Should content warnings be standard on books?

WARNING symbol

The subject of ‘trigger warnings’ has come up for heated discussion among my circles of friends. For those of you who have just emerged from under a rock, “Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as ‘trigger warnings’, explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans,” The New York Times reports.

The debate has been split between (surprise) those who think this sort of thing is warranted, and those who do not. My knee-jerk reaction was that it’s nonsense. The blurb on the cover should be enough, that we already live in a nanny state that governs far too much. After all, readers can always stop reading.

But on the other hand, movies and TV shows have a code of practice. In Australia, the national broadcaster prefaces any show which will show the image of a deceased Aboriginal person with a warning for the benefit of Aboriginal people that such content will be shown. It’s part of their culture not to see images of the dead. We’re warned about movies which contain violence, nudity, bad language and the like, and in Australia the content is rated G, PG, M, MA 15+, R 18+ or X 18+. You’ll find the explanations here.

And that segues neatly into a discussion I had recently about the use of the “F-bomb” in books. I wrote a blog post on the subject. To save you bothering to read it, essentially I treat “fuck” as just another word. It has its place and conveys information about the person using it. I have received more than one complaint about the use of swearing in my books. I’m not sure why a written word offends anybody. But to each his/her own.

I have also received complaints about explicit sex scenes. I write mainly science fiction romance, so the book’s genre might be a clue that sex happens. Some of the online book stores (Omnilit and All Romance come to mind) ask authors to indicate the level of ‘heat’ in their books, going from none through to five, which means it’s erotic. I’d set mine as two or three on that scale: consenting sex between heterosexual adults once, maybe twice in the novel.

Perhaps larger sellers like Amazon and Smashwords should introduce a similar coding system for the benefit of readers. Perhaps a setup such as that used by The Fussy Librarian would work. Or maybe I need to add a sentence to my blurb:

WARNING contains bad language, violence and some explicit sex scenes

Mind you, most of my books are basically adventure stories, not intended to offend anybody. But what would I do with To Die a Dry Death, which contains terrible acts of violence, a couple of times graphically portrayed, and also an explicit sex scene? None of the content is there for gratuitous titillation. It’s part of the story – and it happens to be true. If I wrote this book with no overt violence, I’d be sanitisng events which should not be sanitised. I feel rather the same about the sex scene, which qualifies at best as dubious consent. So…

WARNING contains strong violence and one explicit sex scene depicting dubious consent

But then, where do you stop? Does the use of a word like ‘fuck’ qualify as profanity? What about ‘damn’ or ‘bugger’? How much violence is strong violence (if we’re not talking horror)? And then down to specifics. What sort of warning would you put on the bible, which includes rape, and incitement to violence, just to name a couple? What about a novel like John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, which has a number of harrowing scenes regarding the rape and torture of a young black girl, although it’s a story about a trial? Or for me, what about that dreadful, dreadful scene at the beginning of The Horse Whisperer, where the horse and the girl are hit by a truck?

Should we be warning our readers? If so, about what? I’d love to know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Should content warnings be standard on books?

  1. Patty

    I usually put a content warning if I think a book contains material that some people will object to, like a lot of swearing, violence or sex/rape. Beyond that, I’m relying on the reader’s sense of what they like to stay away from books that have material they’re not keen on.

    Whatever *I* think of trigger warnings and the people who insist on them doesn’t matter. Such warnings may not be real for me, but they sure as hell are real for those people, and as a fellow human being, I dislike mocking others for their feelings. I’ve been lucky enough to have a life free of OCD or major depression so what on earth do I know of whether or not they need to toughen up? I can’t see anything wrong with telling people if any of the usual culprits (sex, rape, abuse, violence) are going to be in a book.

    Also, I think there is a vast difference in reading a book voluntarily and being required to study it. In the first case, you can say “Eew, this is not for me,” at the first sign of discomfort. In the second case, your marks could depend on it.

  2. Rachel Leigh Smith

    I’m with Julia. All this trigger warning nonsense is just that–nonsense. And being insisted on by people who are incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions and wanting someone to tell them what to think.

    I’m not okay with the idea of a book warning system either. It’s far more subjective with books than with movies, IMO. In the Christian market discussions about rating systems happen on a regular basis, and without fail whenever I saw one start up they’d piss me off. How the hell do you “rate” something when one subset of people find the words boobs and junk (male anatomy) offensive? The book in question was as romantic comedy.

    1. Greta Post author

      Boobs and junk? Oh, wow. Thanks all. I think I’ll leave well enough alone and let readers sort it out for themselves.

  3. Liza O'Connor

    I was shocked once when an editor objected to the word ‘freaken’ as highly offensive and my character wouldn’t use such language.

    I use the word all the time and consider it to be in line with darn and shit. So I asked my neighbor and was shocked to discover she considered it highly offensive and the same as ‘fuck’. So even if we tried to create warnings, there is no general agreement as to the severity of words and actions. Different people interpret them differently.

  4. Julia Barrett

    Hell no. People calling for trigger warnings are a. coddled b. too sensitive and c. have too much time on their hands.
    Makes me sick. We may as well live in a fascist state.
    And I speak as a person who survived child sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and was nearly murdered.

    1. Greta Post author

      I’d like to think the tone of the book should come across in the genre, the blurb and the sample. But I can see some point in indicating the ‘heat’ of the sex.

  5. Viv

    I’m kind of ambivalent. I want to be treated as an adult, yet there are things that would probably upset me in the books I’m drawn to read. However, being upset is NOT a bad thing, in the long run. It can be truly cathartic.
    I don’t worry about so-called bad language in books but it grates if it’s used too much, and just becomes an irritant if every character swears constantly.
    What I would loathe is if it did become a requirement, a disclaimer for every book. They would in essence be spoilers.

    1. Greta Post author

      I agree about the bad language, and yes, sometimes warnings become spoilers. It’s difficult, isn’t it?

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