Trigger Warnings for Authors and Readers! [on Responsible Writing]
“I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.” —Neil Gaiman
I have to start by saying, I’m Mr. Bill of Rights here. Americans (at least used to be) fed stories of liberty and freedom of speech with their snacks before nap time. I am ALL about that. People should be allowed to write whatever they want. Period. Does that make me a libertarian libertine? Should morals be taken into account when writing? Whose morals? And should every book contain a warning that if contains potentially offensive materials? Offensive to whom?
Readers aren’t forced to buy books and children should be protected by their parents from potentially damaging material until they’re mature enough to be educated. Which I feel is much younger than a lot of parents do, but I’ll save that for another book I have in the works. It’s about Fairy Tales. You’ll feel sooo sorry for my kids . . .
And while I believe that a novel or even a non-fiction book on ANY topic can be written and intended purely for the enjoyment and entertainment of adult readers, now that I’ve written a couple of books of my own, I find myself wondering: Just what responsibility DOES an author have to his or her audience and to society? Is what I’m writing adding to some greater good or might it be subtracting?
Have we been exposed to so MUCH in the name of commercialism under the guise of free speech that we’re beginning to lose track of where we’re at?
Say, for instance I write about (because I do) sensitive issues such as relationships, marriage, depression, rape, or other personal tragedy. Do I have a responsibility to at least try to be aware of the effect it might have upon vulnerable readers?
It’s an especially insidious trap when the author would like to use fiction to display the reality of a dysfunctional situation or maybe expose an atrocity. Because there’s this fine line I’m seeing that in order to get the important message across, the story has to be up-to-snuff commercially to get people to buy it. The non-profit world calls it: No margin, No mission.
My first novel, S.M.A.F.U. (Situation Married All F’d Up), dealt with infidelity, growth and failure, redemption and hope. Readers said they related to the story at a visceral level. That they “experienced” the story alongside the characters. Which is heady praise for an author by the way. I’m grateful. And blushing.
My second novel FBoM (Foundation for the Betterment of Man), however, deals with the aftermath of rape on the sides of both survivors and the rapists themselves. It is fiction based on true events and doesn’t pull any punches. I felt I needed to write it “over-the-top” in order deliver the message. Needless to say, it was not as easy to walk the “Do No Harm” line with this one. How comfortable am I with my readers experiencing THIS on a visceral level? I’ve worried about that too.
Many of the topics surrounding the themes of my books – such as narcissistic relationships and rape culture–are getting more press than ever before which seems inherently good on the surface. Bring that stuff into the light I say. How else can we expect to address things if we’re too afraid or ashamed to identify them? But I also wonder, where and how should we draw the line before readers get so oversaturated and overwhelmed that they just tune out?
A conversation around due care and censorship has also been in the news. It’s focus (rightly, I believe) has been on higher education and the possible effects of “trigger-warning” every single item that stands to offend any single student and how that could paradoxically stand to do MORE harm. Not just the effect of censorship on education, but also on future individuals’ future ability to withstand any amount of psychological stress. The debate is interesting and I’ve included some articles below if you want to explore that further.
Walking the line between commercialization and consideration in the novel FBoM was a labor of extreme effort and research and more rewrites than I can even remember. What started as a trek to bring important messages to light, has become a journey of discovery and respect for the survivors of many stripes. Trying to honor real and personal experiences while frankly, wanting to sell some books, has been both painful and rewarding.
No matter how you may feel about these issues, I hope this one basic message comes across to all my readers…
“You are not alone.”
Here are the goodies. Read on!
Neil Gaiman’s collection of short fictions aptly titled: Trigger Warnings. Even if you don’t buy it, don’t miss the introduction up in the “Look Inside” Feature. Eloquently said.
Find it here on Amazon (sponsored – learn more). For readers in: US UK CA
- Neil Gaiman’s quote in context at Brainpickings.org
- Don’t forget FBoM and S.M.A.F.U. !
- The Atlantic article: Coddling the American Mind
- National Coalition Against Censorship Report on Trigger Warnings
- Vox.com article: I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me
- And finally – if anything I wrote did trigger you, or you know someone in need of help, please see this rape and violence resource guide with active links to find help. You are not alone.