In the relatively brief time I’ve been a part of the book hemisphere of the Internet, I’ve noticed a trend gaining traction among book reviewers: trigger warnings. From the Trigger Warning Database to the Book Trigger Warnings website and Storygraph’s trigger warning section, trigger warnings have become ubiquitous in book reviewing circles.
But, while I understand the intent behind these warnings, I have several problems with them.
Let’s Talk About Trigger Warnings in Books and Book Reviews
What Are Trigger Warnings?
What exactly is a trigger warning? According to Google’s handy dictionary, a trigger warning is “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).”
What is the intention of trigger warnings? They’re intended to warn people with past trauma of potentially disturbing content in books and other media. This makes sense. For someone who has experienced a violent traumatic event, for example, watching footage of a similar event could trigger their PTSD.
And some people just don’t want to read/watch something with graphic content. This is, after all, why we have movie ratings and TV content warnings for things like “sexual content”, “violence”, “drug use”, etc. General content advisories like these are not what I’m writing this post to discuss.
Obscure Trigger Warnings and Virtue-Signaling
I’ve noticed an increase in less general, more mild, more content-specific warnings in book reviews recently.
Many of the “triggers” I’ve seen listed are everyday topics or events, things that appear commonly in everyday life and that most young children would not be upset by. Far from graphic violence, some of the new triggers are for things like “mentions of Harry Potter”, “insects”, “nightmares”, “dieting”, “hospitals”, “blood” or “homophobia, off-page”.
Of course everyone has different life experiences and will have different reactions to different topics. But it’s unrealistic to expect the entire world to tiptoe around, trying to create a “safe space” for everyone and their unique triggers. How many different phobias are there? How many different potential triggers?
I’m sure there’s someone out there in the seven billion people on this planet who’s scared of… windows.
What do you know? I just looked it up and Nelophobia is the fear of glass.
Now, do we need to put “trigger warning: windows” or “trigger warning: glass” in front of every piece of media that shows windows or glass? Of course not, because most people are NOT scared of windows and glass and most people are not going to be upset when reading about it. Do rooms with windows have warning signs on the doors because the windows are potentially triggering to a tiny subset of the population?
But what about all those people with nelophobia who might have a panic attack from reading this description of glass? What about their feelings? Don’t you have any compassion? Check your privilege!
What about all the other hundreds of different phobias people might have? What about all the other obscure triggers and fears that someone could presumably have? Should we cater to all of them? How long should we make these trigger warning lists?
The logic falls apart. An argument that is based on “just try to understand how they feel” still needs to be substantiated by common sense.
The Prioritization of Feelings Over Sustainability
The idea that you need to unquestioningly accept and act to appease someone’s individual feelings with no evidence is simply unsustainable and does not lend itself to a functioning society.
I, obviously, don’t like this brand of book trigger warnings. What if I tell you right now that they make me feel extremely triggered? I feel so deeply triggered that I am writing this entire post. I feel annoyed just thinking about them. I don’t even want to see them anymore. Should you now preface your posts with “trigger warning: trigger warnings?” because one person said they are triggered?
The Self-Defeating Brand of Trigger Warnings in Literature and Book Reviews
TW: Mentions of Harry Potter
For a minute, imagine such a person exists who is viscerally distressed by any utterance, reminder, or mention of The Boy Who Lived. If all it takes is one mention of Harry Potter to trigger them… how would they not be triggered by your trigger warning itself? And if your trigger warning is itself triggering to its intended beneficiaries… then what’s the point?
There is none. In cases like these, the trigger warnings seem to serve as an easy way to virtue-signal to one’s audience.
The worst trigger warnings in my opinion, however, are book trigger warnings that spoil the plot of the book.
This is especially true for books in the mystery/thriller genre which especially rely on the element of surprise to generate suspense, but it can affect any book. I’ve been spoiled by people’s trigger warnings just by scrolling through top, non-spoiler-marked Goodreads reviews before.
I see the argument often that including trigger warnings is just being kind and receptive to others and therefore spoilers shouldn’t be a concern. The benefits of these warnings are debatable, but this still doesn’t stop them from being spoilers.
Spoilers are spoilers, regardless of whether they are saving some hypothetical person from being triggered. Arguing for trigger warnings from this standpoint cannot disprove the FACT that telling someone an event from a book that is not in the synopsis is spoiling the book.
Consider a hypothetical book. This hypothetical book is a thriller about a person who is looking for her missing father after he disappeared in an accident.
Now let’s say someone is reviewing this book, and they put “Trigger warning: death of a parent”. Someone stumbling upon this trigger warning would be spoiled.
This example was a pretty blatant hypothetical one, but even for less huge spoilers, trigger warnings can affect your enjoyment of a book. For example, if I’m reading a book and I see a review with a trigger warning for “kidnapping”, I’ll be spending the entire time anticipating who’s going to get kidnapped and waiting for it to happen.
And authors foreshadow. It’s part of the beauty of a good plot. But as soon as I have the anticipation of the event, the foreshadowing becomes painfully obvious and clunky. Maybe the character’s mother will mention that the character’s younger sister is “too trusting.” Hmm…
Anyone by using deductive reasoning can spoil themselves once warned by a trigger warning that they might not have even wanted to read. Skirting around this by shaming people for being inconsiderate and claiming that you can’t know what offends other people and you need to listen to the people complaining about being offended does not make a good argument.
I’ve seen trigger warning lists where people list out extremely specific triggers and even include the chapters in which they occur. (Ex: “death of a parent, chapter 20”) No matter how you look at it, doing that IS spoiling the book.
Opt-In Trigger Warnings: A Possible Compromise?
I have recently noticed more people hiding trigger warnings in a dropdown menu where you need to click to be able to read the list, and I think this is a smart way to balance the preferences of those who want to see trigger warnings and those who don’t.
However, I am very much against the current proliferation of superfluous and spoiler-y trigger warnings in book reviews… for the reasons I have previously outlined in this post.
Do you believe in literary trigger warnings? Why or why not? Do you include trigger warnings in your book reviews? Do you rely on book trigger warnings when making reading choices?
Regardless of your stance on this issue, I’m open to nuanced, respectful discussions in the comment section 🙂
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