This rant got me kicked out of the “Creative Writers” Facebook group a few months ago. I seem to make a habit out of being banned from facebook writing groups.
So I’m reading the posts in this group and I come across a member’s post that apparently had comments locked by an admin. Reading the shitstorm that resulted from this post has helped me to realize why I keep getting into fights with so many people on facebook lately. I’m not going to requote the post or comments because I hate drama, but I AM going to talk in more detail and clarity than the OP did, even though many of you will not even bother reading to the end (or you will, but you won’t actually pay attention). This does have to do with authors, so bear with me.
I almost didn’t bother writing this, but I’m posting it anyway, partly because I have first-hand experience with this issue as a content creator and I’m tired of putting up with it, and tired of watching others fall victim to it; partly because posting elsewhere would feel like preaching to the choir, which is just pointless masturbation; partly as an exercise in “not being afraid to speak my mind”, as is the norm on the internet nowadays; and partly to point out how this sort of thing actually affects your audience. For that last point alone, you authors need to read to the end and think about it. Don’t argue: I know a lot of you are already opening the comments box to refute me, but you’re doing it out of anger and not thinking straight. Pretty sure the admins will close comments anyway, to prevent further drama — necessity of the topic notwithstanding. So don’t argue. Just think about it, is all I ask. Have a beer or a spot of tea while you think. If you HAVE to argue, first take a week off to calm down, then message me about it when you’re rational. (Again, coming from first-hand experience here, it really helps if you take a break before responding).
Here’s the topic:
The person in question argued that authors shouldn’t be required to use trigger warnings on their books or posts, nor should they be bullied into it. A ton of people jumped on him and called him a troll for saying this. I don’t know the context outside of that post and its reaction: maybe he had posted incendiary stuff before, or maybe it was his first post in the group on the subject.
The fact is, though, he’s fucking right. It IS ridiculous to expect me to add detailed disclaimers on a regular basis, for the sake of people who (theoretically) need professional help so badly that mere words like “rape” or “suicide” send them into a helpless, sobbing mania. Not just here in this facebook group, but anywhere. And whether he was serious or not, it’s the members’ reactions I’m more concerned about: the sincere and angry argument that it’s the author’s solemn duty to warn the reader of every potential trigger that pops up in their work, and if they don’t they’re an irresponsible asshole who should be ostracised. That is as ridiculous and unreasonable as it is impossible, especially these days.
I am NOT responsible for the mental stability of my readers. Not even on facebook. Argue the contrary all you want, you’re still wrong.
Rating systems like we have with films are more than enough, as unreliable as they are: R means adults only, and therefore all content is fair game, the theory being — flawed as it is — that adults are mature enough to handle things like death, sex, drugs, rape, cursing, etc. If a book isn’t for kids, it is not found in the YA or children’s section, and therefore the content is fair game.
However, the issue goes beyond merely having gruesome content in a work of fiction: trigger warning enthusiasts are championing for the weak and the wounded, worried that the poor dears will fall apart if they read a depiction of something they themselves experienced. If that’s ever the case, it’s because the victim isn’t getting the help they need (or like in a few cases I’ve personally met, because they WANT to feel like victims). In most cases it’s people who have no experience with the trauma in question, which is even more pathetic. In no case is it the author’s fault, nor is it the author’s responsibility to rectify it or pander to it. Nor should that author be crucified for being so insensitive as to include bad things in his adult-oriented story that happen in real life to real adults.
So I did an experiment that panders to the trigger warning demographic. Here’s what the front page of The Helios Legacy would look like if I adhered to this sort of mentality and listed everything I know someone would be offended or triggered by. Because let’s be real, listing one or two wouldn’t be enough if we want this to be a standard practice: we’d have to cover all the bases with a proper disclaimer, and make sure everyone knows exactly what they’re getting into, so nobody feels misrepresented or left out. These are all things that I’ve seen people flip out over. So hold onto your butts.
Trigger Warning: contains depictions of, or references to, the following:
– harsh language
– harsh language around minors
– harsh language by minors
– characters contemplating suicide
– attempted suicide
– attempted suicide by a minor
– sexual abuse
– sexual abuse of a minor
– use of the word “rape”
– use of the word “cunt”
– use of the word “fuck” and all its variants
– use of the word “suicide”
– taking the lord’s name in vain
– racial slurs
– homosexual slurs
– violence against women
– woman protagonist who shows vulnerability
– women who speak of subjects other than women
– unflattering portrayals of radical feminism
– references to and depictions of social anxiety
– references to and depictions of depression
– references to and depictions of wartime PTSD
– unflattering portrayals of radical leftist politics
– lack of trans characters
– scary imagery
I took about two hours making up that list, just to make sure I didn’t leave out any subject worth a safe space visit or an angry email. Now nobody can say I didn’t warn them about the content of the book…though I had to do it at the expense of misrepresenting the content of said book. You read “sexual abuse of a minor” and probably think of seven chapters of wanton kid-rape in excruciating detail, but in fact it’s just a vague reference to the fact that the kid was abused and you don’t actually see anything. I had to mention it as part of the trigger warning, so there it is, context be damned.
Did reading the disclaimer give you second thoughts about reading the book? Good, because that brings me to yet another reason trigger warnings are a stupid practice.
It’s anti-marketing. By scaring potential readers away with an out-of-context list of vague warnings (even if I had only listed rape or suicide), they miss out on a good story with engaging characters they can actually care about. They miss out on the soldier who helps the traumatized boy learn to trust adults again. They miss out on the damaged mom who finds the will to live after a terrible loss. They miss out on a villain who’s actually likable and sympathetic. They miss all the cool little moments between the guilty war hero and the mother of her dead teammate, or the flashbacks of a romance that was meant to be, but ultimately self-destructed. They miss out on the imagery: a nuclear winter city, a passenger train splayed across a snowy wasteland like a dead behemoth. They miss out on a really awesome scene with improvised firearms. They miss out on the surprise of picking up a random indie book they never heard of and actually enjoying it.
They miss out, period.
At some point we as a species need to stop babying each other. I’m very close to people who have actually suffered abuse or serious mental illness. If you told any of them that trigger warnings were essential for anyone, least of all for them, they would think you’re a condescending asshole out to empower yourself at the expense of others, and they’d be right. The world depicted in Demolition Man was intended as a joke, not something to aspire to.
Enforcing this kind of thing isn’t helping anyone. It turns people away from your books for superficial reasons. It empowers the self-righteous and makes people afraid to speak their minds. It forces people to be hypervigilant on a constant basis. It takes those who have actually suffered and paints them like blubbering infants. It ensures that those who THINK they need trigger warnings and safe spaces never fucking recover, and live the rest of their lives with a victim complex. Most of all, it insults your reader’s maturity.
So I urge everyone to drop this practice and start respecting their readers again. That’s ultimately what you’re doing when you include a trigger warning: you’re treating your readers like children. In which case, you’re probably writing in the wrong category.
As an aspiring writer myself, I gotta agree. If I ever put the stuff I write out there, and there’s a trigger warning on it, please shoot me.
Might not go that far. I might just link you to this comment. lol
You make a lot of good and interesting points. I can’t fully judge the situations of others so I am not 100% against some warning in some forms of media or discussion topics. Not in books. You should know, if you’re reading an adult book, there may be things in there that is not all sunshine and rainbows. Even in YA books, there’s violence and abuse. The gallons of blood spilled in the Hunger Games trilogy, for example. That’s how you create conflict in a story. And, most of the time, those conflicts are resolved.
I have an assault scene in one of my books and I did put a warning for my beta readers in case they wanted an out from reading it. But, I’m not going to include a warning when the book is published because it’s a key point in a character’s backstory and, as you say, it is anti-marketing. I have a mild style, anyway, so I find it hard to believe anyone will actually be triggered. But, if someone has an issue with it, I’ll deal with it when the time comes. Have to get one book out before I worry about the reaction to this one.
I also feel that “trigger warning” has had its true meaning altered. Now it means “someone might get offended.” When, if someone has a true issue with a triggering issue, there are more underlying problems and help should be sought out.
Good on ya, Carey. I’m positive most people who push for trigger warnings have never suffered in their lives. I had one potential reviewer opt out of a review trade because of the stuff I mentioned here in The Helios Legacy, citing religious reasons or something.
Information is good. Whatever exactly is the difference between being “triggered” and “offended”, it doesn’t matter in this case, there’s no drawbacks to people knowing what they’re getting into.
The best way I’ve seen it set up is in Archive Of Our Own: there’s custom tags, which are optional and can specify details such as whether a story contains “excruciating detail” or just implicit mentions or this or that theme. And there are default tags for most commonly concerning stuff like rape and violence. A work can be tagged as containing some of those, none of those, or by default, “chose not to use Archive warnings”. And so readers can chose whether they want to engage with works whose author didn’t want to label clearly.
I consider content warnings (or trigger warnings, but I find that term too specific, there are many reasons to want to know more) a good concept, not as rules to tell people what they can and cannot do, but as a common courtesy like holding a door open or telling someone the time when they ask.
As for losing out on experiences, I know there are many people who are willing to read about drastic subjects as long as they know what they’re getting into, and the only thing they want to avoid is an unpleasant surprise. So by labeling your content clearly, you may actually end up with more readers and not less. Not to mention that they’ll feel more respected if you give them the freedom to make an informed choice, and may be less critical about your choice of themes if they see you’re being self-aware about them.
The people who use trigger warnings the most are, surprise surprise, people who actually write about drastic subjects. If they thought problematic content has no merit whatsoever in any form, they’d advocate for banning it, not for putting warnings on it.
And if someone doesn’t want to read about certain subjects, for whatever reason (whether it’s about a major traumatic trigger or a plain and simple lack of preference), they sure as hell aren’t gonna be grateful for being “given” the “opportunity” to read it anyway.
All in all, I’m sure your concerns are not without merit; it should be up to the authors to decide how to label their works and in how much detail, and up to the readers to decide whether or not to engage based on the information they’re given.
The only thing I can’t see doing you any favors is your attitude towards people who disagree with you on labeling preferences. I can imagine that many of said people were rude and unfair towards you as well, but that’s not a reason to call trauma victims weak babies for coping with their trauma in a different way than this one dude you know copes with his. Imagine being raped and abused only to have some dude on the internet tell you that you clearly “never suffered” because you disagree with him on how to label fictional stories.
I can see your points, and I’m really glad you actually took the time to try and articulate them instead of telling me to “get raped” like one of the other (umpublished) commenters did. I don’t think it changes the fact that people have gotten too sensitive to “being surprised” by the drastic content of a story. I don’t really see the connection between holding a door for someone and warning them that the gritty crime thriller they’re about to read has gritty stuff in it. One is being friendly, the other is condescending.
There really isn’t much difference, either, between the mentalities of adding trigger warnings to “problematic” content and wanting to ban it outright. Both mentalities requires a level of elitist self-importance that says “i know what’s best for the people and I’m going to make the decision for them.” Readers are perfectly capable of putting down a book if the content rubs them the wrong way or makes them uncomfortable. Nobody should be making the decision for them before they even pick it up. And the fact remains, if i’ve been raped and abused and simply reading those words is enough to consistently send me off the deep end, I’m in dire need of psychological help that I’m clearly not getting.
Trigger warnings arrogantly aim to preemptively shelter people on the presumption that they’re too fragile to even see a reference to what might have happened to them. I’ll add my own hypothetical example since you provided one in your last paragraph: What if before every screening of a war movie a simpering little man came out and warned the audience, “by the way, there is going to be war violence here, so if any of you are war veterans, you may want to leave now so you don’t suffer PTSD.” Which is more likely to happen?
1) The soldiers in the audience thank him and walk out of the theater with smiles on their faces and hope for humanity in their hearts.
2) The soldiers in the audience laugh, roll their eyes, and tell him to fuck off.
At the end of the day, authors are gonna do what they want, and I won’t go out of my way to stop them, though I’ll highly recommend they not do stuff like this to their audience.