When Books Don’t Have Trigger Warnings- A Discussion

TW definition

There have been a lot of discussions on Goodreads and the Twitterverse regarding trigger warnings over the past few years, but things seem to be picking up steam more and more lately. And here are my thoughts on it:

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Are they always good? Are they sometimes overkill? Are they spoilers? And why doesn’t there seem to be a firm decision from publishers?

To be clear, including trigger warnings in a book IS the publisher’s decision, not the author’s–many authors believe in TWs and think they should be available.

I haven’t actually seen many TWs in books, but one that comes to mind is an advance copy I read recently: Together We Caught Fire, by Eva V. Gibson.

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It was an awesome surprise to open the book and find this page, and there was nothing in here that felt spoilery to me. References to death, self-harm, childhood trauma…the trigger warnings are basically the entire point of the story. So if any one of those gives you pause, you aren’t going to enjoy this one. And isn’t that good to know in advance? So way to go, Simon Pulse, for including these.

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But if a publisher isn’t willing to add them, how much do authors owe us? How responsible should we hold them to make us aware of their book’s contents? That’s where things seem to get sticky. I’ve seen a lot of authors post warnings on their Twitter or Instagram pages, although of course that won’t reach everyone.

When Victoria Lee published The Fever King in 2018, she knew Skyscape wasn’t going to list TWs in the book. But she felt very strongly that readers should know what they were walking into, so she made sure they were easily accessible on her website.

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It’s a long list! But again, nothing spoilery. If you do want to know more about any of these before reading though, Victoria goes into further detail by listing how many times something occurs, whether it happens on or off-page, specific abuse and violence used, etc.

And isn’t that a great way to handle things? No, you’re not going to reach every reader, but taking things into your own hands and posting your own list of trigger warnings seems like a great choice given the alternative of nothing else at all.

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But listen, here’s the part where I just don’t know. What happens when there are no trigger warnings published and nothing in the book’s description gives any indication that there might be some present? Does the author owe readers a heads-up, or are they allowed to keep some things quiet for a twisty surprise?

There are several books that spring to mind, but the one I really want to talk to you about is one that comes out tomorrow: Every Other Weekend, by Abigail Johnson:

Can life begin again…every other weekend?

Adam Moynihan’s life used to be awesome. Straight As, close friends and a home life so perfect that it could have been a TV show straight out of the 50s. Then his oldest brother died. Now his fun-loving mom cries constantly, he and his remaining brother can’t talk without fighting, and the father he always admired proved himself a coward by moving out when they needed him most.

Jolene Timber’s life is nothing like the movies she loves—not the happy ones anyway. As an aspiring director, she should know, because she’s been reimagining her life as a film ever since she was a kid. With her divorced parents at each other’s throats and using her as a pawn, no amount of mental reediting will give her the love she’s starving for.

Forced to spend every other weekend in the same apartment building, the boy who thinks forgiveness makes him weak and the girl who thinks love is for fools begin an unlikely friendship. The weekends he dreaded and she endured soon become the best part of their lives. But when one’s life begins to mend while the other’s spirals out of control, they realize that falling in love while surrounded by its demise means nothing is ever guaranteed.

Sounds like a fun contemporary romance, maybe a little sad or angsty. And a lot of it is! But you know what this description doesn’t mention AT ALL? Any of the very serious trigger warnings that come up*. Some of these, like severe parental neglect or death of a sibling, aren’t a spoiler so I don’t have a problem discussing those up front. But there are a few others that you’ll have no idea about, that you aren’t meant to see coming, and guys…they’re big ones. They’re triggers that would stop some people from reading, and how do we balance the people who need to know what they’re getting into versus the people who want to be surprised?

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*If you don’t want to know, then I guess skip over this? But it feels unfair to tell you there are TWs but not what they are. So, further trigger warnings include: sexual assault, death of a sibling, predatory behavior, depression, parental abuse in several forms, parental neglect, and even a little bit of munchausen by proxy. 

So here’s my question–do you guys prefer to know everything going in? Or do you consider this stuff spoilers and you’d rather it be kept quiet? I mean, to me the easiest solution is for publishers to start including a specific TW page at the beginning of every book and then everyone can choose for themselves whether or not to look at it before reading. But until that day, are authors responsible for picking up the slack? Are reviewers? So far, I generally deal with the subject of TWs that I can’t figure out by avoiding writing a review at all.

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But I want to hear from you guys–give me all the opinions on this, including if you think I don’t know what I’m talking about and I should just stay out of it!

12 thoughts on “When Books Don’t Have Trigger Warnings- A Discussion

  1. Lauren says:

    This is a tough one!

    Generally, if a book involves sexual assault, I want authors to make this clear while they’re promoting their book.

    I was really pleased when I saw a trigger warning at the beginning of Girls of Paper and Fire. I knew from word of mouth that the book was intense, but I was still glad to see it confirmed for readers who might not have heard.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sara @ The Bibliophagist says:

    This is such a hard question, but I think that trigger warnings should be made available in general. I also got an ARC of Together We Caught Fire and was happy to see the TWs at the beginning so I knew what I was getting into. I’ve also read books with really dark content that kind of came out of nowhere, and while I didn’t necessarily have a negative reaction to that content, I probably wouldn’t have read the book had I known it was in there.

    I’m so happy that TWs for Ninth House, for example, were so widely circulated after its release. I’d been looking forward to it, but after reading those warnings, I knew I wouldn’t like it. So now I saved myself the time it would’ve taken to read it, the shock of reading some things I’d rather avoid, and it won’t have my (likely) negative review. I think it’s a win-win, really. By including TWs, you’re saving people from the stress and/or trauma of reading about these things, and you’re also helping to ensure that people who won’t like the book know to avoid it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pagesandpugs says:

      Ninth House, THAT’S the other one I was thinking of that didn’t have any warnings listed by the publisher or the author, but other reviewers made them well known. That one is interesting because it’s not a YA book, but it IS by an author who has written YA consistently before Ninth House so it still sort of feels like it lives within the YA community.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sara @ The Bibliophagist says:

        Yes! I know a lot of YA readers were really excited about it, which makes it even touchier in my opinion. Not that we have to censor what teens are reading, but they should at least be prepared for what they’re getting into when they read an adult book by their favorite YA author.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Audra Miller says:

    I like the example you gave from the author that lists the trigger warnings (in general terms) under a spoiler heading because that makes them available for those who need them but also makes them easy to skip for those who don’t/would rather be surprised. This is actually a really great conversation to have, because it is really hard to know how to address them when doing so might spoil something.

    Liked by 1 person

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