A Little More About Trigger Warnings

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.

Trigger Warnings and the Novelist’s Mind

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13 thoughts on “A Little More About Trigger Warnings

  1. I am glad you have a final decision. This is a problem I faced trying to write more literary fiction than genre fiction, yet it pops up again. In my last book, set in the Deep South in the 1050s, there is rape, more than one abortion for different reasons (hell, the book was about an illegal abortionist and the people around him). In an editorial review, the reader told me that the book needed trigger warnings for those things. There is also an interracial relationship which some might find offensive. The “N” word is used. It was the time period.Things were alluded to in the book description, but why should I attach a trigger warning and spoil the whole plot for readers who are not offended? There was a deep and meaning message in that book.There very ones who might be offended are the very ones who probably need to read it.

    Then there is the new book I am writing. Genre fiction. A crime novel. 30,000 words into the story with a villain I want to be worthy of killing, I have a human trafficker. A criminal that is rarely punished, but needs to be. I wanted to make her particularly bad and involve underage girls in pornography. I WANT a reason to kill her brutally. I read an article on writing crime fiction today. It says that, rape, child molestation and animal cruelty are ABSOLUTE taboos. (We are in the entertainment business and people don’t find those things entertaining.) So I guess my girls won’t be underage. We’ll call it prostitution instead of rape (It’s better if the woman is at least a little guilty). We are a hypocritical society that prefers to sweep under the rug anything we might find offensive. Let’s just not look at it, and it won’t be there. Paint on the blackface, get out the tap shoes, and forget about anything of literary substance in anything you write. (Please excuse me, I am being sarcastic. Perhaps not the most polite point of reference.)

    1. I’m inclined to the same sarcasm, believe me. I don’t write to entertain, so if a reader isn’t entertained, then I guess I’ve succeeded in my own goals. I resent that books are arbitrarily lumped in with tv and movies.

      One of the articles I read pointed out that Lolita is about the repeated rape of an underage girl. I have to assume that if Nabokov had written it today, it wouldn’t get published.

      1. That’s exactly why I’ve never read it – I have no interest in his justifications, nor in whatever complicity there is from the girl or her mother, and I didn’t see the movie.

        I believe in free speech. He could write what he wanted, the publisher could publish, but I am not required to read.

  2. There is absolutely no way anyone can write something that doesn’t offend someone. If we were to trigger-warning everything that might offend, we’d end up with a book full of trigger warnings! I think this is another example of the level of preciousness that’s invading 1st world society. A well-written cover blurb on a book for sale in a book store or in the book description of a book on sale online is more than sufficient. So let the chips fall where they may.

  3. “The last few weeks have been hectic”

    We’re in sync with each other. 🙂

    I feel that there are two sides to this story. On the one hand, mandatory warnings grate on me, especially in an educational setting. On the other hand, a lot of the people who are written against trigger warnings seem not to grasp that this isn’t just an issue of whether one should toughen tender souls; it can be a genuine disability issue, like whether one should include rapidly flashing lights in one’s web design (rapidly flashing lights being something that can trigger seizures). If a trigger warning can be given without corrupting the general reader’s experience, and if the consequences for not doing so could badly affect the mental health of a sizeable minority of readers, why not lend a helping hand?

    As far as trigger warnings for published books are concerned, I think that, if you convey the general subgenre/tone of your book through the cover/blurb/title, that will do. Nobody who reads a story about slavery expects the story to be all scenes of sweetness and light. Anyone reading a prison story should know that the very word “prison” is code for “Really bad times ahead.”

    In the fan fiction world – which has developed its own traditions – I have a boilerplate warning that’s more specific while spoiler-free.

    1. I like your approach on AO3, even though there’s no guarantee that someone coming across one of your stories there will read it. I’m in process of uploading a new cover and blurb for one of my novels to SW and Amazon, so I’ll have to give some thought to implementing your suggestion about tone.

      Glad to see that you’re climbing out from under the boxes.

  4. “even though there’s no guarantee that someone coming across one of your stories there will read it”

    Well, I include the tag “see my profile for story warnings” with each AO3 story. I figure that anybody who might be triggered is probably reading the story tags with care.

    “Glad to see that you’re climbing out from under the boxes.”

    (*Glances up at boxes looming over dinner table.*) Um . . . gradually winning the unacking war, shall we say?

    1. Considering the number of books I moved in years past, I’m grateful for ebooks. Otherwise, my little apartment would be overflowing. For every book I manage to get rid of, at least two more show up in their place.

        1. I don’t know whether to be green with envy (my first reaction) or grateful that I live in an intellectual desert at least two buses away from any such temptations. Ebooks are the ultimate in instantaneous wish fulfillment, so they may actually be more evil.

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