Content warnings

Caution

CW: Choking

I’ll get back to your regularly scheduled snarktasm next time, I promise. And besides, there are dog pics. That’s what you really signed up for, right?

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably know I’ve been talking a lot lately about content warnings in books.

It’s a topic that comes up a lot in the various writers’ groups/forums I’m part of. And generally, there are a couple of authors who find the whole conversation hilarious. But recently someone posted a thing saying that, hey, indie authors should be leading the charge on adding content warnings to books.

And her very interesting and respectful post was flooded by comments from authors who found it hilarious that some readers get “triggered”.

If you want to read an expanded version of both my reply to the group and some of my Twitterantings, you’re in the right place.

I’m shocked and frustrated that so many people seem to think content warnings are silly or pointless or some sort of laughing matter. So I’m going to tell you a story to illustrate my point.

I was watching Alien once with a group of friends. We’d all seen it before, no big deal. But when it comes to The Scene. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. John Hurt begins to act strangely before an alien bursts out of his chest, killing him.

But as this film played out, one person in the room told a story of how the director injected extra realism into the scene. The only actor at the table who knew what was happening was John Hurt. To the others, it appeared that he was actually choking. Their responses were real because they thought he was choking.

My friend didn’t mean anything by this story. He thought it was an interesting little behind–the-scenes anecdote.

Except my brother died choking on a piece of food.

For me, going into that behind–the-scenes story while watching the film thrust me into the way-too-real situation of watching my brother die. I put a content warning at the beginning of this comment because no one who has my history deserves to read this unprepared. And I put them at the beginning of my books for the same reason.

I’m literally shaking as I type this. It’s so deeply personal and upsetting. Why the hell would an author want unsuspecting readers to go through this? How dare they mock people’s life experiences? How dare they treat this like a laughing matter?

Now do you get it?

An author replied, ‘I’d just put a TW of “words” and let ’em suck on that.’ Five people found that reply funny.

Another author wrote, ‘My name is the warning.’

So many authors seem to think that saying ‘maybe you should add a content warning’ is the same as censorship or book banning or that it’s some sort of free speech issue.

But look… No one is telling anyone what they can and can’t write about. No one is saying some topics are off limits. What we’re saying is: set expectations. Give readers the tools they need to decide whether or not to read your book.

And then people started saying things like, ‘Oh, but I write murder mysteries. Of course they’re going to know it contains a murder.’

Sure. If you’ve got ‘murder’ in the title and a knife on the cover and ‘murder victim’ in your blurb, then you’ve set the tone. Prospective readers know to expect murder. Job done.

Content warnings (aka trigger warnings) aren’t there to spoil the story. Their purpose isn’t to state the obvious. They’re there to help prospective readers make an informed decision about whether or not to read. And if they choose to proceed, to brace themselves.

One author said readers who are sensitive should arrange for a trusted friend to read every book they want to just in case. Can you imagine having so much free time that in addition to whatever you wanted to read, you had to read everything someone else might want to read?

Another author actually said that films and TV shows need content warnings because they have pictures. Books don’t need content warnings because they’re just words.

I mean, honestly, where do I even start with that one?

Anyways, I don’t know everything. I’m so far from perfect. But I promise you this, Dear Reader, I’m always striving to do better. And if I let you down … call me out.

And now, finally, here are your bonus dog pics.

Ozzy’s annoyed that I woke him up to pose for a pic
Lemmy is so over my nonsense – it’s not even funny anymore
Kira would be delighted to pose for a pic – did I even need to ask?

2 thoughts on “Content warnings”

  1. My roommate and I both like mysteries, and share reviews to save each other the trouble of a bad book. I picked up a mystery somewhere that had a female who cooked and included recipes and also had a dog, so I thought it would be a double win for my roommate… Until the dog was hideously murdered. My roommate has lots of pets and there’s no way she’d want read this horrible book. It went to the donate bin. A content warning of any kind would have saved me money, time and aggravation.

    1. No! That is so not cool. I had similar with a novel last year. Mind you, there were so many other issues with the book.

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