Why Authors Shouldn’t Provide Trigger Warnings

Before this invites drama, let me repeat that headline but where I’m able to use italics. I don’t think that authors should provide trigger warnings.

And here’s why.

First, I don’t know what triggers readers. In general if I’m writing about it, it doesn’t trigger me. Even heavily emotional content, like the death of a parent (which some consider a trigger) does not trigger me. So until I see someone else mention that that’s a trigger for them, I have no clue that it should be listed.

Second, even if someone could give me a list of all the things that someone somewhere might be triggered by, when I’m writing or even editing, I do not need to be laying that critical layer on top of my writing. I need to write the story I need to write and then someone else can judge that.

Third, I think a trigger warning provided by an author gives some sort of indication of safety that is absolutely not there. The reader thinks, “Well, they wrote it, they must have been able to identify all the triggers, so if the one that triggers me isn’t listed, then this book is safe for me.”

Which is just not true. I am aware of more triggers than most because I spend too much time seeing discussions about this on Twitter. But there are tons of authors out there who’d not even realize that something they wrote or said was triggering to someone else.

For example, (trigger warning: fatphobia) in my own writing I might on page five have a character grimace at the fact that she’s getting older and putting on some weight. For me, that is a throwaway comment. It’s just a statement of fact. She’s putting on weight as she ages. Most of us do. But for a reader who feels attacked from every direction for their weight, that is very triggering because it’s very clear fatphobia.

Even if I had a list of issues to identify, I’d miss things like that. I’d search for “fat” and completely miss that casual observation.

Which is why I think individual readers are best-equipped to identify triggers, because they know what triggered for them as they were reading.

I don’t tend to like violence towards animals, for example, but there are books that can use it and I’m fine, because of how it was used, and there are books that use it and I will never read that author again. I only know for me as a reader what impacts me.

Letting individuals identify triggers also lets others judge how much they’ll factor in that trigger warning for their own reading choices.

There are people in my life where we are well-aligned in terms of what offends us and there are people in my life where I just let their personal upsets wash past me.

I personally (trigger warning: transphobia) can read a book that mentions Harry Potter or JK Rowling and not have an issue with it, especially if it was written more than five years ago. Others cannot.

(That doesn’t mean I’m transphobic, by the way, I’m all for people living their lives in the way that makes them the happiest. But I didn’t grow up on Harry Potter and am also not closely involved in trans issues so that doesn’t hit me the same way it would someone who identified by their Hogwarts house for years and is trans.)

And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with being triggered by content and not wanting to read the sort of content that you don’t like. There are authors I do not read because of the way they handle certain topics.

I just don’t think authors are the best judges of that sort of thing. Or that there’s some universal criteria or standard that can be applied objectively most of the time. We are all different. We all bring our entire life experience to anything we read. We all react differently to what’s on the page. Triggers are personal, IMO.

(No comments allowed on this post, by the way. Not trying to engage in a debate on this, just stating my personal opinion.)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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