To Warn or Not To Warn

Author Jamie Beck has written an excellent post for Writer Unboxed summarizing the arguments for and against putting trigger warnings on novels. Does the novel deal with crime, violence, bad childhoods? If so, some people feel potential readers should be warned. Does the warning need to describe so much of what happens in the book (airplane crash, page 73; dog dies, page 159) that it gives the story away? Surely not.

But where’s the middle ground? And, is there one? There’s no single answer that can possibly fit every case, much less every reader. To customize their approach to the actual text of a manuscript, writers (and their publishers) have come to employ “sensitivity readers” when a book is about a culture or a disability that is not the author’s own (and sometimes even if it is). The goal—to avoid stereotypes, mischaracterization, bias and other problems—seems laudable. This issue blipped loudly onto my radar during the dust-up over Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel about Mexican migrants, American Dirt.

But authors have been quick to point out that the issue of “standing” can be a slippery slope. Can ONLY a Black person write about Black characters? Or ONLY a person with a mental disability write about a character with one?

In Nita Prose’s excellent mystery The Maid, the protagonist, Molly, has difficulty reading people, can be overly literal, and has more than a touch of OCD (not a totally bad thing, if she’s cleaning your hotel room). Some readers thought the author should have spelled out that Molly is on the autism spectrum. But is she? Should Prose have given Molly an actual diagnosis, one freighted with a lot of extraneous stuff? She didn’t, instead merely describing Molly’s thoughts and reactions in a very straightforward way.

I sympathized with the approach Fabian Nicieza took in his first highly comic mystery, Suburban Dicks. His acknowledgements express thanks to his multicultural reading group, by name, “for providing their thoughts on the cultural portrayals contained in the book and their understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.” An intent at which he most certainly succeeded. A reader would have to be extremely thin-skinned indeed to take his jibes seriously, but then we do seem to be in such an era.

Jamie Beck lays all this out, then reveals the conclusion she came to for her own recent book. Not only is her essay thought-provoking in itself, it’s prompted excellent comments from a range of other writers and readers. Take a look!

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1 thought on “To Warn or Not To Warn

  1. I write cozy mysteries, which by definition don’t include many “triggering” (disturbing) elements. Still, my thinking is that if you’re writing about one or more people being murdered, there have to be strong emotions and bad actors involved. Because my series is set in northern New Jersey, which is very cosmopolitan, I make an effort to include characters of varous ethnic backgrounds, income levels, sexual orientations, etc. My viewpoint (sleuth) character is young and open-minded, but how the secondary characters react to each other sometimes illustrates their biases. I’ve also implied that a few of my criminally oriented characters might fit certain psychological or criminal profiles. But again, I try not to over-emphasize this to the point of offending any readers.

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