In his book, Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman asked the question, “Should fiction be safe?”
Now that trigger warnings have escaped the internet, he wondered if they’re going to move over into fiction. He talked about reading books he wasn’t ready for, how they scared him and made him think. But that as an adult, he’s glad he read them when he did.
It made me ponder that question he asked. Should fiction be a safe place?
First, what is the purpose of reading? Entertainment? To increase empathy? To broaden one’s mind? To travel to places and times the reader has never been?
Second, what would be the purpose of a trigger warning in a book? In my mind, it would be to shield the reader from material that could cause potential emotional distress.
My Experiences Growing Up Reading Everything
Before I address the first and second point, I’d like to say that my parents weren’t readers, and as such, never told me I couldn’t read anything. I read Watchers (which has some explicit sex scenes) at 12. I read all of Thomas Harris’s and many of Stephen King’s books when I was a young teenager. I also read romances and middle grade books and young adult books and science fiction books… basically, if it was fiction, I read it.
There were some books I wasn’t emotionally ready for. I skipped over sex scenes in books when I wasn’t interested. Some drug references went over my head. Violence in books sometimes made me afraid to go out at night. I remember reading a particularly graphic sex scene in a book about a serial killer. Though the violence was no problem, the sex grossed me out, and I abandoned the book.
I’m not a sex fiend or violent now. I’m an incurable optimist with a streak of dark humor. Nothing grosses me out, and very little bothers me. I have thick skin and lots of concern about the suffering of others.
Should I have been allowed to read anything? Well, my answer is yes. I like the way I turned out. 🙂 Maybe that permissive reading style isn’t right for everyone, but it worked for me.
I say all this so that when I talk about whether or not fiction should be safe, you understand my frame of reference. Everyone is going to have different experiences which shape them.
What is the Purpose of Reading?
To answer the first question, to me, fiction is all of those things. Sometimes I want a book purely for entertainment. When I do, I might look for a Nora Roberts/ JD Robb book. I might ask my friends for recommendations. I might go to Goodreads or just look on my ever-lengthening TBR or wishlist and look for something that seems light.
All books help to increase empathy and broaden one’s mind, but if I’m looking for something specific, I might go for something that explores a current issue from a fiction point of view, like The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, or something more classic, like Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.
When I’m looking to travel, the Outlander series is a wonderful way to go.
What I’ve Learned From Books
When I read something that’s difficult, like The Hate U Give, I’m pushed outside myself. I’m inside the head of a narrator and shown something different from the life I live. Those books are not “safe.” They test our empathy and proclaim, in no uncertain terms, “Bad things can happen to anyone.”
When I read a book like Watchers, by Dean Koontz it makes me consider what our moral responsibility is to the world around us, and what, as humans, is our place in this world.
When I read a book like You, by Caroline Kepnes, it makes me think about the information that I put on social media.
When I read a book like The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon, it makes me realize how privileged and lucky I really am. And how much little things I say and do can affect others in the world around me.
One of my best friends always says, “Everyone I come across has something to teach me. It’s my job to find the lesson.”
In the same way, every book I read has something to teach me. Am I paying attention?
Should Fiction Be Safe?
I would argue that it shouldn’t be.
There is no safe place. Not in the fiction world, not in the real world.
There is always going to be something that will scare me, but not someone else. Something that might not upset me, but might upset someone. I love books that distress me. That means that something resonated with me emotionally. Those are the books I think about and want to discuss. Even if I disagree. Maybe especially if I don’t agree.
Sometimes those books make me feel a little sick. Sometimes they creep into my dreams or make it hard to fall asleep. Sometimes they make the world seem like a scary place.
But they also make me feel fully alive.
All The Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, got either 5 star ratings or 1 star ratings on Goodreads. Why? It’s a disturbing and belief-shaking book. It asks questions that aren’t okay in polite company.
I had absolutely no idea what the book was about going into it, and if I had, I probably wouldn’t have read it. Based on my beliefs, I would have said I wasn’t interested.
I am so thankful that I got a copy of the book without knowing anything about it ahead of time. It’s one of my all time favorite books. I love everything about it, but my favorite thing is that it made me question something I “knew” to be true. I had to re-evaluate my beliefs.
It is very easy to believe something. It’s not easy to evaluate those beliefs and allow for new information. That doesn’t mean you have to change your mind. But any belief worth having is worth critically thinking about all sides.
Really good books make that possible.
I never know ahead of time which books are going to shake my foundations. For me, that’s the fun of it.
So, my reader friend, I ask you: should fiction be safe?
Great though provoking post. I agree, I don’t think any book should come with a trigger warning. I read VC Andrews books as a kid(6th grade). Should I have been reading it? Probably not but I didn’t turn out a sexual deviant either. Reading takes you to an emotional state of connection that can be accessed at any age. That being said, I’ve put off reading The Hate U Give because I know it’s going to affect me, make me think more deeply about a subject I’m uncomfortable with. I think it’s important to read that which triggers us. That’s what reading is for, to trigger our emotions on a profound level. In my opinion anyway.
I remember reading Flowers in the Attic and liking it up until the incest part. Then I was all like “What did I just read?” But yes, I agree. Thanks for stopping by.
I was into the Heaven series. I vividly remember a scene in which her mother scrubs her so hard that she bleeds. I still have nightmares about that. But it certainly stuck with me.
Wow, that’s pretty disturbing. I can see why it stuck. I had a similar experience with the abuse in “Sybil.” I think I read it when I was 12 or 13.
I haven’t read that one…and maybe I’m glad I haven’t. Lol
“There is no safe place. Not in the fiction world, not in the real world.” So true. That’s the main reason that I don’t think there should be trigger warnings on books. To me, that’s just the first step toward saying you shouldn’t write about certain things, which would someday be followed by saying you can’t write about certain things.
My own feeling about books is that they should first entertain, and if you also learn something, or are made to think about something, so much the better.
The Biblical verse says, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” I would add that if a book offends you, put it down. There’s no law that says you have to finish it.
Very thoughtful post!