Coffee and… Why Content / Trigger Warnings are Important

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?

coffee and...

The Coffee:

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 Discussion:

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.

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Have a pretty picture of a white bluebell before things get ranty around here.

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.

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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!

 

16 thoughts on “Coffee and… Why Content / Trigger Warnings are Important

Add yours

  1. It’s really interesting to read your personal take on this. They’re not something I’ve ever given much thought to, in that a bit like you say here I don’t need then so I just skip past on the whole.
    That said, I’d love if if YA especially had them on the back somewhere as it would make it easier to be sure books I’m talking about to young people in work wouldn’t affect them. Obviously I try to read or read about as many as possible but this would be a great at a glance way to check for any possible things we need to mention. In the same vein, not everyone speaks to us when browsing and buying so having potentially upsetting themes noted would surely help them too – I had one woman come in upset about a book that had themes of self harm and suicide as her daughter had been struggling with similar issues and read it without knowing l(interestingly her daughter actually enjoyed it and found it helpful, but that’s another discussion – either way she may have liked to know going on what it covered) She wasn’t upset with us, they’d just picked it up the selves, just that there was nothing on the book itself to suggest it would cover those topics.
    Sorry, long comment, but basically I agree!

    Like

    1. Some publishers (Hot Key stand out) are good at putting this on the back. It would definitely help if more publishers did, like you say, so that you can recommend books knowing that, and definitely just for potential customers browsing.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment on this. I’m loving seeing everyone’s responses.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a brilliant post, Charlotte, thank you for being open and talking about your own experience with trigger warnings. I feel that that trigger warnings can be seen as a weakness and having authors call them ‘nonsense’ just perpetuates that narrative instead of contributing to the conversation. I like how Hot-Key has the circle on the back and can give you a heads up on what themes pop up in the book – it really does give you time to prepare yourself or have a more informed choice whether to put the book down or not. I hope the conversation about trigger warnings and books come up again so that people can have more of a chance to prepare themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wrote a huge long comment and it’s disappeared into the ether 😭. The basic jist was that this is brilliant and you’re so good at writing discussions, publishers should definitely be including trigger warnings to give people a heads up about sensitive themes and I’m so glad my telling you about Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes helped you be able to read it 💜
    Amy x

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been here long enough to remember the OG book buying ban rant 😉😂. Ooh. I will try and think of other things for you to rant about. I enjoy them IMMENSELY. x

        Like

    1. Thanks Cora. I do enjoy a good rant about things! I definitely edge on the side of making people aware. Obviously books can’t cover all possible triggers but just a heads up on big themes would be good. Like, I don’t expect my specific issues to be trigger warnings, but a general “covers MH issues” would be enough for me to know I need to be careful.

      Like

  4. I knew when you first mentioned writing this post it was good to be a good one. You raise some very important points. There are no reasons why these shouldn’t be included on books regardless of the age of their target audience. They can only benefit the people who may be affected and those who don’t care for them can simply skip over them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Trigger warnings should definitely be added to books, and especially to YA books with more adult themes. I know I’d much rather know upfront if I might find the storyline distressing, than to read it and have an anxiety or panic attack.

    Liked by 1 person

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