Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Triggers, Again

While I was on my break, triggers and trigger warnings popped rather suddenly into prominence again. Triggered by a post Porter Anderson wrote for Writer Unboxed in mid-August, I started drafting my own bit on this, which, of course, I’ve already done at least once before (Tipper Stickers). The initial work I did on the latest post was lost when my computer finally collapsed in a heap of aging processors and blown capacitors, but I had enough in my head to carry on. So, here we are. Again.

When I began crafting my response to Anderson’s post, it was not all that different from my Tipper Stickers post: the purpose of literature is to provoke thought and feeling; I don’t like the idea of putting ratings on books, though I accept them on movies and TV programs; a reader can always stop reading, etc. and so forth. Not a lot had changed.

But as I started my comment, a thought popped into my head: As a person who has never suffered any real trauma in life beyond the usual scrapes and bruises, am I really qualified to decide?

The major traumas in my life involve the deaths of my parents (and neither of those events qualifies as scarring; it’s sad that they aren’t part of our lives anymore, and watching loved ones succumb to illness sucks, plain and simple; but nothing in their deaths rises to the level where there are triggers) and one assault at the Lenox Avenue subway station that I got over long ago. Simply put, I am fortunate–and happy–not to have had incidents that leave me prone to debilitating emotional responses. And much as straight white men in America are not usually that reliable when it comes to commenting on issues of racism and sexism (particularly the sneaky institutional kinds), this may leave me unqualified to really determine whether there should be triggers or not.

Wait, not that kind!

Sensitivity in this world is a must. The whole point of so-called “Political Correctness” is not about stopping people from thinking, or stopping people from speaking their minds; rather, it’s to get them to think about what they’re saying and writing, to consider other people’s lives and points of view, and to recognize that there are other experiences out there beyond their own. You can go on thinking whatever you want–you will, anyway. Just think a little about who you’re impacting before you say it.

Whoops, I’ve drifted a bit off topic. The simple truth is, I don’t think there should be any topics that are taboo in writing, and I think it’s absolutely wrong to tell writers not to include potentially upsetting scenes. As for trigger warnings? Again, maybe. My question is this, though: Who gets to decide what warrants a trigger warning and what does not? What do you think?

7 Responses

  1. Yeah. Someone in a writing group got bashed with a one-star review because a couple of the characters wondered if there was a god. The reviewer went off on a tirade about not wanting to read that kind of stuff.

  2. I've not heard about trigger warnings being a "thing." If a person has a trigger problem, I'm pretty sure they would know which genres to avoid reading. Can you imagine books having a warning label?

    WARNING: Reading this book may be dangerous to your belief system.

  3. Interesting. For books, I've always thought the author should be the one to decide on the trigger warning. I've taught several students who suffered from PTSD and I try to be aware of the books I read/share in class because of it. Sometimes they want to explore certain topics, sometimes they don't. But I do like to know myself what the books are about so I can prep them

  4. -Donna–This is one of the problems with the whole thing: where do you draw the line? What's worthy of a warning and what isn't?
    -Stacy–Maybe "thing" is the wrong word for it. The problem is, I don't know if you can say that genre can tip you off to potential triggers. Maybe if you're a war veteran, you wouldn't read war stories. But many of the things most at issue (rape, child abuse, domestic violence) are not genre specific.

    I had thought that the book blurb might be enough, but identifying someone in the blurb as a "rape survivor," for example, tells you something about the character that's important. It does not tell you, however, if that rape will be graphically shown or not. That's the sort of thing people generally want trigger warnings for.

    -Sheena-kay–Triggers be damned is generally what I want to say, too. As I said up top, however, my lack of…experience…with triggery traumas may not make me the best qualified to pass that judgment. I don't know.

    -Jemi–Certainly, if you're self-publishing, it's all up to you. Once you get into the world of publishing houses, you have to make concessions to "House Rules." I would hope there would be discussion between author and editor at the very least.

    I expect in working with kids in the school situation, you often have an idea of their backgrounds and can be prepared; how are things handled when it's a surprise?

  5. When I was researching book reviewers, I came across 2 blogs that required me to fill out a "trigger" poll. Both times I did it, I received a "no" from the poll company, saying my answers didn't match what their client would accept. The weird part was that I couldn't talk to anyone or explain how, for example, there were two paragraphs dealing with animal death and they were crucial to the novel. But it's all good. Most people–even ones who've had traumatic experiences–aren't so rabid about avoiding anything they may find difficult to deal with. I think it's good to avoid difficult or dangerous situations in real life. But in a fiction novel or movies or TV, what's depicted isn't really happening. There's no reason to freak out. Nope, I'm not very sympathetic.

    Did you hear about the kerfluffle with Lionel Shriver at the writer's conference in Australia? Things got really heated about white writers and "cultural appropriation" i.e. do you have the right to make your MC of a different ethnicity than your own or are you stealing another's culture and being insensitive. I'd like to hear your opinion on that prickly issue. 😉

  6. -Lexa–I suspect the people with issues would differ with your comment that there's "no reason to freak out."

    While "suck it up Sally/Sammy" as a blanket response to people who ask for trigger warnings is not ideal, I can't help but wonder if we are going a little too far. Re: Lionel Shriver, I have not heard of this. I'll have to look into it, and I'll consider it for another post!

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