Should Books Come With Content Warnings?

I was going to write about my bookstagram in this week’s blog post. I was going to, but every time I sat down to write a blog post about my bookstagram, I was wracked with an unexplainable anxiety.

It took a while to pinpoint, but I finally realised why I felt so much stress over this week’s blog post; I wasn’t talking about what I really wanted to talk about and deep down, I knew it. I was just afraid to talk about it because my blog is new; my first book was only published last month and, being a new and relatively unknown author, I didn’t want to make anyone angry with me.

Well that’s no way for an author to live, is it? It’s a terrible way for anyone to live, but I think it’s particularly terrible for creative individuals. We thrive on expression and when that freedom of expression becomes stifled for any reason, it tears us apart.

This has been on my mind for a few years but it struck at the forefront of my mind again this week when I realised I was the only one adding “tw” (trigger warnings) to the captions on my bookstagram photos. Thankfully, my Instagram followers don’t seem to mind. If they do, they aren’t saying anything about it, but it made me think back to all the times in my life when I’ve asked for trigger warnings on something and been met with scorn and hurtful names like “snowflake,” “libtard crybaby,” and “millennial” (as if being born during a certain time period is somehow an insult in itself). It’s made me 1) Afraid to ask for trigger warnings on anything, 2) Afraid to even mention the word “trigger” in casual conversation with anybody, and 3) Afraid to consume new media because I’m afraid to ask for warnings. Since I don’t know what that media might contain and have been discouraged from asking about it, I end up just avoiding it entirely.

It’s important to note at this point that a trigger warning and a content warning are not the same thing, though there is some overlap. I don’t have a degree in psychology, so I’m sure much more could be added to further distinguish the two, but the following is how I’ll be distinguishing between the two terms for this post:

Content Warnings
Generally designed to inform parents about the content of a form of media so they can decide if the content is suitable for their child to be exposed to. Some establishments use content ratings to restrict people under a certain age from consuming such media. For example, most video game retailers will not sell a copy of Grand Theft Auto to a customer under the age of eighteen because Grand Theft Auto is rated M for Mature. Underage individuals cannot go to the movie theatre to see an R-rated film without an adult accompanying them.

Trigger Warnings
Specifically designed to inform trauma victims about the content of a form of media so they can decide for themselves whether the content is something they can safely view without suffering from a flashback related to their trauma. Unlike content ratings, there are no legal restrictions on who can consume media based on a trigger warning. The label is merely informative and allows individuals to make their own choices based on the content information provided.

With that lengthy introduction and those definitions out of the way, we come to the big question of this week’s post:

Should books have content warnings on them just like movies and TV shows?

My answer would be no to content warnings, but yes to trigger warnings. I don’t like the idea of bookstores restricting someone from buying a book based on the person’s age. I don’t want my future children to walk into a bookstore and pick up a book, go to the counter to pay for it only to be told “Sorry but this book is rated R. We don’t think you’re old enough to read this book, so we can’t sell this to you.” That’s my job as a parent to monitor what my children are reading, not the bookstore’s. I can’t imagine that I would restrict very many books from my children, anyway.

I do think trigger warnings are necessary and that every book should come with them, mainly because I like that trigger warnings don’t enforce anything on readers. They simply inform the readers of the book’s content and then allow readers to decide to either read it or put it down and find something else, instead. I feel like trigger warnings give freedom to everyone. They give authors the freedom to continue to write about what they want without censoring any content and they give readers the freedom to browse books and pick books to read based on their personal interests and needs. I would compare it to a news segment where graphic footage is about to be shown and the anchors warn the audience that they are about to show graphic footage. The viewers at home then have the choice to continue watching or change the channel, but they aren’t restricted from viewing it, nor is the news station restricted from showing it.

You might think “Well I’m not a trauma victim, why do I need a trigger warning?” but think of it this way. Even if you are not recovering from a traumatic experience, you may simply just not like reading books with excessive violence or gore. In that case, you would be able to glance at the trigger warning to find out whether the book is something you might want to read or not. You might also think “Well, I don’t have a problem reading anything, so I don’t need a trigger warning.” That’s great, and in that case, you don’t need to pay attention to the trigger warnings when browsing for books. No one’s going to stop you from reading what you want because of the trigger warning; they just inform, they don’t regulate.

While trigger warnings are designed to help people recovering from trauma, they really help everyone. Even better, they restrict no one. They just offer a choice. People not in recovery from trauma would remain completely unaffected by trigger warnings, but trigger warnings would help those who are struggling with specific kinds of trauma to explore more literature without being afraid of accidentally undoing the progress they’ve made towards their recovery.

To end on a more personal note, I think if books did come with trigger warnings, I wouldn’t be so afraid to try and read new books because I would have the security of knowing I have a choice.

Having the choice available is key.

Copyright © 2017 A.A. Frias

9 thoughts on “Should Books Come With Content Warnings?

  1. You’ve made complete sense and I completely agree with you on all points! I read a book a few months ago which, while an OK read and I was fine with it, most definitely needed such a trigger warning. It’s terrible that you’ve scorned concerning the subject.

    I’ve been blogging for just over a year, book reviews ect, and found the book community very accepting and happy to have discussions at these. I hope you continue to post things you wish to discuss, despite your blog being new. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the kind comment! Sometimes I will read books despite a trigger warning for something I’m sensitive to, but in those cases, I’ve chosen to read it knowing what it contains so I feel like I can mentally brace myself for it a little better. It’s not a sudden shock, which I think is the worst part.

      I agree the book and writing community is generally very kind and accepting of different viewpoints. I follow one blogger whom I don’t always agree with 100% but I enjoy the discussions we have about his posts and I still look forward to reading his thoughts about many issues.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t have any problems with warnings on books since they can help readers understand what’s inside – although the blurb should give you a good indication of the content – but who will be writing these warnings? Things that might set me off might have little impact on you and vice versa. Perhaps a generally accepted list of things. This book contains: violence, guns, sex, magic, anti-religious theory, whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would imagine the publishing house would include the warnings if such a thing were to be implemented on a wide scale, but you’re right. When I put trigger warnings on my bookstagram posts, I generally try to think of things that are common traumatic subjects for many people, not just myself. The most common trigger warnings I use are extreme violence, intense gore, domestic violence, sexual violence, animal abuse, child abuse, etc. When I say trigger warnings, I’m specifically talking about things that would traumatize someone, not necessarily things that people dislike.

      I don’t generally tag my bookstagram posts with things like sex, nudity, magic, anti-religious theory, etc, mainly because while some people might have religious or moral objections to these things, they aren’t necessarily traumatic. If we tagged books with any kind of subject matter that someone might dislike, the list would go on forever, which is why I stick to things that would cause serious psychological harm to people who’ve experienced different types of trauma.

      I’m not interested in protecting people from reading things they simply don’t approve of; however, I have a vested interest in protecting people who would be seriously harmed by being exposed to certain traumatic subject matter without any warning. The best way to protect these people without making decisions for them is to put the choice in their hands by simply informing them and then letting them choose.

      That was a bit lengthy, but I hope that distinction makes sense. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually agree with you to a point. I don’t know if my original comment made that clear, but that was the intention of it, anyway. Certainly there are people out there who extremely adverse reactions to some scenarios and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to let those people know, “Hey, this kind of bad stuff is in here. Just giving you a heads-up.” In the long run, it doesn’t hurt anything and might actually help someone. The problem will be getting buy-in from the rest of the writing world and having a static list of things to look for and a bright line of what separates run-of-the-mill violence from graphic violence. My only real worry is it opens writers up to possible litigation when we have a list of triggers in a given text and fail to add one that causes a negative reaction. It’s a good post, and I enjoyed reading it, so don’t think I’m trying to knock it or anything.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. People are resistant to change. I don’t see an issue with having the warnings on a book, but more with the implementation of it. Like the comments before, who would be in charge and how would it be regulated if at all. I would worry too how much content would have to be present to warrant a warning? A brief mention, a description over a few paragraphs or pages? I think it’s going to take a few years for people to get on board with trigger warnings and how to universally implement them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. These are things we need to think about and figure out if we are to implement these kinds of trigger warnings on literature, but I don’t think we should shy away from the idea simply because it sounds like it’s too hard to do. Like you said, people are resistant to change. They’ll come up with any excuse not to disrupt what’s already in place, even if change would improve things.

      Thanks for giving your input! You and a few others brought up some good points about implementation.


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