Tag Archives: content warning

Should content warnings be standard on books?

WARNING symbolThe 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.