Trigger warnings on books will censor emotional responses in the great reading experience

If you place trigger warnings on my literature, I’m pre-warned about the content and you’re ruining it with a spoiler.

If you censor my books according to a pre-defined set of literature rules, you disrespect writers, patronise readers, filter literature worldwide and create a new set of ethics purely for written media.

If you ban certain books from being read, you dictate the literature that I am to read. You take away my freedom of choice. You stifle creativity in the literary field. You become, effectively, the thought police.

dont put trigger warnings on my books - cara sutra

Some books are as far removed from most people’s real life as you could possibly imagine. Just last week my son took his favourite book to school to show his friends, after finishing it and being very impressed. I was so proud of his newfound love of books. The book in question was Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman. He excitedly made his way to school claiming that this book is “completely awesome” and full of “intergalactic dinosaurs”. I have no concerns that he will think this book is real; like the scores of childrens books spanning many decades it’s clearly evident that they do not reflect real life in any way. Children’s imaginative minds are able to run amok through fictional fairytale lands, across alien inhabited planets and go across the universe and back in a diamond encrusted space rocket, if the writer of the story so wishes. I spent a lot of my childhood with my nose in such classic childrens’ treasures as Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, the Nancy Drew series as well as The Babysitter’s Club.

This is often not the case with adult’s books, although some (sideways glance at JK Rowling) span the length and breadth of imagination for adults and children alike. Some adult fiction, or fictional works of literature where the story takes place in a factual part of history, can resemble or reflect parts of the reader’s life so closely and accurately that this causes an emotional response in the reader. The reader may be moved to a psychological discomfort at the nature of what they’re reading. Words have a power, a power skillfully wielded by great writers, drawing on shared life experiences of people worldwide and drawing this emotional response from readers which often results in the story from a piece of literature staying with you for a lifetime. These books we come back to time and again, reading them much more than once in our lives. I would bid, though, that we never again experience exactly the same sensation of surprise that we did upon our first reading. Those moments when our eyes race over the lines, unable to stop, eating up the words with our mind and riding the experience of those words like a mental rollercoaster of thoughts, images and emotions. That’s the reading experience. That’s what makes it so addictive.

Not all books appeal to all persons, of course. I find that I need to find some kind of common ground with the protagonist or with other strong characters within a piece of fiction to really feel like I am there with them, along for the ‘ride’. It may be that there is simply nothing of interest happening for me, and although it’s a very bad habit not to give a book a proper chance and read to the end, I have like so many others, ditched a book after the first few chapters as it’s failed to hold my interest. Perhaps it was too boring or the characters were flat and unemotional. Perhaps it was, in fact, too unlike real life.

If a book is to be so dissimilar to real life, I would prefer to read about “intergalactic dinosaurs” than people who live on a chrysanthemum lined street where no-one ever has any problems and everyone dresses prim and proper every day of their lives. There’s no hurt, no pain, no problems. Everyone is fine and flat and cosy. Everyone is boring.

A recent article in The Guardian reported that trigger warnings have been requested on works of literature, by students in the US. Not children; young adults or adults who are of an age to study classical works of literature that have adult interest and themes. The books in question include such greats as The Great Gatsby (for misogyny and violence), Huck Finn (for racism), Things Fall Apart (for colonialism and religious persecution), Mrs. Dalloway (for suicide), Shakespeare (for pretty much everything). Now, Gove has reputedly axed To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the UK’s English Literature GCSE syllabus. Personally, I studied Macbeth, Richard the Third and A Streetcar Named Desire for my English Literature A-Level. Pretty much all of the violence.  It has been commented that such classic books have topics which may upset or provoke an uncomfortable response.

My response to this? That’s the whole damn point.

Why do you think they are classic and great works of literature? Do you think it’s easy to provoke strong feelings and responses from a person’s mind using your words alone? No, it is not easy. It’s a great and rare talent. Anyone can write a boring, unemotive, unchallenging and yes untriggering piece of writing. Could you write something that moves another person to cry, to get angry, to feel… something?

I find it absolutely unbelievable that trigger warnings are being considered on written works when for visual extravaganzas, movies and the like, we have a very general board of certification. An 18 film may be rated as suitable for those aged 18 and above due to any number of reasons. Why is this particular film an 18? Well, there’s violence. What sort of violence? Well we can’t tell you that. It would ruin the plot.

The problem you come up against when you think of putting literary works in a ‘trigger warning’ category either in a bookstore or on a website or in the classroom is that if a book is marked as for adults, it will probably be triggering to someone. For instance, I am triggered by all manner of things that would surprise you. Some sexist issues, some cultural, guns, warfare, miscarriages, religion… these are just a few. However, I can read about rapeplay fantasy, eating disorders, bondage, non-consensual violence and consensual sex and vice versa all day long. Because I’m me. I’m not you. I don’t have my own category at the bookstore, a shelf of books that are ok for me to read without any negative after effects. Neither does anyone else. The sheer notion of this is preposterous, I’m sure you’d agree. It wouldn’t be possible.

So who gets to decide which books have trigger warnings and which ones don’t? Sounds like a case of ‘all [books] are equal, but some are more equal than others‘. Shall we set out ‘spoilers’ on the flyleaf, something which is muttered about most aggressively on the internet and other media when relating to films or TV series? Who decides what’s triggering in the first place? Or does the entirety of humanity share the exact same set of ethics and personal preferences in life, culture, religion, sex and more these days? Didn’t think so.

Interestingly, Stephen King had an amazing career which stemmed from his highly graphic horror novels. Fictional horror novels, but clearly depicting scenes which no doubt closely resembled crimes which even if they hadn’t happened at the time, have happened by now. People being psychologically and physically tortured. Chopped up. Sometimes, these people are children. Do his books come with a trigger warning? Beyond stating that they’re in the ‘horror’ section, no. They are accepted and acclaimed because they don’t even just move the reader to an emotional and psychological response. You’re made to feel afraid and horrified, because that’s the author’s intent and he’s very skilled at it. The man has been put on a pedestal for doing that very thing.

I don’t find scenes of historical racial and cultural slurs, rape scenes as part of a novel’s violence or consensual but unusual sex more disturbing than a person being hacked to pieces.

I’m shocked that there is so much outcry about written media and books when films like the Saw series and Game of Thrones which contain so much non-consent and violence it moves me to anger and tears is freely allowed to be shown on our television screens and in our cinemas. The trigger warning? Over 18s. That’s it.

While we’re on the subject of triggering books, I note that The Bible is still being studied, sold, reproduced and not only that but preached door to door worldwide. You can’t really find a more triggering book than one which has been the cause of religious based warfare for literally centuries. The Crusades, anyone? I don’t see religious education being axed in schools – even primary schools – nor is there a trigger warning on the flyleaf. Let’s put that motion towards the Anglican Church, the new Pope or in fact any religious leader throughout Christendom.

Another proof of hypocrisy where literary trigger warnings are concerned is our daily print media. Newspapers. I don’t mean to get into a debate about Page 3, however it seems I’ll have at least one foot in it with this next comment. The Sun newspaper does not have a trigger warning on the front page about its content. It does not warn that there is a mostly nude woman – and yes, it’s always a woman, not a man, for women are of course around to be objectified and other peoples’ wall paper whereas men aren’t – just within one turn of the front page. The Sun newspaper is also on sale, at child level, on most garage forecourts, in newsagents and other shops. I would actually rather catch my 9 year old son attempting to buy a can of lager than buying The Sun newspaper. I’d rather have to teach him of the dangers of alcohol abuse than the general, worldwide and even worse, accepted abuse of femininity. He will learn of this soon enough anyway, and I will soon write on the ‘Yes All Women’ hashtag and related subject. You don’t want to put a trigger warning on The Sun (and other similar) newspapers, which are freely available to all? Then don’t you dare even think about putting a trigger warning on classic or any works of written literature simply because they discuss (I reiterate, with words only) matters which reflect the uncomfortable and often all too real facts of life.

If you are old enough to study great works of literature, you are old enough to deal with the subject matter. if you have an emotional response to the subjects discussed, good. They’re part of life, if not for you then for others. It’s called empathy, people. Deal with it.

Or are we trying to censor our empathy now?

 

 

– Cara Sutra

Post Script

 

This post was written for Wicked Wednesday, thanks to Rebel Notes for hosting this weekly blog meme.

Read my other Wicked Wednesday posts here.

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This article is also an official Cara Sutra Stampy Pants Rant!

Official Stampy Pants Rant

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely brilliant post! Thanks for all your thoughts and for always putting things out there so clearly! I’ve never even thought of trigger warnings on the Bible, but you’re so right. And newspapers! Brilliant post!

    Rebel xox

  2. Good call on the Bible…

    This is one major issue I have with e-books, at least a ‘proper’ book is printed and it’s out there. As far as I know, it is perfectly possible for ‘authority’ to access your e-book collection at any point in the future and delete titles which are ‘unacceptable’, or perhaps worse yet, to replace your book with a sanitized version. And what’s more you probably already electronically signed a consent form when you ticked to agree to the terms and conditions of use, cos let’s face it, who reads all that stuff anyway?

  3. *bounces around like Tigger shouting hurrah hurrah!

    I couldn’t agree more and I have even quoted you in my piece. I was umming and ahhing about posting what I had written and then I came here and read this. Your spurred me on and for that I am very thankful to you.

    Mollyxxx

  4. What an excellent, excellent post. Your Stephen King segment is particularly pertinent to me. I respect him as a writer but I cannot read him. His content doesn’t work for me on any level and yet I have acquaintances who will happily digest his books and back cautiously away when I hand them an erotica. A text’s power, it’s voice, is very much determined by the reader. And we should never presume to know what that voice sounds like to someone else. Jane xxx

  5. I remember a therapist warning my mother of my writings at a young age, and she quipped with: “they aren’t real. What would Stephen King’s therapist say?”.
    Excellent argument, and I like your strong stand.

  6. Yes. This. I was a high school English teacher and have always been in love with books and reading, and you’re absolutely right. Why are the books I taught even included in the curriculum in the first place? You hit the nail on the head, Cara. Yet again. I’m also not sure why people would need a warning that Huckleberry Finn contains racism. I mean, that seems like a no-brainer to me. That’s like saying that Fifty Shades of Grey contains sex scenes. I love that you brought up the Bible, too. There should be all kinds of trigger warnings on that book if they’re going to start putting them on other books, and the worst part is that there are people who take the Bible literally, which – in my opinion – is dangerous. I don’t know that I could say the same for Stephen King’s novels.

Please share your thoughts!