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Warning the audience

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I suspect I'm in the minority here, but I'm not going to apologise for my art and I'm wary of warning people overmuch - for numerous reasons - but isn't a warning off a form of censorship? I want all people to be exposed to as many ideas as possible because limiting your exposure limits the ideas (and empathy) you are capable of having. Freedom of speech makes for a freer world, and society has already made its calls through the various criminal codes as to what is going too far.

From all of the above, it's probably easy to guess that I'm a liberal lawyer who writes VERY out there stories.

I don't see how a voluntary warning placed by the author would constitute a breach of freedom of speech. That set aside, I don't believe freedom of speech is the be all end all. We know from plenty of previous real-world examples that describing suicide directly causes an uptick in suicide rates among the consumers of that work. Freedom of speech pushed to its extreme would say that an author has no responsibility for the consequences of their writings, but to my mind, a failure to at least attempt to mitigate the damning effects of a work and try to confine them to an audience that will not be as severely affected is just common decency.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
There's freedom of speech. But there's also freedom of information, and the rights of the buyer to have a clear expectation of what it is they're purchasing. All of these rights need to be protected. You can't use freedom of speech as an excuse to violate a buyers' rights in making a purchase. If the story might cause some readers harm, they have a right to know that.
 

MrNybble

Sage
I choose not to put any of this on my shoulders. Instead, I place it on other people. All I can do is shoot for the target audience and give a brief one paragraph blurb. Now you let the rest of the world do what it does. There will be somebody that can't keep their mouth shut and talk about your work to the masses. These people will spoil the story for others or just twist it to fit their own agenda among other things. With billions of people out there with an opinion and access to instant media, I assure you warnings will get out. So no need to tell a story to warn people about your story when others will do the work for you for free.
 
Beyond possibly spoiling the story—which I would advise against, but I assume one could avoid that easily enough—what other possible harm could a warning do?
 
I think of the man chest cover (or super busty lady, for that matter) as a type of warning system, heh heh. AHHHH! NO! Don’t buy that one.

Liberal lawyer makes sense if an old school liberal, the new liberal is the book burner, LOL. So, libertarian might be the better word. I’m 100% free speech. Offended? Too bad. Stop reading.

That said... warnings aren’t censorship by any definition, they just make for informed buying decisions. Graphic rape and torture scenes are the two I’d consider warning about.

I suspect I'm in the minority here, but I'm not going to apologise for my art and I'm wary of warning people overmuch - for numerous reasons - but isn't a warning off a form of censorship? I want all people to be exposed to as many ideas as possible because limiting your exposure limits the ideas (and empathy) you are capable of having. Freedom of speech makes for a freer world, and society has already made its calls through the various criminal codes as to what is going too far.

From all of the above, it's probably easy to guess that I'm a liberal lawyer who writes VERY out there stories.
 

pmmg

Istar
1. Where do you warn the audience? In the introduction? The text on the backside of your book? Include elements of the subject matter in the cover? Apply a warning label?

I would not. I think the reader might get a feel for what to expect, even if it does not show up right away, by the style with which I write. I don't think anyone would mistake me for a Disney story, for instance. I think the cover art and blurb might also give a clue. Also other items, like genre, category in a book store (website), response from other readers, and reputation would also help others decide.

I don't think there is any type of rating system for books, as might appear in the movies, but I think readers are sophisticated enough to know they are taking a leap with an unknown artist (and usually unknowns are a bit more shocking...), if they hit a scene that really puts them off, they can put it down. Lord, know I have on many things I have started. I also think readers tend to have an expectation that a written story will investigate things more thoroughly than other media, and are more prepared for greater detail.

I think the most likely way this does not work is if somehow I put a story in a category, paranormal romance for instance, and then had a story that was much different than anything else in that category. Jack the Ripper as a vampire in love, with some extreme gore in the alleys might be a bit unfair ;)


2. How detailed would you be? Do you explain the specific issue, or mention something general such as "Violent Content", " Sexual content" or " Unsuited for X"?

If there was a rating system, I would probably use it, otherwise...I don't think I would. If you are picking out adult books, prepare for harsher content. The relationship is one of, I am writing to bring value to an adult brain, so have one, or know your limits.

Most of my stories are pg13-r rated. So I don't think it will be much of an issue with me for content. I suspect most of my detractors, such that I have them, would be over disagreements with values that may appear in the story. I can appreciate that one will not like values I portray but...well...its a diverse world. I don't really write political content, but worlds are complex.

In some contexts, I could see a stark warning label helping to market and sell the book. So, as a marketing concept, I might be more inclined to do so...though I would have to write something worth such a label.
 
"Trigger warnings" are a difficult concept in part because they assume that a limited pool of topics are "triggers," when actually ANYTHING can be a trigger because trauma works in weird ways. Fluffy bunnies could be a trigger if a person associated them with a traumatic event. It's not really even possible to totally avoid them.

I prefer calling them "content warnings" in most cases because I really hate to see the word "trigger" watered down to mean something like "offense" when trauma causes literal physiological changes in the brain.

But anyway: the last novel I completed made me think about this because it has about as much triggering/upsetting content in it that would fit. There's gore, fairly detailed descriptions of torture, a few detailed scenes with panic attacks, and two suicides shown onpage. if you've ever had a panic attack you know how much you want to avoid them. *shudder* There's other stuff too--drinking, abuse, and so on.

I see a lot of writers warning about such things on their social media. That's something I plan to do. I hope to be able to somewhat indicate the major ones in, like, the concept of the book. Some authors have put things like this on the back of their books. I think it's a good idea, so that people who are upset or triggered by certain topics can decide whether they want to read your book and be mentally prepared for the kind of content that will be within. If I don't warn for something and someone puts my book down because of it, all i've accomplished is that I've hit the wrong audience for it. I would prefer to hit the right audience.

But overall, it doesn't seem to be a widespread thing to do. Reviewers pick up a lot of the slack in the book world in terms of warnings, at least with popular books and the more lucrative categories like YA.

I have no idea how this is censorship. Giving people information that might lead to them choosing not to consume media is censorship? If that is true, writing negative reviews is also censorship, since it might lead to people not reading books they otherwise might have read.
 
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Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
I'm going to switch sides for half a moment in response to the people who are wondering how content warnings amount to censorship. In a very real way content warnings and ratings and the like do result in a kind of de facto censorship, and we can see that if we look at movies, tv and video games. In particular, we see big content jumps in between "TV-14" and "Mature," and a lot of stories end up with things getting cut because they're not worth the loss of audience that comes with "Mature" label. And those labels have come to set audience expectations enough that people restrict their buying preferences even if they would otherwise enjoy the story.

I don't think anyone's suggesting a ratings system (that would be a logistical nightmare with the cost end up rolled onto the author), but even with the some basic content warnings, I have a chapter I intend to write in Smughitter, and I go back and forth about whether it would warrant the label (hard to be sure as I haven't written it yet), and to what degree I would change it to avoid that.

I'm not complaining about content warnings. But it's important to have the full picture of how they affect both readers and writers.
 

pmmg

Istar
Fluffy bunnies could be a trigger if a person associated them with a traumatic event.


You know.... a little warning would have been nice. You cant just go throwing fluffy bunnies around like no one is going to see. Im not sure i am going to recover. I may have to take a break for a few days.
 

Slartibartfast

Minstrel
Whether or not you have experience with writing these, imagine you had a story involving a subject that can be painful to parts of your potential audience. Be it torture, slavery, violence, prejudice or more. Imagine in this scenario that you realize the issue beforehand and want to warn your readers. How would you go about it?

Well on the assumption that people know the general contents of fantasy/horror/crime etc. I find this a rather odd idea to be honest. I get that some people have had bad experiences and don't want reminders or find certain ideas (religious, cultural, political) unsettling but we all have to take some responsibility for ourselves and ultimately just be ok with rubbing along in a world where we will come across things which other people like but we don't. We can't demand (or expect to provide for others) a perfectly safe world in which we are guaranteed to avoid everything we don't like with 100% success - I'm not sure it's even desirable to try and create that.

The normal approach of not reading things which you know you're not going to like and, if you accidentally make it past that gate, stopping reading and then getting on with life ought to suffice. There is of course a small group of people want to claim some sort of harm from being upset by things (even in the infinitesimal moment it took them to slam the book shut), particularly if they can link their upset-ness to a traumatic event. I think this is encouraged by the increasing tendency we have to allocate the moral high-ground to people claiming victim status and has little to do with any moral duty to help people in their recovery or management of illness: The actual number of people who genuinely have a diagnosed psychological illness and whose professionally prescribed care involves aggressively avoiding things which are in books is a vanishingly small group, verging on non-existence. I'd also bet a not insignificant sum of money that if we did track down a clinical psychologist and asked them if self-prescribed aggressive avoidance was a generally healthy way to deal with trauma the answer would be a resounding: No. (But I remain open to correction if we have such a person available.)

All that said, I think the blurb serves as a sort of general purpose warning on all books: That's what it's there for, to let people know if this is a sort of book they would like. If someone has a problem with the idea of death or violence then 'murder mystery' is hopefully all they need to know to make their decision not to buy the book. Other secondary issues can also be slipped in without looking like an explicit warning: "After a series of racially charged murders..." "In a small town with a sexual predator on the prowl...". The thing is they probably would be anyway, that's what the blurb is for.
 
Well on the assumption that people know the general contents of fantasy/horror/crime etc. I find this a rather odd idea to be honest. I get that some people have had bad experiences and don't want reminders or find certain ideas (religious, cultural, political) unsettling but we all have to take some responsibility for ourselves and ultimately just be ok with rubbing along in a world where we will come across things which other people like but we don't. We can't demand (or expect to provide for others) a perfectly safe world in which we are guaranteed to avoid everything we don't like with 100% success - I'm not sure it's even desirable to try and create that.

The normal approach of not reading things which you know you're not going to like and, if you accidentally make it past that gate, stopping reading and then getting on with life ought to suffice. There is of course a small group of people want to claim some sort of harm from being upset by things (even in the infinitesimal moment it took them to slam the book shut), particularly if they can link their upset-ness to a traumatic event. I think this is encouraged by the increasing tendency we have to allocate the moral high-ground to people claiming victim status and has little to do with any moral duty to help people in their recovery or management of illness: The actual number of people who genuinely have a diagnosed psychological illness and whose professionally prescribed care involves aggressively avoiding things which are in books is a vanishingly small group, verging on non-existence. I'd also bet a not insignificant sum of money that if we did track down a clinical psychologist and asked them if self-prescribed aggressive avoidance was a generally healthy way to deal with trauma the answer would be a resounding: No. (But I remain open to correction if we have such a person available.)

All that said, I think the blurb serves as a sort of general purpose warning on all books: That's what it's there for, to let people know if this is a sort of book they would like. If someone has a problem with the idea of death or violence then 'murder mystery' is hopefully all they need to know to make their decision not to buy the book. Other secondary issues can also be slipped in without looking like an explicit warning: "After a series of racially charged murders..." "In a small town with a sexual predator on the prowl...". The thing is they probably would be anyway, that's what the blurb is for.

It's not necessarily so people can avoid the book. some people just want to know ahead of time that a book will contain X thing, instead of being suddenly surprised by it
 

CelestialGrace

Minstrel
Exposure therapy is tricky - the idea is to gradually work your way up to dealing with the trigger. And that's not a one-size-fits-all therapy for everyone.

I pick up a horror I expect there to be certain key factors - but the author may touch on additional sensitive material. Do I expect them to warn me? No. Will I put a content warning on the horror that I'm writing; yes! I'm not asking to be coddled, or for a rating system but as a writer I will put some kind of warning on my work. As isaid in my initial response, I'm not going to be able to guess everyone's triggers so even with a warning people may still be triggered. But given the topics I have written about, I feel it's something I want to do for my readers.
 

Malik

Auror
I put it right there on the cover, after getting my ass handed to me by a reviewer who "hates books about fighting and war."

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Slartibartfast

Minstrel
It's not necessarily so people can avoid the book. some people just want to know ahead of time that a book will contain X thing, instead of being suddenly surprised by it

Interesting point. It's not something I considered. My poorly thought out initial reaction went something like:

I started off wondering if there are actually a definite group of people who have some sort of need or desire not to be surprised or whether this was a hypothetical group of people who may or may not actually exist (I honestly don't know).
Then, assuming they did exist, I wondered whether their desire was based on personal preference or medical need.
Then I started thinking that we're back in the territory of the blurb being enough for the general purpose of telling people what is in a book. If it's not then we have the very unfortunate situation that someone has read something they don't like, in which case they can stop doing it and carry on with life.
Then I thought that it's practically a writer's duty to surprise their audience.

I'm not entirely without compassion, I just can't think of a practical way to warn people of the infinite number of things they might find uncomfortable if a genre, cover, blurb, and (once they start reading) the flow of the narrative is insufficient to stop them reading before they hit the limits of their comfort zone. I also, pending more information, believe that we're dealing with personal preference rather than medical need. Personal preferences can be very strong but we can't shape the world according to the exacting specifications of everyone's. I'm not even particularly convinced that there is a group of people asking for this service to be provided in a way that is consistent and predictable enough to actually be doable.
 
Exposure therapy is tricky - the idea is to gradually work your way up to dealing with the trigger. And that's not a one-size-fits-all therapy for everyone.

I pick up a horror I expect there to be certain key factors - but the author may touch on additional sensitive material. Do I expect them to warn me? No. Will I put a content warning on the horror that I'm writing; yes! I'm not asking to be coddled, or for a rating system but as a writer I will put some kind of warning on my work. As isaid in my initial response, I'm not going to be able to guess everyone's triggers so even with a warning people may still be triggered. But given the topics I have written about, I feel it's something I want to do for my readers.

The thing people usually miss about exposure therapy is that it’s done under the supervision of a professional. It’s necessary to feel safe and prepared (or at least have the tools to deal with fear) before being exposed to the trigger for it to do any good.

If being exposed to triggers made them go away, PTSD wouldn’t be a long term and disabling condition.
 
Interesting point. It's not something I considered. My poorly thought out initial reaction went something like:

I started off wondering if there are actually a definite group of people who have some sort of need or desire not to be surprised or whether this was a hypothetical group of people who may or may not actually exist (I honestly don't know).
Then, assuming they did exist, I wondered whether their desire was based on personal preference or medical need.
Then I started thinking that we're back in the territory of the blurb being enough for the general purpose of telling people what is in a book. If it's not then we have the very unfortunate situation that someone has read something they don't like, in which case they can stop doing it and carry on with life.
Then I thought that it's practically a writer's duty to surprise their audience.

I'm not entirely without compassion, I just can't think of a practical way to warn people of the infinite number of things they might find uncomfortable if a genre, cover, blurb, and (once they start reading) the flow of the narrative is insufficient to stop them reading before they hit the limits of their comfort zone. I also, pending more information, believe that we're dealing with personal preference rather than medical need. Personal preferences can be very strong but we can't shape the world according to the exacting specifications of everyone's. I'm not even particularly convinced that there is a group of people asking for this service to be provided in a way that is consistent and predictable enough to actually be doable.

You’re right in that it’s 100% not possible to warn for every possible trigger ever because they are literally infinite. Things not directly connected to the traumatic event often become triggers for trauma survivors. The system is flawed from the get-go.

However, there are some subjects that are common enough triggers that warning for them is probably a good idea, e.g. rape. I’ve read a lot of books which I could not possibly have predicted would contain a rape scene. You can’t warn for everything, but warning for the major stuff at least communicates that you care about your readership.

I find your comment about personal preference interesting, because while PTSD is not a personal preference, definitely, it seems to me like part of our business as writers is figuring out what readers prefer. If we’re interested in selling anything.
 
No, freedom of speech is not free from consequence - which is the whole point isn't it? Ideas are powerful, and of course they can have both positive and negative consequences. Don't misunderstand me - I'm not advocating to expose kiddies to evil under the guise of cuddly toy stories. I just worry that being too concerned with audience reception may have a diluting impact on the art in the first place - which would be tragic.

I also think (speaking mostly for Australia but I suspect it's entirely across the first world) that we have become so overprotective (and so fixated on social media determined norms) that people are losing their resilience. We'll all be too scared to go outside shortly.
 

CelestialGrace

Minstrel
Precisely :)


The thing people usually miss about exposure therapy is that it’s done under the supervision of a professional. It’s necessary to feel safe and prepared (or at least have the tools to deal with fear) before being exposed to the trigger for it to do any good.

If being exposed to triggers made them go away, PTSD wouldn’t be a long term and disabling condition.
 

Slartibartfast

Minstrel
...
However, there are some subjects that are common enough triggers that warning for them is probably a good idea, e.g. rape. I’ve read a lot of books which I could not possibly have predicted would contain a rape scene. You can’t warn for everything, but warning for the major stuff at least communicates that you care about your readership.

I don't actually think we're a million miles away from each other, as I said I'm all for warning about the major stuff on the back cover but personally would choose to write it as blurb rather than a separate warning. In my opinion this is stylistically better and would almost certainly happen naturally anyway - the whole point of the blurb is to let people know if they will enjoy the book and it should contain all relevant information to help them make that decision. We all write differently and some of us may be more 'surprising' authors so others may take a different approach to me. They have my blessing, not that they need it.

I find your comment about personal preference interesting, because while PTSD is not a personal preference, definitely, it seems to me like part of our business as writers is figuring out what readers prefer. If we’re interested in selling anything.

I hope I was pretty clear in separating medical need from personal preference. To be clear, what I'm not convinced of is the idea that warnings in excess of the context of the book (genre etc), the cover and the blurb have any part to play in helping people manage their medical conditions.

The business side is a good point. To some extent I think I've been writing on the assumption that we're all sufficiently business savvy that we wouldn't write a book that contained obviously audience-losing material that was so tangential to the plot and so removed from the expectations of the genre that it was not in any way suggested by the narrative flow, book cover, or blurb.
 
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