Two questions were posed on the internet this week about books that have really gotten to me.
The first was whether books should have trigger warnings – warnings about the themes the books might contain, similar to warnings or classifications for film.
Currently some websites and blogs contain trigger warnings, but now some colleges in the US are proposing to put them on required reading texts and course workbooks. How long I wonder before they’re proposed for fiction?
Putting trigger warnings on books would be the first step toward book restriction. Think about it – if trigger warnings were imposed, accepted by the public and industry and imposed by some authority, then couldn’t they also restrict which books are published?
Here in Queensland, Australia where I live, the novel American Psycho was banned when it was first released because the content was deemed too extreme and that children might be exposed to it. So what, there was a possibility that American Psycho might have been placed next to Green Eggs and Ham by mistake? Banning that book was done out of fear and these ideas about trigger warnings is once again a product of the same fear, but only a softer, more under-handed approach. Surely a lecturer can simply give a verbal warning to their students – why deface a book to appease an overly politically correct society or sensitive individual?
The horror genre is easily defined against all other genres, because of its themes and usually violent content. But good horror stories always put the gore and blood in context with the overall story. Horror books should never be judged by the violence within alone and these trigger warnings would act as an unfair prejudice on a book.
Ultimately potential readers make up their minds about a book when they look at the front and back covers. Usually, a horror book cover will literally scream horror and the reader will get the gist of the content within by reading the back cover blurb. If it seems like it will be too much for them they’ll put it down and move on to something else, right? They don’t need a book cover to be stained with trigger warnings!
Maybe I’m getting worked up over nothing, because such an idea would never be supported, but these days their seems to be so many assaults on our freedom of speech. As an author I don’t want anyone to prejudice my work because they might find horror offensive. If you don’t like horror, don’t read it!
The other question – Is Horror Literature? was handled much more succinctly by Glen Hirshberg over at the TorForge blog.
Of course, Glen’s right, horror has always been literature since ghost stories were first told in caves. It’s in our nature to need to be frightened – it’s part of our survival. The Gothic Novel brought horror into the literary mainstream with works like The Monk by Matthew Lewis and it will continue to play a part in storytelling for as long as we have need to point out the good and evil in this world.
Check out my Horror – the Best Thing You’ve Never Read post if you need more convincing.
Great post, Greg! I was first introduced to book banning in high school when the powers-that-be got all up in arms about Peter Shaffer’s ‘Equus’, which we were studying. My amazingly-awesome English teacher fought for it to be taught, and we (as students) rallied behind him. We didn’t win that battle (the Catholic supervisory board is a powerful being), but it had the opposite effect — more students wanted to read this book that had garnered such vitriol and fear from those meant to nurture our knowledge.
I’m no fan of trigger warnings either — I think it’s a very slippery slope. And who’s responsible for ensuring these warning are placed on the book? The author? The editor? The publisher? And how do you decide which trigger warning to place on a story? What may cause trauma for one may not for another. Does that mean combing through a book, dissecting for even the most remote inkling of something that may, *may* ‘trigger’ trauma. And what if you get it wrong? What if you miss something? What then?
Those who read, those who engage in learning (higher or otherwise) should be smart enough to discern the contents of a book/story/essay/study paper without putting the onus on the author. If someone picks up a horror tome, chances are pretty damn high there will be themes and instances that evoke fear, terror and anxiety — that’s why you read them and why we write them. Are we now responsible, even remotely, for the ‘poor choices’ of the individual? /rant 🙂
Is horror literature? Don’t even.
Totally agree AJ. Another example of trigger warnings is for comic books, like DC Comics Vertigo line which carry the tag “Suggested for Mature Readers”. I think this is acceptable because comics are a format more associated with children, but no more than that. But then I think back to Frederick Werthem’s censorship of EC Comics and how awful that was.
I’ve been known to add trigger warnings to my own work under certain circumstances – not everybody on my critical reader list will want to read about some of the things I explore/depict, and it’s important to me to honor that. I feel a similar responsibility to my readers at large – I understand from personal experience a little of how PTSD type effects as a result of prior trauma can really mess someone’s day up. By definition triggers are different for everyone, and it’s not possible to anticipate what might ‘set someone off’ but it is possible to anticipate that certain themes are likely to resonate very strongly with some people. I am 1000% against any kind of mandatory imposition of such warnings, but I’m quite comfortable with using them myself on my own work, as I deem appropriate. I have an absolute right, as a writer, to total freedom of expression without limits. How I chose to exercise that right is up to me. I choose to issue trigger warnings, where I consider it appropriate, because I personally think it’s the responsible thing to do, and because bluntly I only want to freak people out who want to be freaked out.
Thanks Kit. I guess it comes down to personal preference – on both the reader and the author. For me, I wouldn’t want anyone tagging my work with warnings.
To be crystal clear, I don’t want anyone else tagging my work either. I do it myself, when I do it myself, out of choice. I’m utterly opposed to any mandatory labeling.
Oh, I got that. I just think the whole idea is simply censorship, not only of authors, but readers too. We live in a ridiculously PC society that wants to restrict everything we read, but if we’re going to put trigger warnings on literature, let’s start with newspapers – or the Bible, not textbooks or fiction.