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Belle’s Bookish Tales || Do Trigger Warnings Hurt Literature?

Trigger Warning and Books

Reading a book is a subjective experience. Authors write not only because they have a story to tell but also to evoke emotions and stir conversations. Some books change people’s thoughts and behaviors while some leave us puzzled. It’s no secret that a seemingly harmless bundle of pages has the power to twist emotions into tangles.

So when the request for books to come with trigger warnings was made, a burst of conversations condemning the very thought followed.

Aye, but it is a blasphemous thing to do to literary art, is it not?

To whittle heralded books to mere plot points; to highlight the ugliness of the novel removes attention from its humbling narrative; no, no, trigger warnings blanket our already coddled generation. Tough love, aye?

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“Trigger warning”. 

The very term sounds ominous, very 1984-esque. It sounds like the first step to literature’s doomsday; next thing you know, we’ll be burning books at the stake.  Many articles have called it the predecessor to book banning and censorship.

As I do believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, here’s mine. A trigger warning is not the one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse come down to destroy our world of literature. I also don’t believe readers are treated like infants when they are given fair warning about possibly graphic content in books.

It has been said that trigger warnings “strip challenges” from reading and “prevents from living the harsh reality of the world” but here’s the thing: when people ask that books depicting rape or racism to come with warnings, it’s because they might have already experienced it. And, in case you might not know, that is one of the “harsh realities of the world”.

Think of it this way: when trigger warnings are provided, it lessens the potential for a trauma survivor to be re-victimized.

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Then comes the argument that trigger warnings strips the book down to an ugly plot line. Which doesn’t necessarily have to happen because the warning doesn’t have to be splayed across the cover. A simple note at the back of the book would suffice so people who need it can give it a look. I know this process can be a complicated one as what is triggering for one person may not be for another; companies can be sued for not providing sufficient information, and so on.

That is a fair argument, but to say that it reduces the artistic endeavors of a novel is to say that a person’s mental health is not nearly as important.

When provided, it helps people mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for what is to come. It does not steer away the conversation but rather allows everyone a fair chance at the discussion. People who have not experienced anything that requires a trigger warning might only feel uncomfortable or disgust, but for those who experienced it, their own reaction to the scenes can range from inner panic attacks to a trip to the emergency room.

I, personally, have a hard time reading rape scenes in a book. Two years later and I still have panic attacks. Had the book I read come with a trigger warning I might have been able to prepare myself better or avoided the book altogether. Trigger warnings are a small act in comparison to a trauma survivor having to reshape their lives and start their healing process from step one.

“But that ruins the plot twist!” You cry, ripping scanty pieces of hair from your head.

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Sure, it might, but if the book’s plot twist has to rely on something like rape or war or racism or suicide, then how am I to believe that this book is a puzzle of human complexity?

To say that trigger warnings are a blanket tool or are “too protective” dismisses mental health issues. And that, for me, is the real problem.

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Do book bloggers have a role to play?

I’m glad you asked that question because we definitely do. As a book blogger, especially those who do reviews, it doesn’t take up much space on our blog to provide potential readers with a warning for graphic scenes they might come across. Of course, you might not be aware of which scenes in the book could be triggering but…

Listen, as someone who has been traumatized by abuse, and suffering from mental illness, those are the scenes I can easily pick out and warn readers about. But for scenes of war or racism, it’s much harder for me as I haven’t experienced either. I’d have to be hyper-aware of what I’m reading to provide proper warning for it.

But that shouldn’t stop me from providing warnings for what affects me most. I can’t cover it all, I admit, as my “harsh realities” are limited. Also, as readers, we know that fiction is neither black nor white – there are areas of gray we can’t understand sometimes.

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Still, it’s important to help our readers or following navigate themselves in the book community. I don’t think there will be any detrimental backlash if we choose to do this. This,is but a simple act of empathetic kindness that can change someone’s life.

Think about it.

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What are your thoughts on trigger warnings?

Do you believe they are helpful to readers, or will they limit a person’s reading experience?

How do you think we should treat this issue?

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8 thoughts on “Belle’s Bookish Tales || Do Trigger Warnings Hurt Literature?

  1. Interesting post- I think you did a good job of bringing up some of the arguments for not including trigger warnings, which a lot of bloggers don’t do when they address this topic.
    I’m afraid I can’t agree with your conclusions however, because leading psychologists, such as Professor Metin Basoglu, a specialist in trauma research, argue against trigger warnings for the following reason: “Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, they should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good” Similarly Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote in the Pacific Standard, that “Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder”. Other prominent social scientists and psychologists who argue against trigger warnings for general consumption are Dr Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jonathan Haidt and Dr Paul Bloom (highly recommend them in general). Unfortunately, there is a misconception that the social sciences are entirely in favour of trigger warnings, when in reality, there is a huge ongoing dispute about this.

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    1. Hi! Thank your for citing those researches, I’ll make sure to read them through for a better understanding. Though I do agree that complete avoidance is not good, I still believe that trauma survivors should be given fair warning especially during the beginning of their healing process where facing such subjects can be more harmful than helpful. I think there comes a time in the process where they will have to be exposed to what affected them but at least with trigger warnings in place they can choose the appropriate time at which to face them. I’ll make sure to read up more on this subject as my view are more personal rather than objective, so thank you for providing the references 😀

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      1. Sure, the issue with that, is as I said that this ends up reinforcing the PTSD, because it inevitably increases sensitivity where it would have been naturally reduced by normal interactions in the world- hence the reason psychologists are arguing this practice is harmful when used in this context. You’re welcome- I’m really glad you’re interested in reading up on it more 😀

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  2. Great post! I’ve never believed in censoring or banning books. I think it’s important to read about the difficult topics, even if those topics make some readers uncomfortable. We humans need to be pushed outside of our paradigms every once in a while. Again, great post.

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      1. Thank you! And yep, I also don’t believe in book banning as people do need to face uncomfortable topics but for some, it goes beyond that. At least, if publishers don’t do it, then maybe bloggers can help. I need to read up more on researches done on the topic though 🙂

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  3. You pretty much cleared it up. I don’t like trigger warnings cause it seems like a spoiler and I’m usual chill when it comes to anything that would be deemed a trigger.

    In the case of not traumatizing those who may have experienced it, then I agree that the warnings are necessary. My case, no. Others, yes. Mental health is more important than my views, so I conclude (like this is an essay), that trigger warnings are very important.

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