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A contentious matter: searching for book content warnings

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Controversial and elusive, content warnings (‘CW’) on works of literature are in scarce supply. Even trying to pin down a definition for them is not straightforward, with no entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the University of Michigan’s introductory guide, content warnings ‘are verbal or written notices that precede potentially sensitive content’.  Trigger warnings (‘TW’) are a subcategory for content that may cause ‘intense physiological and psychological symptoms for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders.’ In the context of books, content notices help to inform readers so they can make their own choices on whether to proceed with their reading; framed as such, these warnings do not seem controversial. However, content warnings have been at the centre of debates regarding free speech and safe spaces in education. Only last year, Oxford Student Union’s recommended appropriate content warnings be added to readings lists, lectures, tutorials, and examinations in their Academic Hate Speech motion, but this was rejected by the University.

How to predict a book’s content?

From titles alone we, as readers, instinctively use our past experience and common sense to judge which books are likely to be appropriate to read. For example, few people are likely to expect Martin Crimp’s 2019 play When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other to be a children’s pantomime. Taking Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as another example, we need only read the book’s full title to learn that protagonist will be ‘cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself’ before being ‘strangely delivered by PYRATES’. Defoe’s full title, which lists his ‘Strange Surprizing Adventures’ could be seen as a proto-content warning, informing readers of what content will be later described. Nonetheless, this is no substitute for a more modern content warning that would give notice of the imperialism, racism and cannibalism to come. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the motivation behind Defoe’s sensational title is to grab reader’s attention rather than provide warning and in the eighteenth century ‘extended titles paid off as a promotional device’ according to critic Thomas Keymer. Thus, we should not expect literature published centuries ago to present itself with content warnings sufficient for our modern world. While a book’s front cover can offer basic information, content warnings are necessary because, at risk of stating the obvious, it can be unwise to judge a book by its title.

Having found the front of a book insufficient, we might turn to the back cover for more details. Faber’s blurb for When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other tells us that Crimp’s play, ‘explore[s] the messy, often violent nature of desire and the fluid, complicated roles that men and women play’. This added level of detail gives warning of the possibility of described violence but not its extent or nature. In fact, this blurb appears particularly inadequate when compared to the ‘Content advisory’ notice for the National Theatre’s (NT) production in 2019, directed by Katie Mitchell. It reads, ‘[t]his production contains adult themes, violence and scenes of a sexual nature that some people may find distressing’. While ‘adult themes’ is vague and euphemistic, this warning does at least list the types of sensitive material to be shown in a concise way. Indeed, it proved a warning worth repeating and was restated in an email sent to Ticket-holders after the provocative performance caused an elderly woman to faint. The NT’s use of a content notice here seems appropriate and necessary; after all, theatregoers buy tickets wanting to know what they are in for. Why do the same standards not apply for those coming to the play through a printed edition?

With a new book in hand, we might also try to skim its introduction in search of information on its contents. Yet, in many cases it would quickly become apparent that editors are more concerned with plot spoilers than sensitivity. The following is a ubiquitous sentence quoted from Penguin’s 2006 edition of Persuasion, “New readers are advised that this introduction makes the detail of the plot explicit”.The notice appears large on the page, italicised and clearly visible at the start of the introduction, successfully forewarning readers from the risk of unwanted plot spoilers. Annoying as spoilers are, we must demand more from editors and publishing houses, and seek to refocus attention to content warnings for potentially troubling and upsetting content.

Having been disappointed by the lack of information gleaned from a print edition, we, as readers, might try to look online for further guidance. There are websites out there which seem to provide a practical solution to the absence of content warnings elsewhere, such as  Book Trigger Warning or Does the Dog Die? The latter, which can be accessed via an app or its website describes itself as ‘Crowdsourced emotional spoilers for movies, tv, books and more’. Unlike the ambiguous ‘adult themes’ notice, what this kind of advisory system gains in specificity it lacks in sensitivity with yes/no vote boxes accompanying questions that jump between ‘Does someone break a bone?’ to ‘Does a kid die?’.  Moreover, an explanation and description of the sensitive material are directly described underneath each query without hide/expand options, making it an impractical system. We should also hesitate before relying on the accuracy of these fan-made resources. A quick search can confirm that such websites are more likely to list Harry Potter than Hamlet, making them an inadequate resource for English students confronted with reading lists of almost exclusively old or obscure literature.

We might wonder, where does this approach leave spoilers? Is it reductive to put simplistic labels on complex literary works? Let’s take Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles as an example; there are no content warnings online for this book but a hypothetical one might easily read: “CW: rape, pregnancy, murder, and execution.” Not only would this reduce a complex plot centred around the protagonist’s character development into a list of the book’s most shocking episodes but it is also not the neutral list it seems. There is fierce  critical debate on how to define the ambiguous passage describing Tess’s rape/seduction by Alec d’Urbeville, despite Hardy’s claim  that it is “a seduction, pure and simple”. To some readers, the content warning’s forewarning may enhance the tragic edge of inevitability already present in Hardy’s narrative but for others it could render the novel tediously predictable. In any case, our experience of Tess may well be irrevocably altered by seeing a content warning prior to starting the book.

Where should the responsibility for book content warnings lie?

Book content warnings should be accessible for those who require them, and pushing the responsibility onto the shoulders of individuals is problematic. Salman Rushdie when asked about the topic in a 2017 interview replied, ‘I go around America lecturing at quite a lot of colleges and I have literally never encountered a single student who has talked in this way, who has demanded safe spaces or trigger warnings’ and proudly said this his students are ‘quite contemptuous of that point of view’. We can see how difficult it might be for an undergraduate to step forward to ask Rushdie, an internationally celebrated writer, for extra accessibility measures, when he frames such action as a rare and potentially unreasonable demand. Thus, it may come as no surprise if students are hesitant to ask for content warnings, when public figures have spoken strongly against them.

To prevent this individual onus, one solution at least for students may be found in better content warning guidelines at an institutional level. Speaking from my own experience as a second-year English student, roughly half of the lectures I have seen have had content warnings, only a handful of classes, and no reading lists. Given that reading lists form the basis of discussions, especially for in-college teaching, this should be the first and most important place to give prior warning of any sensitive material. Again, a refocusing of priorities is necessary: my experience of reading lists is that any cautionary notices they contain are more likely to guard against outdated critics than distressing material.

Admittedly, content warnings are not a perfect solution to the complex matters regarding books and safe spaces. As Stephanie Trigg, Professor at The University of Melbourne puts it, ‘[s]uch warnings testify to the very real power of literary texts to challenge and confront us, often in ways we cannot anticipate.’ This reflects literature’s ability to affect its readers but also reminds us that we should be wary of over-using content warnings. To argue that we should not try to pre-emptively warn readers because the power of literature is often in its uncomfortable moments seems to miss the point. Readers are not obliged to study content notices, but they should be there for those who need them, for those who it is a matter of self-preservation not choice.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, much more clarity about content warnings is needed, from universities to publishing houses to theatres. Instead of asking readers to decode a title, wade through a blurb or skim an introduction to find out information about a book’s material, we should make content warnings easily accessible. At risk of stating the obvious, such warnings would need to be reliable and accurate but also be freely visible and appropriate in level of detail to be of any real use to readers. A couple of sentences on the back of an edition stating which sensitive subjects are covered could provide a useful guide, similar to that already in use with films. This is by no means a demand for slapping content warnings on everything, but surely it is better to forewarn too much than too little. In the end, for those who dislike or disagree with content notices, they can be easily skimmed over.