Authors Warn About Content Warnings in Books

Carmen Maria Machado, Silvia Moreno Garcia, and others take to Twitter to decry censorship

Well, dear readers, the time has come where I must summarize a literary Twitter beef that I don’t fully understand. It involves content warnings for novels, an issue that sharply divides readers and authors.

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I’m not sure which reader or critic first broached the problem. Indie horror publisher Haunt Publishing tweeted on June 12 that they’d now include content warnings as a practice on all of their books. I’m not sure if that caused this conversation or was caused by it.

Nick Mamatas summarized some of the problems with a content warning system in a really detailed thread, that began, “Pretty odd to see a lot of people telling a small press publisher about the importance of content warnings when the overwhelming majority of publishing doesn’t put content warnings on their books. And I guarantee that despite concerns about trauma, warnings will harm books.”

The broad strokes are: readers and critics want books to come with content warnings–especially on advance reader copies (ARCs) that reviewers receive for books before they write about them online, which would allow them to self-select out of books that aren’t for them. To be honest, before this week, that’s an opinion I also shared. I’ve received a few recent books with notes about the upsetting material, including a really thoughtful author’s note in Ashley Bloom’s Every Bone A Prayer, which not only warned about the novel’s content, but reflected on the positives and negatives of reading and writing through that which upsets us. And I found them to be a nice, thoughtful heads-up.

However, reading responses from authors I admire, like Carmen Maria Machado and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I’ve changed my mind. Machado, recently in the news because Texas reading lists were banning her memoir In the Dream House , waded into the waters of content warnings over the weekend.

“No one asked me & I promised myself I wouldn’t dip into the discourse, but if you think centralized trigger/content warnings won’t affect books you have no understanding of how badly the film rating system in the US has affected American films in meaningful and devastating ways,” she wrote in a thread that directed readers to watch the 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Her argument, echoed by many others online this week, hinges on the ways that formalized rating systems, such as the Motion Picture Association’s system for film, are incomplete and often stigmatizing at best and, at worst, one step above censorship. Machado’s book is a good example of that.

“The warnings one sees on music/films etc are all industry attempts to keep the state from outright censoring material and criminalizing creation. Books have managed, thanks to social cachet and high-profile court cases, to avoid this fate so far,” Mamatas wrote in his thread. “And this week we saw demands for content CHANGES, which is absolutely the next step. So having a character mention Israel in a two-year-old book is bad enough that it’ll be edited out. (Of course, a zillion books mention/discuss/are about Israel, but that just proves the point.)”

“The other thing is these can be wildly inaccurate. I had someone content warn one of my works for poverty. Another one for animal death (the dog lives). The Storygraph lists Mexican Gothic for ‘cannibalism’ as explicit, moderate & mild. Which one is it? A little bite or a buffet?” replied Moreno Garcia. She later shared that her tweets against content warnings garnered responses saying she hated readers and was attacking reviewers. “At this point I’ve written I think *three* threads about how TWs can be weaponized and used against POC by taking works out of context and that’s what’s happening to me now,” she wrote.

Writers, readers and tweeters in favor of content warnings don’t see it as a censorship issue, but as an easy addition to improve accessibility and reader experience.

“Are people taking [sic] about content warnings again?” wrote author Renée Dahlia. “They are good and all my books have them (except the first few trad published ones and I’ve put those on my website). Readers are the customer; helping them is good business and basic kindness.”

“At the beginning of #HisRaggedCompany, I’ve got content and trigger warnings. Normalize these in books moving forward. They’re 1) not spoilers, and 2) they’re helpful aids for friends and readers who may have lived different experiences!” tweeted author Rance D. Denton.

These are authors who’ve included content warnings of their own accord, which is great! But the writers in this conversation are worried about a centralized rating or warning system and the ways it could be abused. Googling books ahead of time and doing the work yourself before reading can obviously solve the problem for most readers, ARCs notwithstanding. I wonder if reviewers could solve that problem by asking publicists ahead of time to skip them when it comes to books with upsetting content.

“tbh when I was early on in my understanding of myself as a survivor of various traumas I saw trigger warnings as very important and now years of layered traumas later I find them redundant and insulting often. anyway, normalization of content warnings on books is bad imo…” wrote Erin Taylor. “don’t get me wrong, I understand wanting to know what’s in a book, do a Google. don’t harass authors for writing about their own abusive experiences because you’re upset that you had to read about it, because lol you didn’t have to.” 

“A book is not dangerous to an adult in the way the home is dangerous, or an abusive partner can be, or a toxic workplace. It can upset you, but it cannot control or coerce you. A book can’t traumatize you; it can’t exercise power over you,” tweeted Gretchen Felker-Martin. “Understanding our own vulnerability is important, but understanding our resilience is just as crucial!”

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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