Warning! There could be warnings ahead.
Content warnings are a hot topic of debate at the moment. Readers are either passionately campaigning for them or decrying them as politically correct spoilers. But what are they and should we care?
I consider a content warning to be a bit like a lighthouse, giving fair warning to what dangers may lay ahead. But should I be using them in my books and what do my own readers think? I did an IG poll this week to find out and I was surprised by the results. It sent me down a little bit of a rabbit hole in pursuit of my own decision.
A content warning in books gives the reader advance information about topics that might be distressing. It is also called a trigger warning. For everything you need to know about them I’m pointing you in the direction of an awesome post by Lauren Hannah who covers a huge list. It is currently not compulsory to include a content warning in books, but readers are increasingly petitioning publishers to do so. But, from the publishers perspective, is this really appealing? It’s hard to complain when there is not a precedent if you end up distressed by a book you voluntarily chose to read. After all, while screen media has content and age ratings both at the start and on the packaging, a book has little more than judicious bookshelf placement and back cover blurb to introduce itself. Cover and content tease (sorry, blurb!) are meant to take you swiftly to the till, not cause you to pause and pass the book over for something a little lighter. From the publisher’s perspective, content warnings leave them open to criticism that they were not clear enough, or inclusive enough, over what should be considered triggering. A content warning today smells a lot like a compensation case tomorrow.
But it isn’t only the book industry who are resisting the move to standardising content warnings. Some readers believe a content warning to be the kiss of death to the mystery of the book. Nor do they want to see the beloved form of the book reduced to Hollywood or Netflix style screen media. The book is unique, a pilgrimage between author and reader, and should not be inflicted with even more categorisation than genre currently dictates. Plus, let’s face it, if you are reading police procedurals, scandi noir or thrillers, you’re likely going for the very content you’re about to be warned about. Isn’t this a little akin to health warnings on cigarette boxes, these readers complain. Or, isn’t it a little bit bookish superiority that all reading minds are alike and can cope with grown up content?
Does it always have to be one thing or another? How about it’s just a really interesting question that we need to think about how to respond to, rather than the Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader of books? In my poll I was surprised that I totally could not predict which of my followers would end up in which camp, but split down the middle they be, Master. Content warning questions, it appears, really do need a content warning on them. So, who is the content warning really for? And what about those readers who think it will ruin a book for them?
The content warning is there to help readers who may have an emotional legacy to the theme that will cause them distress. It is there not to say ‘Don’t read this, whatever you do!’ but to suggest ‘Hey, you might want to leave this for a better time, or just read with your guard up a little.’ It is also there for readers who are more affected by some content than others. I for one cannot read a horror book, and I avoid thrillers or crime books that heavily feature crimes against women. I’m hypersensitive (a whole other blog post but…briefly…on the neurodiversity spectrum) and the wrong book or film will leave me crushed for days.
As for the readers who don’t like them… here’s the thing, you can choose to ignore it. I for one loathe the endorsement pages that are becoming a staple of books these days. Page after page of reviewers, authors and bloggers bigging up the writers with the greatest media reach already. (This is a form of gatekeeping that has grown since indie authors found their feet. Yes, you might be able to get published, but can you pull in contractual favours from the other authors in your publishing house to endorse your published works? Oh dear, sorry little dudes, no!) Not to mention that I find them a huge spoiler; I have actually guessed an entire plot from reading the endorsements. So, what do I do with the endorsement pages? I simply don’t read them. Which is exactly what you can do with the content warning page. Skip it.
So, where do I stand on the subject? As an author with an indie publishing house I feel fortunate to be in the position of being able to make my own decision and dictate my own response. Not all authors will be in the same boat. I thought about my books. There’s a LOT of steam in my work, and it comes in all guises. A reader recently told me that she passed her copy on to her 80+ neighbour (eek) and my youngest known reader is 19. But the steam content is not my concern, it’s the background story which generates the steam that has deeper resonance for me. I write about silenced topics; sexuality, abortion, infertility, miscarriage, abuse (in its many forms) and aggression. Those silenced topics hit hard with readers who have been silenced in their own lives. I write about these topics because I care passionately about them, and I care even more about my readers, so it stands to reason that I’m going to want to take any measures I can to give them informed choice. I also write in the family saga genre and I know my readers might think they have a lovely, light-hearted jaunt through an old English house ahead of them. They do not. So, on the subject of content warnings… I’m in. There will be content warnings in my books (print editions) and in my descriptions (ebook editions) from now on, as long as I am able to control that decision. These will be in the form of brief theme warnings, and there will be guidance to consult my website for greater detail.
I see this as a form of lighthouse keeping. A little scribble to say, there might be rocks in the pages ahead, take care if you need to.