“Trigger warnings” and the writer

The “trigger warning” has become a fixture of the culture wars. And as is the case with all things in the culture wars, your gut reaction to it will depend on your political and philosophical orientations.

On the right, the term “trigger warning” evokes the image of a hysterical, ranting “snowflake” Millennial or college student, putting their hypersensitivity on display. (The most common Internet meme involves a young, overweight woman with a short haircut and an expression of hysterical outrage.)

The left, meanwhile, has realized that the specific phrase “trigger warning” is now damaged goods. The term “content warning” is now preferred. But they are essentially talking about the same thing. They just don’t want to be ridiculed for talking about “trigger warnings”.

The editors of the leftwing literary website Strange Horizons specify content warnings for (incomplete list): “ableism”, “homophobia”, “disregard for personal autonomy”, “death/dying”, “sex”, “scars”, “suffocation”, “murder”, “shaming”, “spiders”, “insects”, “drug use”, and “mental health issues”.

Speaking of mental health issues: The casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that the readers of Strange Horizons are some very fragile folks, indeed. I can’t help wondering: Is anyone really driven to the verge of an emotional breakdown by literary references to insects or shaming? Apparently so.

The concept of the trigger warning has its roots in “woke” campus politics of about a decade ago. And no, you can’t completely blame the kids for this. Plenty of fatuous adults jumped on board, too.

At the height of the trigger warning craze, English literature professors at American universities were issuing trigger warnings for Othello and the Iliad—both of which I read in junior high school without memorable trauma. Meanwhile, there was at least one documented case of lily-white university students declaring that they were “triggered” by references to colonialism in a literary work from the 19th century.

Speaking of fatuous adults: The 43-year-old Rashida Tlaib stormed out of President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address.

Why? According to her, she was “triggered” when President Trump mentioned the name “Brett Kavanaugh”. The concept of the trigger warning provides ample ammunition for various cranks with various axes to grind.

Based on the aforementioned extremes, it would be easy to conclude that any sort of warning about the contents of a text amounts to a craven kowtow to political correctness. Many writers (especially those who strongly object to speech codes and whatnot) may respond by going out of their way to offend readers.

As much as I acknowledge the disconcerting trend toward hypersensitivity, and the politicization of absolutely everything, I’m going to counter with a suggestion: That as a fiction writer, you have nothing to gain by deliberately offending, grossing out, or repulsing your readers. Fiction writers are entertainers, after all. And while stories may be challenging or thought-provoking, they should first and foremost be about fun.

Let me give you a concrete, personal example to the contrary. But first, let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I grew up in the 1980s, and I’ve almost always voted Republican. (I’ve never voted Democrat.) My active vocabulary is thoroughly grounded in the twentieth century. I have no use for postmodern neologisms that are the products of progressive politics.

I’ve spent time in some fairly coarse environments—including factories and locker rooms. In my younger years, I fished and hunted with my grandfather. I don’t exactly relish the sight of blood, but it doesn’t freak me out, either.

That all said, I would not have objected had Karin Slaughter’s short story audio collection, The Unremarkable Heart and Other Stories, come with a content warning or two—not because I was “triggered” by the contents, but because it might have saved me from an unpleasant listening experience. The Unremarkable Heart was one of those rare books that I didn’t finish.

The first story was about a spurned first wife who cuts the penis off her late ex-husband’s corpse. The next story was about a sexually abused teenage girl who serves her unknowing father her mother’s genitals for dinner.

The story after that was about a deeply religious woman who, depressed about her unplanned pregnancy, attempts to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger. But it doesn’t work, you see, until one day when she’s walking across the parking lot at her church, and everything comes spilling out, and—

That was the point at which I stopped listening. Enough was enough. (My apologies if you were reading this essay on your lunch break, by the way.) Call me prudish, call me a “snowflake”, but story after story about sexual mutilation, cannibalism, and DIY abortion is not my idea of a good time.

Luckily, I purchased the audiobook at a steep discount, so The Unremarkable Heart and Other Stories wasn’t a loss that I couldn’t absorb. But I would have been unhappy had I paid full price.

This doesn’t mean that Karin Slaughter is a bad writer, of course. I actually found her writing to be quite good—which was why I stuck with The Unremarkable Heart for as long as I did. But Karin Slaughter’s preoccupations and choices of subject matter (at least in this collection) are simply not my cup of tea.

Suppose that The Unremarkable Heart had come with a warning: “Includes multiple depictions of sexual mutilation”. This probably would have been enough to cause me to move on to another book. I would have known that a story collection about sexual mutilation wasn’t for me—regardless of whether the victims were men or women.

As noted above, the term “trigger warning” is now highly politicized, and effectively damaged goods. So are “content warnings” that are actually trigger warnings under a more respectable label.

Where books are concerned, we might think instead of the kinds of warnings that have been on movies since 1968, when the MPAA film rating system was first used. Even on cable TV, there are warnings for language, violence, and frontal nudity.

When the content of a work of fiction (either on the page or on the screen) truly is extreme, I don’t think it’s a concession to abject political correctness if one makes that known in advance. This is merely a way of telling some potential consumers that the entertainment you’re selling may not be all that entertaining for them.

Likewise, I don’t have a major philosophical qualm with warnings that a fictional work contains graphic depictions of rape or sexual assault. Many viewers/readers will find these topics so unpleasant that they’d rather opt for something else. Why not warn them in advance, rather than risk a disgruntled customer and an unfavorable review?

But then we run into the problem of the slippery slope, and the long, long list of content warnings over at Strange Horizons. (I counted at least twenty-eight separate warnings, from ableism to xenophobia.) And what about those suburban white kids who claim to be “triggered” by references to 19th-century colonialism?

There are no doubt people who would like to expand Strange Horizons’s list of 28 trigger warnings into a list of 56, or even 84, such warnings. Somewhere out there is a person who had an unpleasant experience at a high school dance, and will claim to be “triggered” by references to prom or homecoming.

How to avoid this pitfall of the slippery slope? Perhaps by something that has been sadly missing from the culture wars (as well as from the already too-long list of warnings over at Strange Horizons): common sense.