Content warnings are not censorship

CW: Choking

Every so often, one of my many writers groups/forums on one social media platform or another blows up – usually because some unsuspecting person asks an innocent question about the existence of content warnings.

And inevitably, authors find it hilarious that readers might be sensitive to certain topics. I've seen people equate content warnings with:

  • censorship
  • political correctness gone mad
  • some arbitrary figure imposing their views on what you're allowed to read
  • book banning

One author, who's now been placed on my special Goodreads shelf, said people who favour content warnings should 'stay in their lane' and/or 'see a psychiatrist'.

For real.

I've written this particular essay more times than I can count. But maybe this time I’ll actually save it somewhere it won’t be deleted. Only time will tell.

Anyways, here you go.

I'm shocked and frustrated that so many people seem to think content warnings are silly or pointless or some sort of laughing matter. So I'm going to tell you a story to illustrate my point.

Once upon a time, I was watching Alien once with a group of friends. We'd all seen it before, no big deal. But when it comes to the scene. If you've seen it, you know the one. John Hurt begins to act strangely before an alien bursts out of his chest, killing him.

But as this scene played out, one person in the room told a story of how the director injected extra realism into the scene. The only actor at the table who knew what was happening was John Hurt.

To the others, it appeared that he was actually choking. Their responses were real because they thought he was choking.

My friend didn't mean anything by this story. He thought it was an interesting little behind–the-scenes anecdote.

Except my brother died choking on a piece of food. For me, going into that behind–the-scenes story while watching the film thrust me into the way-too-real situation of watching my brother die.

I put a content warning at the beginning of this comment because no one who has my history deserves to read this unprepared. And I put them at the beginning of my books for the same reason.

I'm literally shaking as I type this. It's so deeply personal and upsetting to me. Why the hell would you want unsuspecting readers to go through this? How dare you mock people's tragedies. How dare you treat this like a laughing matter?

Now do you get it?

An author replied.

I’d just put a TW of ‘words’ and let ’em suck on that.

Five people found this reply funny.

I ended up creating a Goodreads shelf called 'this author laughs at content warnings'.

For pete's sake. Someone said:

My name is the warning.

Sorry, lady, I’ve never heard of you – what exactly do you think your name tells me?

When I posted this on the birdsite (back in the day), someone quote-tweeted it with:

This person makes some valid points, but where does it end?

Honestly… That’s a block.

The day after I wrote the above, I was still fuming.

So many writers in these groups seem to think 'maybe you should add a content warning' is the same as censorship or book banning or that it's some sort of freeze-peach issue.

Look, no one is telling you what you can and can't write about. No one is saying some topics are off limits. What we're saying is: set expectations. Give readers the tools they need to decide whether or not to read your book.

Oh, but I write murder mysteries. Of course they're going to know it contains a murder.

Sure. If you've got murder in the title and a knife on the cover and murder victim in your blurb, then you've set the tone. Prospective readers know to expect murder. Job done.

Content warnings aren't there to spoil the story. Their purpose isn't to state the obvious.

Content warnings (aka trigger warnings) are there to help prospective readers make an informed decision about whether or not to read. And if they choose to proceed, to brace themselves.

I’ve been searching through various social media posts about content warnings and came across someone whose bio says ‘HS English teacher’ suggesting they should be added to books. I was about to retweet when I noticed he said this underneath.

Random: Who would you want adding that to a book? The publisher?
HS Teacher: Apologies – I was speaking tongue-in-cheek. I think it would be a terrible idea.

Another person said:

Readers who are sensitive should arrange for a friend to read every book before they do so they can let them know whether it's safe.

This is from an actual author:

I watch 'Call the Midwife' and I do believe it should have a warning, and completely agree with S about 'This is Going to Hurt'. It was horrendous. However, a book is a different matter as it's not graphically in front of you in technicolour. Most books don't have warnings, and I think it could put readers off, when all you want to do is get readers!

Books don't need content warnings because they're just words. Cool. Good to know.

I’m truly stunned by the number of authors who seem completely unaware of the idea that readers might want to be immersed in what they’re reading. Not to mention the fact that they'd rather someone be traumatised by their book than miss out on that one sale. As if readers never talk to one another.

Anyways, that's all from me for now.

What do you think?

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