Thursday, June 5, 2014

Trigger Alert

Just when I thought we couldn’t get any more PC or litigious, along comes something new – warning labels on literary works. I’ve been following this recently and it appears that people are suddenly worried that certain words, phrases or situations may trigger some buried memory or traumatic experience for the reader.

Some schools – including Oberlin College, George Washington University and Rutgers – are considering slapping “trigger warnings” on certain books that are required reading. “Warning: This book contains scenes of violence.” “Warning: This book contains graphic depictions of a sexual nature.” I suppose this is to protect someone who may read a hot passage and flash back to the prom night when they didn’t get lucky, then get upset by the memory and become unhinged.

How far are we supposed to go? If someone wants to know if a book contains objectionable content, can’t they just Google it and read the synopsis? How about asking their friends if they’ve read it? Most reputable writers and publishers (and I realize that eliminates quite a few) will post a disclaimer or heat warning to let the reader beware. I tell people up front that my books contain violence, adult language and graphic sex. I’ve lost a few sales because of that but I felt better about not deceiving or offending someone.

People read to be entertained and enlightened. A book isn’t necessarily designed to make one feel good, but challenged on a higher level and broadened by other people’s insights and experiences. We shouldn’t have the added worry of triggering some deeply hidden “ism” in someone’s psyche. Of course I’m sensitive to people’s fears and phobias (I have a couple myself), but requiring labels on books is the busywork of politically over-correct minds run amok. Apparently someone felt that if it was good enough for movies and video games, it’s good for books, too.

I recently watched a classic film from the early fifties, “No Way Out,” with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark. It was about the racial tension between a black Doctor and the bigoted white criminal he was treating in a hospital. It made me uncomfortable at times because I haven’t heard so many racial slurs since Richard Pryor was alive. Even in today’s climate, TCM chose to post a warning about the frank language. Another one I caught up with was a terrific crime caper called “The Score,” with Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett. Since it boasted an R rating I naturally expected some sex and bloodshed. I was surprised that the adult rating was for the language. The same with the recent film “American Hustle.” Again, another R rating but only because of the million different uses of the “F” word.

Since this is the trend, I think we should all be more careful from now on. If your book contains scenes of flying, you’d better post a warning for any agoraphobic readers who may unknowingly read it and become traumatized. Do you have any scenes aboard a cruise ship or near the ocean? Better let the aquaphobics out there know about it. I should probably post a warning on my detective thriller “Lido Key” because one scene depicts a threesome with the hero, his bi-sexual lover and her girlfriend. Don’t want to offend the homophobes. Oh, and for those who write shape-shifter romance, if any of your characters morph into black widow spiders you’ll need to alert the arachniphobics so they don’t run screaming into the night.

I think I’ll just use a one-size-fits-all disclaimer. “Warning: This book contains some damn fine writing and one helluva good story with sex and violence. Read it at your own risk.”

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


Tina Donahue said...

IMO, this is so weird. If I read a work that offends me in some way (and, trust me, that is rare since I'm about as laid back as they come), I simply stop reading it. I don't start gasping for air, curl up in a fetal position or do anything else out of the extraordinary. It's fiction people. If we have to start censoring everything in our books, or slapping warning labels on them for the faint of heart, the books are going to be so damn vanilla that no one's going to want to read them.

And for those out there who think I may be talking about taboo subjects like incest - no, I'm not.

I'm talking about everyday life that's depicted in fiction.

On the topic of incest: I enjoyed the first VC Andrews' book "Flowers in the Attic" that did have incest in it. However, the reason for the incest wasn't gratuitous or titillating. In the context of the story, it made sense (and was very sad/heartrending). The books that followed (especially those after she died and a ghost writer took over) were grotesque to the extreme as they did involve incest as titillation. However, I didn't lose my lunch or my mind over them. I simply stopped reading her books.

Tim Smith said...

Tina, you've hit the target I set up with this post. How many warnings do we need to provide? My pub makes us list the content with the heat warning so people will know what they're getting. Some of my books feature I/R romance, which offends some people. It's spelled out for all to see. Likewise with same-sex content. IMO, you've been forewarned and if it isn't your brand of Scotch, don't read it.

I agree with you about not continuing to read or watch something you've found offensive. There are a few writers whose books I'll never read again because something turned me off. The same with Brian DePalma's movies - after seeing "Scarface" and getting queasy from the gratuitous bloodshed and sadism, I said "Enough!"

jean hart stewart said...

I'm damned tired of being told what to read or not to read. Adults should be able to decide that for themselves. Too much criticism all around, as far as I'm concerned.