To what extent are we authors responsible for protecting our readers from negative emotional experiences? Any fiction runs the risk that it will make readers uncomfortable. Indeed, some books do so intentionally. (Have you ever read anything by Chuck Palahniuk?)
Can we assume that readers are mature enough to walk away from books that offend or upset them? Or do we need to provide warnings when some content we write might trigger unpleasant memories, cause emotional distress or violate personal norms or expectations?
Society at the moment is so hypersensitive, politically correct and litigious that some publishers bend over backwards to avoid ruffling reader feathers. My publisher tacked the following warning onto the blurb for my 2014 erotic romance novel The Ingredients of Bliss:
Reader Advisory: This book contains female dominance and submission, anal sex, public sex, ethnic slurs, threats of violence and a scene of attempted rape.
Actually, the book also includes M/f D&S – wonder why they didn’t mention that?
Personally, I felt this warning was excessive. I wouldn’t have objected to mentioning the attempted rape (by a criminal character, also responsible for the “ethnic slurs” – the heroine is Chinese), but lumping that together with anal sex? This is clearly identified as erotic romance, folks! You get what you pay for.
I just finished reading a humorous MM erotic romance from the same publisher that has the following warnings:
Reader advisory: This book contains mention of physical abuse and a racist comment.
I saw this when I started the book, and I tried to notice these supposed red flags. The only “racist comment” involves a character who’s deliberately trying to seem like a nasty person asking an Australian citizen of Turkish ancestry where he’s “really” from. If there was any mention of physical abuse, it flew right by me.
The question of racist language in literature is particularly thorny right now, in midst of Black Lives Matter anger. I take very seriously the notion that language has power, that it shapes our perspectives and prejudices (as well as reflecting them). On the other hand, I believe we need to distinguish between the prejudices of the author and those of her characters.
I have a speculative fiction story I wrote not long after Trump was elected, envisioning deliberate attempts to foment hatred between ethnic groups. One of the main characters is a young Vietnamese woman, the other a Black man. They live in their respective ghettos, in a near-perpetual state of war. The story uses some very strong negative language, with each character hurling racist epithets at the other. This is important to the narrative. It illustrates how the two have been taught to view one another.
When I posted an excerpt from this work, I received some ferociously critical comments about the language. Without the racial slurs, however, the story wouldn’t work. It would be neither genuine nor effective.
Then there’s the recent movement to ban historical classics like Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird because of their racist content. The racism in these books probably does reflect the authors’ own attitudes. One has to remember, however, that these views in turn mirror the beliefs and assumptions of their times. It makes no sense at all to castigate an author for racial prejudice when she was embedded in a society where racial inequity was an unquestioned norm.
Far better to use such books as examples that illustrate how much more aware we have become. Language perpetuates belief which in turn influences language. Banning these books in an attempt to insulate people from offensive content throws away an opportunity to observe, analyze and learn about this dynamic.
Besides, these books are not mere racist polemics. They’re powerful, engaging stories with memorable characters. They have enduring value which I believe is not negated by their admittedly racist elements.
Would I object to a reader advisory mentioning the racism in Gone with the Wind? Probably not, though I’d wonder if a brief warning is in fact too superficial. Far better, perhaps, to include a preface discussing the issue in greater depth, including its historical aspects.
Of course, most people don’t read prefaces.
Do they pay attention to reader advisories?
One reason I dislike advisories is that they prime the reader to look for certain story elements. In some cases this can interfere with suspense or surprise. In The Ingredients of Bliss, I wanted the reader to be shocked when Le Requin attacks Emily Wong. The reader advisory spoils that.
Very occasionally, though, I will include an advisory on the books I self-publish. If the book is a reprint, I want to be upfront about that. No reason to aggravate people who’ve read a previous edition. And for my most recent release, Incognito, I included a rather extensive reader advisory, because the novel is marketed as an erotic romance but severely strains some of the genre’s conventions.
Reader Advisory: This novel is an erotic romance featuring a committed relationship and culminating in a wedding. Nevertheless, the main characters participate in a wide range of taboo sexual activities, both together and separately.
I felt it necessary to include this because I’ve experienced the ire of some romance readers when they come across any behavior they consider to be “cheating”. If readers consider monogamy or fidelity to be a fundamental requirement for their romance, they should definitely steer clear of this book!
So this warning is more about marketing than anything else. I really don’t want to offend readers or make them unhappy. (And I don’t want them leaving bad reviews!)
On the other hand, I also believe that the people who read my books are adults who won’t be permanently traumatized if they encounter something that’s personally objectionable or sensitive. If something squicks or triggers them, I hope they’ll simply stop reading. Close the book. Turn off the app. They are, after all, ultimately in control.