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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Should Books Have Trigger Warnings?

Recently, I was reading someone's blog post that was reviewing a Stephen King book. I can't really recall what the book was, but a comment by the blogger gave me pause. They mentioned how they wished there were trigger warnings for some of the content in the book. So, this made me wonder - should books have trigger warnings for specific content?

In all my life reading, I have never thought to expect that. However, I have to admit, there have been several times when reading a book that I've thought, "Yikes, I wish I hadn't read that scene." And sometimes, it even turns me away from the author completely.

I think the idea of trigger warnings have come around more recently. I did a little digging on the subject and found quite a few articles that don't exactly support the idea. In fact, one article written by a professor who discussed this very issue stayed with me. She says in the article, "I want to tell my students: sometimes I might not warn you. Not out of malice, but because I care. Because the outside world is full of triggers." (Read it in full here).

And it's an excellent point. As writers, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, we're either writing about reality or we're inspired by it. And often they are raw and painful moments or topics. And if we ask for trigger warnings in books, I wonder if we run the risk of editing out reality. Or not publishing reality at all.

But then while writing this blog post, I did some further digging on Google to find different perspectives and found a really good guest post on the subject and how writers can do it. You can read it here. The guest post writer, author Bran L Ayres says, "Being triggered can feel a lot like that, except throw in graphic memories of a trauma and extend the time over hours and days. It is not fun, and it pretty much guarantees I’ll never read anything you write again."

It's quite possible that when we hear or read the term "trigger warning," we don't exactly know what it means. Or maybe I should personalize it and say that I don't really understand what it means. We're in a day and age where we, as a society, are trying to have important discussions about mental illness and mental health. We have warnings for movies (in fact, IMDB has a "parental guide" where you can see if there are violent scenes or explicit sexual content). So, why not have some type of warning system inside of books?

I found another interesting guest post on the subject where a reader had left a comment for the author where they said, "Trigger warnings are for people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As someone who has PTSD and actually has to seek out signs for potential triggers when I engage in materials, trigger warnings are literally supposed to help prevent me, who has experienced trauma, from going into panic and/or fight or flight mode." (You can read the rest of the comment and article here; it's a good one).

After doing more reading on the subject, I can't say for sure how I feel anymore, but it makes me think. And I think I'm even more open to the idea than I was when I first started this blog post.

One thought that occurred to me is that trigger warnings come in all shapes and sizes. What is a trigger for one person may not be a trigger (or even seem like one) to someone else. A good quote about that is from an essay called "Trigger Warnings" by WOW instructor Chelsey Clammer. Chelsey herself had PTSD from a sexual assault, but it's not the thought of the stranger's hands on her body or seeing a brown dress like the one she was wearing that scares her; in fact, it's an association with the color Kelly Green. To further illustrate her point, she says:

"What if, instead, I decided to tell the story of the cute puppy my mother bought me for my 5th birthday? What if, instead of being triggered by stories of sexual violence, you got panic attacks from thinking about puppies because you saw a puppy run over by a truck when you were five and it profoundly altered your spiritual beliefs to the point that you now have unmanageable anxiety when considering the purpose of life?

"How can I warn the world of every word I am about to say?

"And what if thinking about trigger warnings triggers you?

"Warning: this sentence contains the word 'trigger.'

"Who should be responsible for warning you of your uncertainties?" (Read the rest of this essay here).

Before I close, I want to tell you that when I search for images for blog posts, I visit Not only are most of the photos high quality, but they are also creative commons (which means they can be freely used). Well, as I searched for the term "warning" to coincide with the theme of this post, I found a few "Adult Content" alerts. These could be tame images or they could explicit. However, I trusted these warnings and decided not to click. It made me wonder about other content warnings I haven't really noticed and have taken for granted.

With that, I'll turn it to you. What do you think? Should books have trigger warnings?


  1. This is an excellent, thought-provoking post, Nicole! Personally, I've lived with PTSD for a long time, and a certain image (a noose) is a trigger for me. Do you know how many movies, westerns, etc. have a noose in them? Ugh, too many to count. None of those ever had a trigger on them. I think it's hard to police the world because one person's trigger is not another person's. A piece of rope could do it for me, but I don't think every book or movie that has rope in it should include a warning. It's something I've had to learn how to deal with. My memoir includes a noose/suicide, and it also includes DV, sexual assault, and drug use. The cover copy will make it clear that these things are included; and I think in memoir, readers understand that these kinds of topics will be discussed in-depth and truthfully. In fiction, it's more of a story choice. I'll let fiction writers talk about that. :)

    I also only write for adults, and hope that adults have learned how to manage their triggers. I don't have kids and don't write for children, and I know some YA books contain even edgier content than adult literature, so that may be where this trigger warning issue or labeling could be more useful. Again, I'll let writers who have and write for kids chime in. But for me, as a memoirist who writes for adults, I don't really believe in them.

  2. PS. Chelsey's essay is AMAZING!! And so inspiring. Thank you for linking to it. :)

  3. Nicole--I agree with Angela. Chelsey's essay is incredible. I loved how she intertwined parts of the book with her thoughts and the interview.

    The trigger warning came up in the class I teach during the summers. An essay we used touched upon the subject of rape. There was nothing graphic. There wasn't much text devoted to it. It was merely mentioned (if I'm remembering correctly), but that was too much for a teacher. She was quite angry we hadn't warned the group. I felt wretched for a long while after that.

    How can we spin a cocoon to protect everyone? Sometimes it's an everyday phrase that triggers a panic attack or an emotional reaction. What if a particular odor is a trigger, and that scent in mentioned in a book? How can we protect everyone? Should we even try?

    (I use Common Sense Media. They cover books and movies, and get specific with language, sex, violence and drug use.)

    Great post. It got me thinking...

  4. Angela,
    I don't actually think that YA books are edgier. Yes, some are very edgy. But so is some adult lit. People just object when it is written for young people. We forget that many of them have to deal with these things every day.

    And literature is a much less confrontational way for them to confront it. After all, you can close the book or turn off the reader.

    Do I think we should include trigger warnings? I go back and forth on this one. We can guess at some triggers but others feel random although they aren't. We just haven't had the experience that led to it being a trigger.

    When I review, I try to mention the things that I think may bother some readers. But I never review a book that I don't recommend even though I may have to recommend it with certain cautions.

  5. @Angela - you made a great point! I do hope that adults know how to manage their triggers and identify risk areas. And it's truly impossible to identify what could potentially be triggers for people.

    @Sioux - I have felt bad once when I put a tour together and I heard from a reviewer about a scene that shocked them that they read in the books. Makes me feel bad I didn't warn them more but I don't always think to do that.

    @Sue - I go back and forth too! One person's comment I read that made me think was not that we need to identify the triggers, so to speak, but do more to provide ways people can find help. Maybe that's more of the way to go.

  6. It might be interesting to put ratings on books like they do with movies, but that isn't really the same thing as warning of triggers. I honestly don't think there is any true way to warn of triggers because it's impossible to determine what will be real triggers. Often the person reading doesn't know what will be a trigger until it actually happens, in many cases. I think it just takes a little extra time to read the book blurbs. If authors or blurb writer's wo their jobs appropriately, that should make a huge difference. I've been able to avoid trigger books, and movies, just taking the time to learn more about a book, or movie, and often the author.

  7. Dorian-Alexander6:02 PM

    I definitely think that there should be a way of knowing what you're getting into when picking up a piece of literature. I'm a student, and in my English Literature class, we just recently finished Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and are now a little over halfway through Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I have had some, ah, *issues* in the past. I doubt that this was as big of an issue for the majority of my classmates, however I would have definitely benefited from some sort of warning. I think that (as a bare minimum) teachers should let their students know if the book or play that they will be studying contains more common triggers. [Heads up - I'm going to be mentioning a variety of triggers quite soon]. While I agree that it is unrealistic for every single trigger to be accounted for, things such as abuse (direct or implied), violence, suicide, self-harm, racism, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia, addiction, drug and/or alcohol use, sexual assault, rape, harassment, use of slurs, and probably a handful of other things I can't think of at the moment should be brought up before that potentially triggering content becomes required reading, and before it becomes a focus of a class discussion. For me personally, the end of Crime and Punishment (and many, many parts of Streetcar) were very hard to read, and I was not adequately prepared for it. I don't like using this word, as it feels it has been corrupted by the internet, but... I was triggered.
    I'm currently working on creating a resource (although it is in the very early stages... First I need to teach myself how to create a website.) where students, or really just anyone who is going to read a book, can hopefully find the piece of literature they're looking for and find out what they should look out for, and where. I'm planning for it to be mainly community-created, like wikipedia, with trigger warnings for each chapter or scene of as many books as possible.
    This will hopefully be a helpful little thingy for readers. :)
    (Also, I imagine Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Sophocles aren't going to reanimate and put trigger warnings on all of their writing. So this won't make it necessary for writers to include warnings, although I plan to, whenever I get around to finishing my projects.)
    My apologies for my excessively verbose comment. It's probably quite a bit longer than it needs to be. Anyway, those are my thoughts, and I hope you have a nice day! :)


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