorker that presents several perspectives and suggests that books meant to change attitudes are weakened by trigger warnings. Using James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, he says, “A trigger warning or, really, any sort of preface, would disrupt the creation of those highly pressurized, vital moments in literature that shock a reader into a higher consciousness. I cannot be the only person who believes that James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” has the power to radically change the way all people look at race in this country—Baldwin’s brutal treatment of himself, his perfect choice of detail, and his mode of dragging the reader through Harlem elevate the story of a young man preparing himself to attend the funeral of his father to a complete, gorgeous whole. Any excess language—in the form of a trigger warning—amounts to a preëmptive defacement.”
I’ve been thinking about this problem a great deal lately because I’ve come to the conclusion that, for reasons of my own, having nothing to do with trigger warnings, I’ve shied away from delving too far into unpleasant subjects. The central character of a novel I’ve been working on for over a year is castrated as a child. Later, he is gang-raped by the police when he’s arrested for vagrancy.
Should I glide over all that, as I originally planned to, or should I present it in all its ugliness. After all, those events shape him in important ways. How can that idea be convincing without conveying the horror of what happened to him? Clearly, if the victimization trend is allowed to take hold, I would be obligated to place trigger warnings in the book’s description.
To put it into a slightly different perspective, what risks do I run if I publish the book with no warnings? I’ve seen book reviews with one star because the reader wasn’t told to expect something that they strongly object to. The question for writers is whether we are obligated to anticipate what readers will dislike or find disturbing. Suppose I include warnings for castration and rape, and someone gives the book one star because it includes a male/male love affair. It doesn’t, but I have seen books downrated for that very reason.
My final decision is to be faithful to the book and let the chips fall where they may.