Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Everything is trigger warnings, and that's not bad.

A few months ago now, I made a trip to my local Half-Price Books and found one of my favorite re-reads in a shiny new paperback. Oh, the joy of finding an out-of-print book for a reasonable cost! Oh, the glee of having a fresh copy for the loaner shelf! (I passionately adore a bunch of 1980s science fiction that isn't widely available, and often thrust it on people.) I snapped it up.

When I got home, I commented on Twitter that I'd found the book, and @-checked the author, who I thought might be pleased by my delight. It's nice when someone reads something I realized a while ago, and my clock only goes back 2009 (unless you have some of the ElfQuest 'zines I did in high school). The author, someone I have adored since middle school, responded.

"Trigger warning: dangerous ideas."

I sat there for a little while, stunned.

I am simultaneously very sensitive and very thick-skinned. Most of the people I know are. There are things that lance right past my armor and knock me on my ass, and then there are things that I can take for a long time. In the third category are the things I just need to be warned about, so I can choose whether I'm in the mood to deal with them. But here's the thing:

Most stories come with their own trigger warnings. They just aren't called out blatantly as such.

When I pick up a Jack Ketchum book, there will be language on the back about "horrible things" and "terrible crimes" and other coded comments that don't come right out and say "this book has rape in it," but which absolutely say that to someone who has been reading in the genre for a little while. And when I was getting started in the horror genre, I was largely operating on recommendations from friends and librarians--people who would say, when they handed me something, "this may be disturbing." They called out the things that might make the book difficult to read.

Movies are rated. PG, PG-13, R. I've seen a screenshot of a Facebook post going around recently, with a mother saying they had to leave Deadpool with their nine year old, and "why don't we have a labeling system?" Well, we do. It's called "this movie had an R rating." But R-rated movies get edited for television, and we don't think about that when we ask ourselves whether Little Bee enjoyed that film. "Oh, they've seen _________, and it was rated R, so they're ready for Deadpool." Movies get rated R for different reasons. Maybe it's language, maybe it's sex, maybe it's violence. When I was a kid, I tended to just tune out sex: you could take me to a lot of movies rated R for sexy innuendo and mild nudity, and I'd just be bored. But violence could still scare me.

(Note that this is "rated R," not "rated XXX." The fact that I saw a lot of boobies as a kid does not mean I was ready for a bunch of actual porn.)

Video games are rated. T for Teen, M for Mature. Yet everyone I know who works at a video game store has had the angry parent demanding to know why their kids have violent video games. Be...cause...someone didn't want to look at the ratings? Which are also, in some ways, the trigger warnings? Look at what's listed after a rating: those are the triggers. Maybe they're not intended for the person actually consuming the media, but once they're there, they're for everybody. I know people who only play T games, because they got tired of the casual misogyny and violence of M games. Why is that bad?

In the case of books, you're less likely to have a direct rating or label (although Angry Robot does a decent job). At the same time, if the back cover text is halfway decent, you should know what you're getting into. And yes, I am angry when a book promises me one thing and gives me something else. It's not a fun surprise, especially when the "something else" is a nice big bucket of rape and murder.

People who say they want trigger warnings are not necessarily asking to be coddled. They're asking for warning. They're asking for the courtesy that good fanfic writers afford to their readers. They're asking to be allowed to relax into the story. But saying "trigger warning: dangerous ideas" doesn't help anyone. My not wanting to read romanticized, eroticized rape in the middle of my zombie fiction doesn't mean I don't want to read exciting, complex, interesting books; saying that your book is just as triggering as something about child abuse or rape or graphic animal death does a disservice to both your work and your readers.

It can go too far: anything can go too far. I met a reader who told me that they refuse to read any books which include descriptions of food that they are allergic to, and that there should be food trigger warnings (I'm still not sure whether they were trolling me, but they seemed serious). If my book is called Spider Attack, I shouldn't need to warn people about the spiders. But common sense still gets to come to the party.

I have rarely felt so dismissed or talked down to by an author I admired, especially since I had not said or done anything to indicate that I was seeking a trigger warning; I had actually referenced reading the book before. It was a failure of kindness.

We have got to be kinder.
Tags: contemplation, cranky blonde is cranky

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