Should Books Have Content Warnings?

Earlier this year I was reading a book I’d been excited for. I did my usual research, scanned some ratings, read some reviews..  maybe I’d first heard about it on a blog somewhere.

These are the top review quotes for the book:

sorryreview

The Times said it was ‘for strong stomachs’

Joanne Harris says it’s ‘very dark’.

HELLLOOO UNDERSTATEMENT!

I’ve read countless books described similarly, if not word for word. Very occasionally I will put a book down through boredom, THIS was the first book I put down in disgust.

I was completely blindsided by a child rape scene. Sometimes books just allude to events like this, or they might drop a few hints so you can at least steel yourself for the scenes approaching. This one did neither.

The scene was very descriptive and written from the POV of the child, but what made it worse was his inner monologue before and after. I barely managed to push myself through reading the first of these descriptions but a few short chapters later I realised I couldn’t focus on the story line anymore. In the back of my mind I was constantly preparing myself for the torturous moments and the sick feeling I’d gotten during the initial event wasn’t fading. The character’s fear got so deep under my skin that I had to delete the ebook, hug my dog and watch cartoons for a while!

Now we could argue that my reaction means it is powerful writing, and I won’t deny that it is. I will say though, as much as I like to be scared, it could have a traumatising effect on other readers. Especially those with triggers.

This book has plenty of five star reviews, everyone has their own opinions and thresholds of course but…

Should there be some kind of warning? Maybe a foreword, or even just a symbol of some sort. Films have them. Television shows have them. Music has an explicit content logo. What warning labels do books have?

A reader told me they felt a book would lose its sense of mystery, that shocking twists wouldn’t be shocking at all with a disclaimer. Some people like to look at online lists of specific trigger warnings and whilst I understand why, I have to agree that for me it does take away from the books discovery element.

I wouldn’t want to know exactly what I was in for, part of the fun is trying to work out how a book will end. I’m all about the twisting story lines, shocking conclusions, and cliff hangers. Throw those red herrings at me til my head spins around.

Please don’t lay out the themes or spoil the surprises. If you tell me suicide, abduction and schizophrenia features in a book I’m apt to guess what’s going to happen to whom and lose interest.

Maybe we could use a rating system.. You know like the little chillies on a takeaway menu? 3 chillies are only for those with cast iron guts. (If you were wondering, this book I’ve been rambling about is off the chart! 5 chilli peppers for sure.)

chillirating

Or just a little exclamation point in the corner of the book cover, like the ones MTV had on any videos with seizure triggers.

BBFC use generic descriptions as insight for disturbing content without giving away detail perfectly.

bbfc

I’m an adult (unfortunately) though I read YA, NA as well as adult books. I usually like to be scared by books and films but I never ever want to read anything like that book again. Thankfully the experience only managed to put me off the author and not the genre itself, though I did read several YA novels to recover from that adult book and I’ll be more thorough when researching via reviews from now on.

Have you been affected this way by a book?

Would you prefer a form of warning?

How would you do it?

Let’s talk.

Author: Roxanne Michelle

Dramatic, curly-haired wannabe writer from a nowhere town in Somerset. Stop-starter of all projects great and small. Here to talk books, film, mental health and lifestyle.

3 thoughts on “Should Books Have Content Warnings?”

  1. Personally, I appreciate the specific warnings. They may be spoilers for some folks, but there are some things I really do need to be warned about before I go in. A general age recommendation or 1-5 scale of how dark something is does not get me in the headspace to read through a book with suicide the same way a specific trigger warning will. I find I have a better experience when I’m prepared for the specific darker themes I’m going to find instead of tossed in with little to no idea of what’s going to happen.

    Like

    1. I understand that, it’s a struggle because we’re all triggered by different things at different extremes, and everyone wants a different level of forewarning. I’ve yet to think of a way to fit everyone’s needs myself..

      Liked by 1 person

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