Should Novels Carry Trigger Warnings?

Is this the future for books?

How would you react if you found warning stickers suddenly appearing on covers of novels? Or you saw notices stationed alongside displays of the latest releases, alerting you these books have “emotional content” or “contain scenes of violence”?

I’ve been following a Facebook group discussion on these issues in response to a question by the author Louise Beech. Louise explained that she’d been contacted by someone who’d been “triggered” by content in one of her books and questioned whether there should have been a warning.

Most of the group members (a mix of authors, readers and bloggers) were strongly against the idea of “trigger warnings”. A few people pointed out that they could spoil key plot developments and ruin the suspense. Others questioned the practicality of including warnings: would they have to be on the cover, or would it be enough to place them on the copyright page or somewhere at the back of the book?

More than one of the author members said they would find it impossible to cover every eventuality since different people are affected by different things.

As Louise said it’s a tricky question:

I fervently hope the concept of trigger warnings doesn’t gain traction. It’s not simply a question of aesthetics though I don’t welcome the thought of buying books emblazoned with warning stickers. It’s more a concern about what’s often referred to as the law of unintended consequences. That you take an action for the best of intentions, but the outcome has far wider impact than anticipated.

Authors are not irresponsible people. They don’t set out deliberately to offend or cause distress. But many do publish content that challenges attitudes and opinions or draws attention to issues that might otherwise be over-looked. If their publishers had to ensure “suitable” warnings were inserted into the resulting novel, isn’t there a danger that they become more cautious? Less inclined to take a risk with “challenging” material, particularly from debut authors.

There is also the issue about what to include and what to exclude. There are so many topics that could be considered triggers. What disturbs one reader, will not have the same effect on another.

I fully accept that someone who has been the victim of domestic abuse, for example, would not want to read about that type of situation in a novel. No more than someone who has been the victim of rape, or suffered abuse as a child, or endured a severely traumatic incident, would appreciate those scenarios replayed in fiction.

Some publishers do try to flag these topics with a message along the lines “this book contains content that may upset some readers.” But what I’m sensing now, is a suggestion that this is not enough; that more specific and visible warnings are required.

But how does a publisher know where to draw the line? To anticipate every possible scenario, and reflect them all in warnings is surely impractical. Yet if they leave something out, they’re exposing themselves to criticism – and in extreme cases – potential litigation.

The experience of the food industry shows what can happen when a key piece of information is omitted from ingredient labelling. In 2018 the Pret a Manger chain was as at the centre of controversy following the death of a teenager from an allergic reaction after eating one of their baguettes. The label failed to list sesame (to which she was allergic) as an ingredient. Though the company was not required by law to provide a comprehensive ingredient list because the item was made on the premises, Pret’s reputation still suffered.

In a highly litigious nation, like the USA, would the requirement for trigger warnings, make publishers considerably more risk averse? Afraid to leave anything out just in case at some point, a reader threatens to sue because some content, about which they were not warned, caused a severe reaction?

The problem we’re faced with is how one of balance. How do you safeguard vulnerable people without trying to wrap all of society in a protective shield? How do you reconcile a well-meaning desire to avoid causing distress to one group of readers, with the principle of freedom of choice for other readers and freedom of expression for writers ?

Not an easy question for sure. And one I’m still wrestling one. I’d love to know what you think.

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