Thinking out loud… Content warnings for books

We’ve all read a book (or many) that contains something that we find personally offensive, distressing, or off putting. Many of us might have certain themes we’d prefer to avoid, I certainly do. But how do we go about this? I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be able to identify if a book is going to contain one of my ‘trigger’ themes. Blurbs are not always as comprehensive as they should be, and even when they are, they still don’t tend to fully disclose content. Which brings me to a point of concern: that potentially distressing content is being considered as a ‘plot twist’ or a ‘plot surprise’ that needs to be kept secret so as not to ‘spoil the story’.

I have a few issues with this.

Everything we watch, from movies to television shows and even documentaries, have a rating and are prefaced with a content warning. Yet books are not, and as anyone who reads will know, just because you’re reading it instead of watching it doesn’t make it any less distressing. Imaginations are vivid landscapes and once seen, it’s very difficult to un-see. So why can’t publishers put a content warning in the front of a book, indicating that it contains potentially distressing material? You could surely word up a warning, alluding to the theme without fully ‘spoiling’ the story. And anyway, I’d honestly rather know what I’m in for because finding out that a child has been sexually abused, as just one example, is not a plot twist I relish.
What does everyone else think on this? Are there any themes you would prefer to avoid that you’ve been distressingly caught out on? Would you like to see relevant content warnings in the front of books and to what sort of themes do you think it should extend to? Whose responsibility is it to warn readers? The author, or the publisher?

31 thoughts on “Thinking out loud… Content warnings for books

  1. There was a time when I would have been dead against any kind of warning on books because I think we should be open to all kinds of experiences, but now I’m not so sure.
    I was caught out with Carrie Tiffany’s most recent book which gave no hint of its sexual abuse content and although I love CT’s writing I wouldn’t have read it if I’d known. But the thing is, what distressed me most about that book was not the actions of the abuser because that was not graphically portrayed — but rather the vividly portrayed effect on the child. For a long time afterwards, and even now just writing about it to you, it triggers visions of what was done to a child I taught and my awareness of the terrible long-term effect on her. I read the sadomasochistic Story of O as a young woman, and even writing its title still triggers revolting images in my mind too. I can see how the latter could have a sticker warning against explicit content, but not how it could be done with the Tiffany book.
    There must be an appetite for this kind of content because writers and publishers are endlessly churning out books featuring domestic violence, and sexual abuse against children of both sexes. It’s like the appetite for ever more grisly depictions of violent crime against women. I don’t understand why people write it, and I don’t understand why people want to read it either. But how you could warn against awful books like One Foot Wrong; and Room and so on, I do not know. Instead I have learned to avoid certain authors who are preoccupied with themes I find distasteful.
    I do know of one bookseller who has told me that her customers and the book group she runs through her shop do not like it at all, and she doesn’t stock much of it (basically only the ones on prize shortlists) because it doesn’t sell to her clientele.
    So we are not alone in our distaste for this material…

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    • I’ve been a parent for 18 years now and worked in education for 10 years and over this time my view on this has changed. What I used to read and tolerate is vastly different to what I read and tolerate now, and I think that’s largely to do with those factors.
      I am certain that non-spoiler content warnings are possible. An author commented on this post on Facebook that she uses content warnings and provided an example of one she herself included in one of her own books:
      eg: from Two Hearts Healing “This book includes discussion of toxic parenting, and a traumatic brain injury.”
      To me, this is ideal. It doesn’t spoil, but it gives the reader a heads up.
      But I can’t see it happening in a widespread way, so I suppose we’ll just have to press on with our own techniques of gauging whether a book is going to leave us traumatised or not.
      Have you heard the phrase ‘trauma porn’? It’s been bandied about on social media of late in relation to violent books. While it’s a rather distasteful catch phrase, it does kind of hit the mark.

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      • Yes, I’ve heard that expression, and while I don’t like it either, I can see how it might apply to books which pander to an unhealthy interest in this sort of material.

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  2. There must be a way to do it – even if it’s just something like may contain violence, sex – something like that. But then I wonder – would that be enough for some people or too much for others? Where is the happy medium, so to speak, so people can prepare themselves but not have a plot spoiled? I think it does need to be done, though. We just need to find a way to get the balance of enough warning without spoilers right. Personally, often I get a sense from reading the back, without the warnings. That can tell me the story might appeal. It is a hard one, definitely. I’m never sure how to tackle them in reviews – because I think the actual book and publisher should shoulder this responsibility. As bloggers, we’re looking to promote it to the right reader – and I know a lot of people dislike reviews having spoilers that might actually be content warnings. I suppose we all have a responsibility but if the warnings were on books, even in the front cover, it would help.

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  3. I look to the genre for guidance first, then I check the reviews.
    As to why authors write about particular subjects in such detail or why people keep reading such subject matter, doesn’t (imho) adversely reflect on either. Perhaps it’s cathartic for both the author and the reader?The reader always has the choice to look away…maybe not as soon as they might have done in hindsight, but still…I’m reminded of the tree falling in the forest question…If I didn’t hear it, did it still happen?
    I have been absolutely devastated by (detailed) things I’ve read in books which I didn’t see coming, (A Little Life being a good example) yet I wouldn’t ‘unread’ it for anything.
    It might be a personal thing but my own insatiable need for deeper meaning and understanding keeps me from looking away, I feel that if I don’t know the details then I can’t begin to try to understand the why’s.
    Not only does it show the extremes of human madness but also the extremes of human resilience, and that is maybe the bit that drives hope.
    Writing is a way of expressing your voice where it wouldn’t otherwise have been heard. Not everyone chooses to listen, but some will and it might just help (both the author and the audience) in some small way.
    I think we just have to make our own informed choices about what we read because we can, and that’s a good thing.
    I’d hate for my reading choices to be limited or pigeonholed by someone else’s tastes.
    I believe that sometimes the book finds the reader.

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    • There are certainly genres that one can expect distressing content in. Crime, of course, is an obvious one. I like to have a look at reviews too, however, often I’m reading books so early as a reviewer that there’s nothing to go by! #jobpitfall 😁
      I’ve read some really disturbing books in the past that have also been very good. But I just seem to be a little trauma fatigued in recent years and I’m also finding that blurbs are too vague.

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  4. I’ve read a lot of pros and cons for this – the pros being that it obviously helps people avoid triggers and the cons being that it can spoil key plot points. I have one pretty severe trigger but it’s not about something that has happened -to- me, rather something that I have lived because it happened to someone else, something that will always be a part of our lives because of the nature of it. When I know a book includes it, I can make an informed choice to read it or not or make sure I’m in the sort of frame of mind where I can cope with it. But books often hit you with it as “surprise!” and I find that really distressing. And I think I’d probably be even worse if my trigger/s were something that had happened to me personally and/or were something deeply scarring psychologically. I’d probably toss a lot more books aside. Or I’d stick to genres I knew were “safe books”. I don’t know how such a warning system would work though, because there are some books where for those where this particular thing isn’t a trigger, it would probably spoil a key plot point or perhaps shocking reveal. I’m also not overly bothered about spoilers though, but some people feel very, very differently about that. I know people that buy and read books without even reading the blurb because they don’t want to be spoiled. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be into trigger warnings plastered across the front of a book!

    It’s a really interesting topic I think. And I don’t have a definitive answer but I know for sure I’d like to be aware of when a book contains something I find personally upsetting and I’m sure others do too, especially when it can be something that has a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing.

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    • I’m not put off by spoilers either and with both books and shows/movies I’ll often look for spoilers to see if it’s something I really want to experience. But yes, not many people are like that.
      I think this might be something that authors would have to do themselves, rather than publishers, but again, trauma is relative to the person, so even the author might think it’s no big deal while a reader might think it’s horrific.
      One of the most distressing things I’ve read in recent times was in Jodi Picoult’s last release, where she graphically described an abortion as it was being performed by the doctor. She did that purely for shock value and I think that’s wrong. There should have been a content warning for that. Even if it was broadly put as ‘potentially distressing and graphic medical procedures’. In a book about pro versus against abortion, you would put two and two together if you saw that at the front of a book. And honestly, if that spoils it, who cares? Does anyone really WANT a surprise like that. At least if you had a inkling it was coming you could choose to skip that part.
      Generally speaking though, I reckon broad content warnings are entirely possible without spoiling the plot. They exist perfectly well for TV and movies after all.

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  5. Hmm, this is a fascinating, yet really tricky area. For some reason, I think I have become less able to cope with reading about certain things in literature than I used to be, possibly because I am looking to find some kind of order or patterns in my reading to counterbalance the lack of such qualities in real life. I have also become much more in tune with my own moods and preferences, so for the most part, I am not often caught out by content I might find upsetting.
    Having said that, I recently read what I would generally class as a comforting, even fluffy novel which at a certain point described a character deciding to have an abortion. I wasn’t expecting that at all, and although it was very gently handled, I couldn’t get it out of my head for the rest of the book, and even beyond. In a funny way, I actually think it was the somewhat muted way it was described which I found disturbing and unsettling, but as it wasn’t a major part of the story, I don’t think it could have been included on a blurb or spoiler. I guess that experience has shown me that one never knows as a reader when or if something might really hit them and cause potential emotional distress.

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    • I’ve become far more choosy in my reading too, possibly because there are definitely things I just don’t want to read about anymore. There’s some topics that seem to have become almost fashionable to write about but I definitely have trauma fatigue when it comes to them. But in saying that, it’s made me more vigilant when considering what I’m going to read.
      You’re right too, no one really knows what’s going to hit someone else and to what degree.

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  6. There are two major concerns I have about content/trigger warnings.
    The first is the way it could be manipulated to encourage censorship, general content warnings without context could encourage overreach, and specific warnings could encourage targeted censorship – I can imagine bigots, zealots and politicians wanting to get in on the act and demanding books be labelled if they contain a bi-racial relationship, or themes about climate change, for example. It’s a slippery slope.
    Secondly, I believe books make an important contribution to developing empathy and tolerance. If readers (or those choosing the reading material) use content warnings to start actively avoiding information that makes them uncomfortable, or challenges their personal experience, or their world view, again, I think we would all be poorer for it.
    I respect that some want to be warned about specific content, but I believe people are capable of simply skimming or skipping the section, or of just not reading further.

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  7. I agree with you.

    There are a few things I really don’t like to read about. It’s nice to have advanced warning that they’ll be included in a plot.

    I try to warn my readers about common triggers in my reviews, too. It seems fair.

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    • I had another blogger who appears to be an author or at least an aspiring one write a blog post in response to this, and while she wasn’t directly rude, she didn’t agree at all and accused me of wanting to live in a bubble. Looking at her bio though, I quickly gathered the impression that she is a writer of the sort of material I like the least, hence her outrage. But, I feel she kind of missed the point too, because she has her own agenda and to acknowledge that readers might not want to read what she’s written is in opposition to that.
      I also think it’s important not to confuse warning about books with banning books. Two very different things! But in the end, I think we’ll need to just keep relying on our own gut feelings and the helpful reviews of others who are sensitive enough to flag an issue. I try to include a subtle warning in my reviews if I feel it warrants it.

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  8. I think this is where book reviewers and bloggers (like us! hehe) are vital. We’re filling a gap by giving readers a heads-up on what a book will contain, where the publishers won’t or can’t do so. I’m very lucky in that I have a fairly strong stomach, and can tolerate most triggers – but the one thing I can’t handle is dogs. Any kind of cruelty towards them, or heart-wrenching deaths, is just horrible for me and will send me into total despair. I take an image of a dog on the cover of any book as my own personal trigger warning: chances are, something terrible will happen to that dog in the book, and that’s how I know it’s not for me.

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  9. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of content warnings on literature. I cannot see how warnings for the sorts of things you are talking about can work. Where is the line drawn? “Toxic parenting”? Sorry, Theresa, but what’s that?

    I really think that the best thing is to rely on blurbs, reviews, your knowledge of genres and particular authors, and then stop reading if you see something going a way you don’t want it to. (It’s much easier to stop reading, I think, than it is to not see something which suddenly flashes on the screen?)

    I don’t think I consciously give many warnings in my reviews, and I certainly won’t if it’s a spoiler. But, I have been asked in comments about things – mostly cruelty to animals. And I answer them.

    I have no problem with people writing about abuse etc. Fiction (literary fiction in particular) is about writers expressing themselves, exploring what they want to explore – and that tends to be about capturing the zeitgeist. Right now these abuse and domestic violence issues are coming out in real life and therefore also in fiction.

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    • I think I need to employ the stop reading tactic more often. Although, for the most part, it’s only those books who use trauma as plot twists, where it comes as a bolt out of the blue, that catch me. And it’s not like I don’t want to read the ‘hard’ topics. More just pondering, to be honest. I did predict you would be against content warning though! I’ve enjoyed raising it as a discussion point. Many things have been pointed out that I hadn’t considered.

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      • You know me too well! But basically Shelleyrae says what I feel/felt, plus my point about what sort of warning?

        I’m not sure I’ve read trauma as plot twists though I have read many books where I didn’t know at the beginning that that was going to be an issue. However, at what point is it a plot twist versus plot or narrative development?

        I agree though that it’s worth pondering, so I enjoyed reading your post. I have read other bloggers on this but a year or more ago, and can’t remember who!

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      • Commercial fiction is more guilty of it than literary. I guess I’m calling it a twist because it seems to be inserted into the plot as a surprise, for shock value, rather than built into the plot and developed. It’s that kind of thing I really don’t like.
        Your point about warning types was raised by both Kim Kelly and Tabitha Bird who contributed to this over on the Facebook post. They both have written books that have the potential to trigger a range of emotions and as they rightly pointed out, the list of warnings could get long!

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      • Oh, I haven’t seen the Facebook one. I’ll try to check it later, but I’m glad I’m not the only one. And I think you’re probably right about commercial fiction being more likely to have the twist than the development approach.

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      • Ah, that’s it. I remember now. They stopped the feed to profiles only allowing it to go to pages, a couple of years ago. Infuriating. I don’t want to set up a page just for that. I manage enough social media as it is, including a page for another group.

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      • I had my page before my blog, originally set up as an author page when I was writing my novels. It transitioned to a place where I would blog and now is utilised wholly in conjunction with my blog. If it hadn’t already been set up with established followers, it would have been rather annoying to start from scratch.

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      • Yes, I guessed that. There’s no real need for me to have a page – I’m not about promoting myself as a blogger, though I perfectly understand the need for authors to have as many social media outlets as they can manage. I know Lisa has a page, but I don’t visit it, so am not sure how active it is in terms versus her blog.

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