What’s Missing From the Conversation About Trigger Warnings for Books

If you’ve been following bookish news lately, you’ve likely come across an editorial or ten about whether books should come with trigger warnings (messages about content that might be upsetting or bring about symptoms of post-traumatic stress for readers) and whether/how colleges should make students aware of potentially triggering material and respond to their concerns. The editorials I’ve read–and I’ve read many–have all focused on what this means for The Future of Literature. If some students elect not to read books that contain scenes that could trigger them, these writers wonder, what will happen to those students as thinkers and readers, and ultimately, what will happen to Literature?

Some of these pieces equate skipping a book that contains material that might trigger you with intellectual laziness and an unwillingness to be offended (that is: the writers of these pieces do not really understand what it is to have triggers). Others mount the hand-wringing slippery slope argument that trigger warnings will put us one step closer to book bannings (that is: they fail to acknowledge the significant differences between individual discretion and institutionalized, government-enforced censorship). The writers of all these op-eds are concerned about the consequences of providing readers with information about books’ content and allowing them to make choices about whether or not they will read that content. Perhaps this is born out of fear that if people can just talk to each other and make choices for themselves (clutch your pearls and shake a fist at the internet), academics and literary critics will have less authority. Perhaps it comes from privilege and a failure of imagination when people think that because they found value in reading a graphic scene, others will or should as well. Or perhaps these writers genuinely, if misguidedly, fear that the individuals who wish to be allowed to opt out of certain books harbor a secret agenda to prevent anyone from reading them. Wherever these fears come from, it’s not the conversation we should really be having.

Let’s get this out of the way: the State of Literature is not threatened by individual readers who choose not to engage with material that may trigger personal trauma. For as long as information about books’ content has been available–for as long as one reader has been able to talk to another about what happens in a book–people have used that information to make choices about what they read. The implicit message in these concern trolling op-eds is that the Future of Literature is more important than individuals’ well-being, that readers who have triggers should suck it up and deal with the difficult passages because hey, it could be good for them (the paternalistic argument that students should have to read triggering material because books can heal us has been made more than a few times), and that books are doomed if (gasp!) readers start making informed decisions about what to read based on books’ content.

But let’s be real. This is nothing new. We all make choices about the content of our reading. Some of us make those choices because of triggers. And yet, Literature is doing just fine.

The conversation about trigger warnings raises interesting questions for educators, no doubt. Should students be able to opt out of individual readings and complete alternate assignments, or should they just get a list of assigned books prior to enrolling and choose not to take courses that assign triggering material? I don’t know. I’m not an educator, and I’m not here to make a declaration about how schools should address students’ concerns about triggering content.

I’m a reader. I believe that books can have powerful positive impacts on us. And if I hold that as a truth of the reading life, I must also acknowledge the possibility for books to have equally powerful negative impacts. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of my favorite books. It’s a prize-winning book. It contains many scenes that were so hard to read, they took my breath away. Reading it was one of the most valuable and important experiences of my reading life. But I don’t have triggers, and I don’t come from a historically marginalized racial group. I can read a scene with graphic sexual violence and references to slavery and find it to be a valuable and important experience, where it would be an awful one for others. There is no pausing a panic attack to contemplate the literary merit of a rape scene. There is no scene in literature that is so important that reading it should supercede a reader’s psychological health.

If I hold it as a truth of the reading life that, as Edmund Wilson said, “No two persons ever read the same book,” I must acknowledge that my life-altering experience with a great, difficult book is another person’s trauma-triggering moment, that there is no value in being forced to read a passage that triggers you, and that the Book Absolutely Everyone Should Read does not exist.

Books matter. Literary culture, whatever you take that to mean, matters. People matter more.

 

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