The Trigger Warning Debate is Back

The term “Trigger Warning” has been controversial in the literary world since (roughly) 2018. Readers have been demanding a list of book content to keep them from spiraling into the darkened confines of their emotional and mental psyche. Likewise, some authors prefer to keep their work in the dark, stating that listing possible issues in the prose will “spoil” the story. More recently, the world of TikTok, specifically BookTok, has reignited the Trigger Warning controversy.

Before the debate begins, let’s look at the term “Trigger Warning”. Initially used in psychology and therapies, a “Trigger” can be a phrase or event that elicits a visceral reaction to a person. For example, if someone was emotionally and psychologically abused in a relationship, certain things could “trigger” a psychological response, including a severe panic attack. This unknown person could have the phrase “you are being too emotional” or “quit being emotional” as a triggering phrase. Triggers are essential for people to know and understand because it helps us heal and recognize what is causing our panic attacks.

A trigger is essentially the flip of a light switch. Our emotional response thereby becomes the electricity that flows through the current. It can be destructive to ourselves and the people around us should we not be grounded. When we go through therapy and learn that the trigger response is our flight/fight response, we know how to work through and around them. Triggers are to help a person understand themselves better.

And now we have to look at the term “trigger warning” in literature and media and how it can be a problem. For one, not everyone has experienced the same traumas and will not have the triggers even if the trauma is the same. Also, the term “trigger” is used in therapy settings. Literature and other forms of media should never be used as therapy. They can be used as a tool in therapy or a way to safely experience a past trauma, but media should NEVER replace treatment. Because of these reasons, authors have a hard time with the idea of placing a trigger warning in their books.

So, because of this, let’s replace the term “trigger warning” with “content warning.” This takes away the perceived responsibility of an author towards a reader’s healing journey. This is only one step, though. There is still the controversy on whether or not listing a book’s content are spoilers, what kind of content should be listed, and possibly the biggest problem in the mix: where to put the list.

Let me begin with this moment to explain one glaring thing to readers. It is not the responsibility of an author to list their content. If they do not want to, they do not have to. You, as a consumer, have every right to not buy the book or read it but do not demand a list or be unnecessarily rude to an author because they decided to not provide a content list.

That said, Authors, making a list is not hard and is not spoiling your book. You technically already provide some content listing in your blurb. With a few sentences changed, certain content could be addressed alongside the general gist of the story. Because of this, Readers, you need to look at the context clues given in a blurb as there could be a general idea of content there you are missing.

If you choose to make a list of content, though, you may end up with some trouble depending on the distribution site you use. A book’s description can be a finicky thing, and there have been cases where a book is not released because of the description. This can cause a whole slew of issues that is better left in another article. However, for the case of a content list, the author could place it within the book’s publication page. This way, a list is provided without potentially hurting sales.

The critical thing to understand is that a content list isn’t a bad thing to have. You don’t want someone picking up your book, read it, and leave a bad review because a dog dies in it. That said, readers should understand that a list isn’t required. If you want to read a book from a specific author who does not have a list, you can read the reviews from other readers or email the author asking to know what content you are specifically worried about. Goodreads also provide ways for readers to communicate with authors.

Ultimately, this shouldn’t be a debate and should absolutely not get to a point where everyone is digging their heels in. Do I use content lists in my books? No. I haven’t. Not yet anyway. Most of my content is not heavy enough to merit a list, and I don’t go too deep in the imagery that I feel there needs to be something. That said, should a reader contact me and ask me about a specific book or suggest I put a particular item on a list, I may do that. It just depends on the story and what I’m trying to convey.

An excellent resource for authors who want to add a content list to their work is Book Trigger Warnings. I found this site while doing some research on the topic, and I found the list and website to be interesting. There is a list of what you can use as your content tag and a list of books in the world where there is a content list for consumers. Should I decide to begin a content list, I will more than likely use it to my advantage.

2 thoughts on “The Trigger Warning Debate is Back”

  1. I like warnings on television news about images of graphic violence. For books, I think a well-written summary of the content is sufficient. A summary won’t always steer me away from topics I don’t like, but it will probably give me a fair sense of the book. There are topics I think make a book less desirable for me: drug use, graphic violence, explicit sex for example. If these come up in a novel or book of poetry, I am not beyond putting the book down and reading something else.

    1. I am all for the right to DNF anything. There is nothing wrong with finding something is hitting you in a bad way or is just not as enjoyable as originally thought. I have DNF’d a lot of books.

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