It’s not that often I do this kind of chat / discussion type post, but this week, I’m sitting down with a topic that’s important to me personally: content / trigger warnings. Join me?
This week I’m drinking a Guatemalan coffee roasted by Clifton. It’s a while since we had a coffee from them, but the Finca Villaure with tasting notes of pink lady apples, lime and pecan has reminded me why we love their beans.
The discourse around trigger warnings in YA books seems to have died down now, but a couple of months ago it seemed that everyone in YA Book Twitter was ranting about content / trigger warnings on books. As usual, I am late to the party and I have some thoughts about this.
It all started when a writer on twitter said that they didn’t believe in trigger warnings because the point of literature was to be triggering. Either this person thinks books should intentionally cause harm to readers, or they don’t understand what a trigger warning actually is. This person was by no means the only person to comment on trigger warnings in a negative way. Earlier this year, I attended a panel at a bookish event where another author said they didn’t believe in trigger warnings, calling them “nonsense”. I don’t think I have ever gone off a person’s writing so fast in my life. YA Book Twitter also had a lot to say about them, with those against trigger warnings comparing them to spoilers, saying they make trauma survivors appear weak, and many references to this article, and the research it is based on suggesting trigger warnings don’t work.
What is a trigger warning? It’s a statement at the start of a book that tells the reader that this book may contain upsetting material, usually with the themes it tackles listed. Much like TV shows will start with a disclaimer that the show may contain flash photography, or “scenes some viewers may find upsetting” and cigarette packets come with a warning that smoking is bad for your health (talk about spoilers!)
Being me, I have a lot of things to say about trigger warnings, but I’m going to try to be brief.
1. Trigger warnings are not spoilers. They don’t tell you exactly what will happen in a book. They tell you themes that some people might be upset by.
2. You don’t have to read them. Shocking, I know. But it annoys me that a lot of people complain about what is (usually) a small paragraph of text that you can just ignore. Turn the page, move on with your life. It’s that easy.
3. A lot of people complaining about trigger warnings are the people who don’t need them. I appreciate this is a generalisation and that there will be people who have experienced trauma who don’t need trigger warnings, and people who haven’t but appreciate them because they don’t like to read about certain things. Just because you don’t need something, doesn’t mean it’s not useful to other people. If you don’t need them, move on. It’s really not that hard.
4. Requiring a trigger warning does not make you weak. Putting trigger warnings in books does not make others view trauma survivors as weak (and if it does then the other person is the problem, not the trauma survivor). Putting a trigger warning in a book acknowledges that that book might not be suitable for everyone and looks to protect the reader from potential harm. Avoiding something that will cause you harm is not a sign of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.
5. That research is seriously flawed. I could go into a whole rant about this, but I’m going to stick with the thing about it that annoyed me most: that research did not include data from anyone suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. People with PTSD are amongst the most likely to be triggered by unexpected content, and they were not included in research on the effectiveness of trigger warnings. Let that sink in for a moment.
And now I’m going to share a little bit about why I need trigger warnings and think they’re a useful thing, which was my recent reading of Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? by Holly Bourne.
For anyone who doesn’t know, I have PTSD. It is linked to my experience of childbirth and the immediate aftermath of my son’s birth 8 years ago. It’s not the sort of trigger I would expect to be warned about in a YA book. It is also the main reason I don’t read many adult books, because whilst childbirth and maternal mental health isn’t a big feature in YA, it is everywhere in adult books.
Fortunately, this book came with trigger warnings about mental health, and I knew from what was listed this was something that could affect me. I then had a friend (hi Amy!) who warned me that there was a bit in this book that she thought could be very triggering to me knowing my history. I asked her to give me spoilers and she did. Good friends will do this for you. This meant that I went into the book when I knew I was in a good place generally, and I had my coping strategies ready for if it was triggering.
Here’s what would have happened without that warning: I’d have read the triggering part of the book in the school entrance hall whilst waiting to collect my child. I would have had flashbacks and probably a panic attack. In my head I’d have been back in hospital again. If it was really bad I’d experience a sort of temporary paralysis where I couldn’t move my legs (mimicking the symptoms I had at the time). In reality, this breakdown would be happening in a school entrance hall with no-one I knew near me. When I could function again, I’d have been anxious and very on edge, probably a sobbing crying mess for a good few days afterwards. My sleep would be non-existent, not just that night but for days or even weeks afterwards, with horrific nightmares if I did sleep. And we all know the effects on our bodies of not sleeping well. I’d comfort eat to feel better, but feel worse and then the whole vicious cycle would start up of eating crap, sleeping crap, feeling crap etc. All from a couple of pages of a book. I have no control over these symptoms when I am not prepared for triggers to happen. When I come across a trigger without warning it is too late to put in place the strategies that help me.
Because I was warned, here’s what actually happened: I realised that bit was happening on the school run. I put the book away until I got home. I employed my coping strategies. I read the book. I talked it over with some people I trust. I got on with my life.
This is why trigger warnings are important: they give someone the choice about whether to go ahead with reading something, and to put strategies in place to protect their own mental health if they do. And I don’t see how that can ever be a bad thing.
What do you think about trigger warnings? I’m genuinely interested to see what other people make of them. Talk to me in the comments!