Over the last few days, authors and readers alike were discussing the possibility to make trigger warnings more standardized or even mandatory in books. This could benefit a lot of people by making it possible to more safely navigate books with triggering content. On the other hand, a lot of marginalized authors have come forward to discuss how mandatory trigger warnings could affect their work — and whether they get published or not. In the past, labeling work by authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, or authors from other marginalized identities as sensitive or triggering has been used as an excuse to censor important talks around different issues that affect marginalized people. Because of this and other elements of the discussion that I will talk about further, The StoryGraph has made some changes to their “trigger warnings” section.
Both sides have valid concerns, and because a lot of this discussion has been misunderstood and taken out of context online, here is a breakdown of it.
How are trigger warnings helpful?
While they might not be an end-all solution, trigger warnings can warn people as to what kind of content to expect out of a piece of media. Things like trigger warnings or ratings exist on other art forms such as movies. These give some idea of what kind of content we can find on the movie — whether that be sexual content, swearing, violence, etc. — and to what degree we can expect to see it. If people are sensitive to blood, graphic violence, or explicit sexual content, an R rating on a movie helps them know that that movie might not be something that they would enjoy or that it could be potentially triggering.
The same concept applied to books could be helpful for many readers, and some authors have already taken it up to themselves to add trigger warnings to their books to notify readers about content such as graphic displays of homophobia, instances of parental abuse, etc. Readers are often very grateful for them, and these warnings don’t really take away from the enjoyment that readers have of the book.
For these reasons, authors and readers are arguing for making trigger warnings a regular practice for books, but others for their own reasons are arguing against it.
How are trigger warnings harmful?
There’s always been discussion as to whether or not trigger warnings are actually helpful. Obviously, trauma and how people experience it is extremely complex and can’t often be reduced to a simple tag that warns people about a certain type of content in media. But, apart from that issue, many marginalized authors came forward to discuss how trigger warnings have been weaponized against them.
The other book I remember comparing was Gone with The Wind with Their Eyes Were Watching God. Their Eyes has more TWs, but also more people tag it as 'racism' (10) than GWTW (5). People also tag Their Eyes as having racial slurs more often than GWTW. pic.twitter.com/USaUpGcdFE
— Silvia Moreno-Garcia (@silviamg) June 13, 2021
periodically i remember that Beloved is one of the books most frequently targeted for trigger warning/content bans in classrooms and become furious at the way white people, particularly while women, weaponize trauma to preserve white supremacy
— cyrée jarelle (@cyreejarelle) June 14, 2021
In this tweets, people are pointing out how books by marginalized authors are more often tagged with triggering content than books by white authors on The StoryGraph (where readers can tag books with triggering content). And not only this, but they also point out how those same warnings are unfairly used to ban books from places like classrooms or the general canon. Beloved by Toni Morrison is a very clear example of this. Not only does this book have way more warnings than books by white authors that contain the same themes, but that content has been used as an excuse to ban it. Beloved discusses a lot of important issues surrounding racism, and because it is written by a Black woman, it is easy to see why people would want to censor it.
This issue is not new. Historically speaking, content warnings and ratings have been misused as a way to censor different topics. One very clear example of this, that is still prevalent today, is how movies or TV shows get flagged as not family friendly or as having explicit content because they contain LGBTQ+ themes or relationships, even when they don’t have any explicit content on them.
Another issue surrounding trigger warnings and marginalized authors is how often these get tagged for content that does not exist on the book.
So after seeing @silviamg thread, I decided to go to Storygraph and check out what content warnings readers have noted for The Henna Wars. Everything highlighted in red LITERALLY DOES NOT EXIST IN THE BOOK and looking at this was actually kind of horrific. pic.twitter.com/T7THxzycON
— Adiba Jaigirdar (on hiatus) (@adiba_j) June 13, 2021
The Henna Wars is a book that, ironically, contains trigger warnings, so seeing this book get this treatment is very discouraging.
Authors of color and those from other marginalized communities already have a hard time getting published in the first place. Their books getting improperly tagged with content could keep potential readers away and even hinder their chances of getting published in the future.
What is The StoryGraph doing to change this?
Obviously, the platform itself is not responsible for the way that their trigger warnings have been misused. This section, after all, was made with good intentions. But in an effort to help marginalized writers, they have made some simple yet helpful changes to their site.
We've launched author-approved content warnings!
We've also pushed several updates to the user-added tags including a smart filter to only display a summary on the book page and the ability to click through to the review linked to each content warning added. https://t.co/wzXa3bTLXx pic.twitter.com/0lF6fFJNdd
— The StoryGraph (@thestorygraph) June 15, 2021
The addition of author-approved trigger warnings eliminates the issue of books getting tagged with content that they not contain. But there’s still some other issues to address.
As mentioned, trauma and what’s actually triggering is very nuanced. A book having a trigger warning for — to name an example — Islamophobia doesn’t necessarily mean that the book itself it Islamophobic. This tag just may mean that Islamophobia is a theme in the book. A book talking about Islamophobia might not be triggering to someone, but a book containing Islamophobic content might be. Being able to tell which is the case from a trigger warning, and whether it is actually going to be triggering, at the beginning of a book or a website like The StoryGraph might be very challenging. But hopefully, while adding author-approved trigger and content warnings obviously doesn’t resolve all of the issues, it can be a step in the right direction.
This is a very nuanced issue and everyone has different opinions on it. Nevertheless, it is important to listen to marginalized authors and readers who are being affected by trigger warnings and provide them with the support they need.