Lola’s Ramblings is a feature on my blog Lola’s Reviews where I ramble on about a book related or a non-book related topic. These are discussion type of posts where I talk about a topic and readers can weigh in on the topic in the comments. Usually these posts are everything that doesn’t fall under any standard header, like tours, cover reveals, memes, challenges, recaps or reviews. Lola’s Ramblings posts are discussions of a certain topic and my point of view on them. The banner for this feature is designed by Michelle from Limabean Designs.
I recently added a book to my to-read list that had a trigger warning and it suddenly got me thinking about trigger warnings, their uses and pro’s and cons. The book that sparked this topic is Cornered by JA Belfield. Which has a very vague trigger warning and doesn’t make it clear what kind of scenes it contains, probably to avoid spoiling the actual scene. The topic also reminded me about a really good post I once read about trigger warnings years ago, but can’t remember on which blog that was. So I decided to make it a topic for one of my Lola’s Ramblings post. I think trigger warnings are a very tricky topic. On the one hand I am all for it and on the other hand I think they never can be fully effective and wonder if it’s better to not use them at all. There isn’t one standard for trigger warnings, some authors add and some not. And should there be one standard for this? And even if there would be how would we decide what the standard is?
The good thing about trigger warnings
On the one hand I like the concept of trigger warnings and see their uses. I know I can be quite sensitive to some topics, there are quite some topics like animals death, torture or gruesome details I rather not read about and even some topics that are triggering for me which I would like to avoid at any costs. When I start a book that has one of those it can become a quick DNF just because of that and if I had known in advance I wouldn’t have picked up the book or accepted the review request. So in those cases I definitely see the benefit of trigger warnings. There also have been books I stayed away from because they had a trigger warning. Even reviews can work in this way by giving me a feel of what to expect and basing whether I want to read the book based on that. And I would say I like how reviews can warn me in advance about topics I might want to avoid. I’ve also seen books where the reviews include actual trigger warnings even if the actual blurb might not include it.
So overall I think trigger warnings do have a function, they warn people away from books that include topics they rather not read about or might be triggering for them. Getting triggered by a book, movie or anything else is unpleasant and I think trigger warnings can do a role to prevent that from happening by warning you in advance. On the other hand I also think the way trigger warnings are handled is far from ideal and undermine the benefit they could have and I don’t think there is an easy solution for this.
The difficult part of trigger warnings
I mentioned that I also think trigger warnings aren’t fully effective and I listed below the reasons I think why this is the case and to illuminate what makes the topic of trigger warnings so complicated and tricky.
- Not everyone has the same standard. There is not one standard for trigger warnings. Some books do have them others not, some are very specific and others less so. There is not one standard for trigger warnings, which also makes it difficult to know what a trigger warnings means. Does the absence of a trigger warning means there is nothing triggering in the book or does it mean the authors didn’t want to include a trigger warning in their blurb? How can you interpret a vague warning that doesn’t explicitly mention where it’s warning for? Or is that better than something specific which might be a spoiler? So there isn’t one standard on how trigger warnings currently are being handled, everyone just does what they think is best and I think there is nothing wrong with it, but if want to depend on trigger warnings the lack of standard can be troubling. On the other I also think that it’s hard or almost impossible to make a standard for trigger warnings.
- The risk of spoilers. When including a trigger warning in your blurb it also means you include a potential spoiler for your own book in the blurb. And I know many readers and blogger don’t like spoilers and might not want to know that thing which the trigger warning refers to beforehand. Say main character X has a secret and you only find out later in the book and the trigger warnings warns for that, then it also spoils part of the plot. So including a trigger warning in your blurb sometimes also means spoiling something.
- How specific should trigger warnings be? The previous points brings me to this one, how specific should a trigger warning be, should the warning be generic or specific? The more specific a warning the easier for a reader to judge whether it’s a trigger for them or not, but also increases the risk of being a spoiler. And while a mention of abuse can already be triggering for some, for others only an actual scene or even only a long scene with lots of details is triggering. And mentioning the book has violence doesn’t tell you what kind of violence. I can be okay with violence in movies, but can’t stand torture or things involving needles for example. There are so many gradations when it comes to triggers. It’s not exact science, everyone is different. And it can be hard to know how specific a trigger warning should be to be effective.
- The inability to warn for everything that could be a trigger. What is a trigger for one person might not be a trigger for another person and people are so different that trigger warnings can never warn for everything. Ofcourse you can warn for the more common things, but that still leaves a lot of topics that could be triggering that you can’t warn for. Every topic basically could be a trigger and you can’t possible warn for every little thing that’s included in your book.
- Might scare readers away. While a trigger warning can be effective to let potential readers know to stay clear from that book if topic X is a trigger for them, it also might scare potential readers away. When a trigger warning says it contains some dark scenes or scenes that make people uncomfortable I usually have a hard time knowing whether that will apply to me or not. I have read books with a trigger waring were I thought the trigger warning was right or it was even worse than I expected, but I’ve also read books with a trigger warning where it wasn’t necessary for me and where I might have avoided the book for that warning, while in fact I did enjoy the book. I think most authors wouldn’t want to scare away potential readers who might enjoy the book, but you also want to make sure the people who wouldn’t enjoy said scene are warned.
- Does it help to be warned in advance? Then I also wonder if it actually helps to get warned in advance. Say you decide to read a book with a trigger warning anyway as you hope it’s only one scene or you can read over it. Then the fact that there was a trigger warning might make you more alert and on your toes while reading the book. While if the book didn’t have a trigger warning you wouldn’t have that effect. I think trigger warnings can influence people their expectations. Either in this way, but also maybe the other way around where someone likes a certain topic and expects it because of the trigger warning and it might not turn out to be such a big deal afterwards. Just like covers, blurbs, reviews etc I think trigger warnings can influence your expectations of a book and whether that’s a good or bad thing? I don’t know.
All in all I find it every hard to form an opinion on this topic as on the one hand I think they have benefits, but on the other hand I believe the system or topic of trigger warnings isn’t handled in a way that will ever fully work which always makes me wonder if it helps to have them at all. Which probably brings us to the way it is currently handled. Every author or publisher decides for themselves whether to include trigger warnings or not. I’ve also seen some sites out there that judge trigger warnings, but even then I think trigger warnings can never warn for everything, that’s just not possible. So as a reader who wants to avoid certain topics I think you still have to be careful and use all the resources you have if you really want to be sure, like asking people who have read it, read the blurb or even ask the author. And maybe that last one might be the most effective of them all as you know best what you want to avoid and the author or another reader knows what’s really in the book. I actually have included a note on my review policy page asking authors to let me know if their book includes certain topics, but even then I reach only the authors who send me review requests after reading that page.
So I can’t fully give a answer or stance on this topic as I see something for both sides, for the argument to include them, but also for the argument to just remove them all and have people who might get triggered figure out themselves if the book is triggering for them or not before they start reading.