Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Problem with Content Warnings

Image ©Geralt via Pixabay
This post will likely upset a few people. I can't help that.

There is a trend to add content warnings to books. It started innocently enough as a way to warn readers that a book may contain content that is sensitive or could be deemed offensive. The purpose was to prepare readers that the novel they were choosing to read may contain scenes that were out of character for the genre of the story, like a graphic rape scene in a fantasy novel where the rape is the not focus of the story. In modern times they are more often a cautionary measure for a society that is terrified it might see something that it doesn't like. 

Content warnings are misused for several reasons. The biggest one seems to be that readers are not reading the summary of the book before choosing to read the actual book. These readers then become upset that the content of the blurb was in the book. Case in point, a reader complained that they did not expect violence to be depicted in a story about a woman who was forced into slavery. I'm not sure what they thought they would be reading when the blurb clearly stated that the story was about a woman living through the ordeal of slavery, but I would like to think that common sense would dictate that there is a high probability of the story containing violence.

Another issue with content warnings is that there is no way for the author to know what exactly will trigger a traumatic response in their reader. To combat this some authors go to the extreme with lengthy content warnings that involve everything from the minor character who waves at the main character when walk by to the religious pendant a character wears. This becomes excessive and often spoils the story because so much of it is revealed in the warning that there is no point in reading the book.

Conversely, some authors focus so extensively on a single topic that they fail to address another. In one love story between two characters, the author included a multi-page content warning that the story dealt with one of the main characters processing the death of her child. It did not mention anything about the graphic gang rape scene which, at least for me, was far more disturbing in a 'love story'. The child is already deceased at the start of the story and there are no graphic details about how the child dies. There are extremely graphic details about the rape. This warning, if it had been about the rape, would have made sense as readers generally don't expect a graphic rape scene in a story about a woman mourning her deceased child and finding love.

Content warnings can largely be mitigated with well-written blurbs and summaries which include the theme of the story and a little bit of common sense on the part of the reader. They should be limited to topics or scenes which would be unexpectedly offensive or traumatizing to the reader. They should not be a warning that the theme listed in the blurb of the story is actually going to happen in the story.