I’m going to admit to a dirty little secret. I have author friends who spy for me in a bunch of author groups on social media. Nothing nefarious, of course. They just keep me posted on current events and give me a heads-up on stuff that’s bothering authors from one day to the next. And recently, one of my favorite spies told me that there was a particularly heated debate in one group about trigger warnings and disclaimers in romance novel blurbs. The authors overwhelmingly disliked trigger warnings and disclaimers and felt like they were “spoilers.”
Now, we’ve talked about trigger warnings before. At that time, I was fairly indifferent on the matter. And I’d never say that I want super detailed warnings on every book that give away important plot elements. But my reading time is so precious and valuable these days, and I have so many topics that are a “hard pass”, that I now NEED trigger warnings, people. And recently I came across a book that I NEVER would’ve wasted my time on had I known the subject matter. With that in mind, here’s where I stand on trigger warnings and why I think romance novel authors need to embrace them.
(Sidenote: Here’s a full disclaimer of my own. I don’t have any personal triggers. I was never abused in any way. Nothing in a book will send me into a depressive state or hurt me in any way. There’s just stuff I don’t like reading about and don’t want to see in my romance novels. So, in my opinion, trigger warnings and disclaimers aren’t JUST about not wanting to hurt any readers—they’re also about helping me weed books out of my TBR pile. And trust me, if you’re an author who doesn’t provide a disclaimer/trigger warning and I run into one of my “hard pass” topics in your book, you’ll WISH you’d helped me weed it out of my TBR pile, because my review will NOT be flattering.)
Things that require trigger warnings (in my not-so-humble opinion)
If these things are in a romance, I think audiences deserve a heads-up:
And if the hero or heroine dies at the end of a book and there’s no HEA, I don’t need a disclaimer or trigger warning. I’ll need the author to reclassify the book because IT’S NOT A ROMANCE.
They don’t actually spoil the plot
I’m not saying authors need to provide a full dissertation of every plot point in their book that may or may not offend someone. I’m saying there are some hot button topics that should be disclosed (see above). And telling me that your story contains graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse (for example), does not spoil your plot in any way. Giving me that information doesn’t tell me who was abused, how that abuse impacted their lives, or what they’re going to do as a result. The plot is safe. But the child abuse disclaimer will keep me away from the book, which is a good thing (trust me) for everyone involved.
I don’t read romance for the trauma
I’m OK with books that deal with some dark subject matter. Characters who have painful pasts and tragic histories don’t disturb me. But I read romance because, a) I love a happy ending, and b) I love character-driven stories that are emotional and centered on the romantic relationship of the main characters. I see very little reason for romances to contain graphic on-the-page violence/abuse. But I’m also not one to tell an author how to write his or her story. So, if an author feels that graphic scenes are necessary to tell their story, that’s fine. Just give me a heads-up. I don’t feel like that’s too much to ask. If I wanted to be shockingly traumatized, I’d watch Criminal Minds.
Lazy warnings are just as bad as no warnings
The book I mentioned earlier that I would’ve NEVER picked up had I been properly warning? This was the warning:
“It deals with sensitive subjects some may find triggering.”
You know what? Sometimes I feel triggered when the grocery store moves aisles around after I’ve finally figured out where everything is. I think Disney’s choice to kill off Ben Solo after establishing that he’d been abused since childhood was a “sensitive subject” that often triggers me into lengthy rants. Those things are different than on-the-page, graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse, which is what this book featured. The lazy trigger warning that could apply to a million different possible triggers of various intensities was useless. It should’ve been spelled out.
And don’t tell me to do the research myself!!
Another book I stumbled across recently told me that it contained some possibly upsetting content and that I should check out the reviews to take care of myself. Why should I have to scroll through reviews to figure out what the author is cryptically trying to warn me about? Just give me a clear warning, darn it! I don’t have the time or the inclination to read all the reviews looking for that one kind reader who is willing to tell me what the author is hinting at.
So, long-story-short, brief-but-clear trigger warnings and disclaimers in romance novel blurbs:
But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours? Let’s discuss.
3/9/2020 09:02:00 am
I'd add miscarriage/infertility/etc to this list... It can be such a deeply painful topic for some people and I can't even tell you the number of times I've come across it with no hint in the blurb or reviews!
3/9/2020 11:11:44 am
I don't really have any triggers as I've never been a victim thankfully, but I was appalled by the graphic child abuse in LJ Shen's latest book.
I agree with you 100% on this. I also have been reading/writing fanfic for long enough that I’m used to reading both the warnings and the tags on AO3 to see if the story is something I’m interested in reading at that moment, or if it’s a permanent hard pass. I don’t read romance for trauma, either, and while I can enjoy some good death and destruction in a mystery/thriller, there are still things I don’t want to read because, hey, limited time. A well written trigger warning doesn’t spoil the story, but gives me a heads up that this isn’t necessarily something I want to deal with.
5/25/2020 07:26:08 pm
I absolutely agree with your three points. There are certain topics I don’t enjoy reading and it would help me with my TBR pile to weed those out. I get so flustered when I start a book and then get hit with something I really didn’t want to think about. I had reached out to Goodreads awhile back and asked if they would consider a trigger warning...
11/26/2021 03:48:45 pm
Any chance I can link to this page from my site? I'll be posting about things related to reading/writing that resonate with me. As a reader (and so now as an author) I think CWs/TWs are super important for all the reasons you mentioned. I would like to link to this as something I've read/agreed with.
Jennifer, Romance Rehab
11/26/2021 04:27:56 pm
As long as you credit Romance Rehab, link and share away! Thanks so much, Emmy!
9/4/2022 04:03:35 pm
Yes, child abuse takes me out of the story completely, I skip any Hh intimate scenes afterwards as they are difficult to stomach in close proximity to the decription of the abuse. Some authors are better than other at keeping those events very distant. I've read too many recently where child abuse is an unexpected part of the backstory, and it becomes really awful to think this could be someone's real story. Taking pleasure in the book (or anything) seems heartless for a while afterward. We need romance for the guarantee of happiness
9/18/2022 10:57:06 pm
I agree with you completely. It makes me wonder, if the author doesn't offer an effective trigger warning for something like graphic child abuse, what is the point of calling it a romance? Its already not a romance and any review will be bad or non existent. If people are not giving a bad review, why not? Who are these people. It says a lot about an author, spoiler made.
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