Books: Should they come with trigger warnings?

Students in America have made formal requests for canonical texts, such as F.

Students in America have made formal requests for canonical texts, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ to come with “trigger warnings” to warn them of distressing material in novels. Oberlin College, University of Michigan and Rutgers University were some of the universities whose students backed the request led by the student government at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

In some respect, putting ‘trigger warnings’ in books shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Films come with warnings and ratings at the beginning, video games have ratings and are classified by genre and category and music albums come with ‘explicit content’ warnings too.

But should literature be exempt from this way of flagging up themes and plot-points from the outset?

Elements of literature versus safety

Reading is one of those rare forms of entertainment that has managed to retain its essence in the face of digitalisation. The nature of reading, going from beginning to end and being taken on a journey where you paint the picture, is what has made reading an enjoyable pastime for generations.

The ability to shock, move and expect the unexpected whilst exercising one’s creative faculties is why many continue to invest in a book rather than TV series or a film adaptation.

In this digital age, society has an obsession with using tags and labels. We want it to be easier to locate things, find out what happens without having to wait and be able to summarise ideas with increasing brevity. Apply this approach to literature and we could risk dumbing it down and not inspiring the thought and pleasure to be gained in the reading experience.

The main argument for these “trigger warnings” is so people are not made uncomfortable when difficult themes arise such as suicide, rape, racism and war. In my mind, if a book has the power to remind someone of traumatic (or happy) periods in their life, then this can only be a positive thing and a credit to the writers who have been able to encapsulate difficult emotions through literature.

Professor of English at University College London, John Mullan, dismissed the idea saying, “you might as well put a label on English Literature saying: warning – bad stuff happens here.”

Avoiding its study overall

Those who find themselves more perceptible to trauma and distress when reading texts should look them up beforehand and use their common sense instead of threatening to ruin reading for everyone. Students who have complained perhaps shouldn’t be studying English Literature at a University level in the first place if they struggle with such hard-hitting issues.  

Even if this approach were to be fully implemented, it would be hard to draw the line on which books should come with which thematic warnings.

Seeing visually upsetting scenes on TV or in a film may understandably cause discomfort for a variety of different reasons, but literature is a very self-controlled media that by definition should evoke some kind of human response.

Putting warnings on classic novels that usually resist easy categorisation, is essentially debasing them and would ruin the reading experience for many if this method becomes common practice.

At the end of the day, the best moments in a novel are often the ones you least expect.

What do you think? Should books come with warnings or is it a step too far? Have your say in the comments section below.